In Tunisia ‘normalisation’ debate invades tennis courts

Many Tunisians pushed back against the foreign ministry’s objections to the Tunisian athletes playing Israel.
Saturday 08/02/2020
Tunisia's Ons Jabeur, during her match against Sofia Kenin of the United States at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, January 28. (DPA)
Tunisia's Ons Jabeur, during her match against Sofia Kenin of the United States at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, January 28. (DPA)

TUNIS - The Tunisian women tennis team’s decision to proceed with scheduled matches against an Israeli contingent in the 2020 Fed Cup tournament sparked unexpected debate about normalisation with Israel.

Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, ranked 45th in the world after reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, defeated Israel’s Vlada Katic, 6-4, 6-0, tying the series after Lina Glushko beat Tunisia’s Chiraz Bechri 6-1, 6-2.

Jabeur and Bechri then teamed up for a 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 decision over Glushko and Shavit Kimchi in the doubles match February 5 in Finland to advance Tunisia in the Fed Cup Group II Europe-Africa competition.

While Tunisia won the tie, not everyone was pleased with the team’s decision to play Israel. The Tunisian Foreign Ministry released a statement assailing the Tunisian team for violating “the historic commitments of Tunisia towards the Palestinian cause.”

“They are contrary to the official position of the Tunisian state supporting the rights of the Palestinian people,” said the statement.

Many Tunisians pushed back against the government’s stance, insisting that Tunisian athletes should have the right to represent their country against Israelis.

“I’m proud of the girls. They revived hope inside me,” wrote Tunisian Emna Belhabib on social media. “All Tunisians were saddened by the communique from the Foreign Ministry.”

“The Tunisians showed that they are mature and able to see where the good of their country lies and the fundamental path of interests to follow,” she said.

Others hailed Jabeur's and Bechri's victory as a point of national pride. “The first Arab victory against Israel: Ons Jabeur crushes Israeli player Vlada Katic,” wrote Akhbar Al Joumhouria newspaper.

Nizar Bahloul, editor of Business News, an online magazine, wrote: “Palestine is in our hearts. If the militaries have failed we should at least let the civilians, such as sportspeople and cinema producers and other artists, ‘fight’ Israel their way.”

One Tunisian who backed the Foreign Ministry’s statement called the Tunisian tennis team’s match a “scandal.” “The authorities should at least strip the players of their Tunisian nationality,” he wrote on social media.

Tunisia has taken a more rejectionist stance of normalisation with Israel since the election of President Kais Saied, who made the Palestinian cause a central component of his campaign.

His stance is a shift from Tunisia’s traditional approach of accommodation and broke with other Arab countries that are pursuing limited ties with Israel to help counter Iranian and Turkish expansion.

Saied raised questions about Tunisia’s engagement with Israeli athletes before the matches after it was disclosed that a French-Israeli tennis player had participated in a tournament in Tunis.

Saied asked Minister of Youth and Sports Sonia Ben Cheikh to “thoroughly probe” the case of Aaron Cohen, who entered Tunisia with his French passport but played in the tournament with an Israeli licence.

An opposition party urged Saied to disband the Tunisian Tennis Federation, which is funded by the government, because of its decision to go ahead with the matches against Israel. Hassouna Nasfi, leader of the centrist Reform bloc in parliament, lamented the Foreign Ministry's reaction, calling it a "form of populism and objectionable interference of politics in sports" for which "Tunisia will eventually pay dearly."

Saied did not comment on the Tunisian team’s matches against Israel. Saied personally called Jabeur as she prepared to enter the Australian Open quarterfinals to offer “encouragement on his and the Tunisian people’s behalf to further honour the Tunisian flag.”

While many Tunisians lashed out against the foreign ministry’s criticism of the tennis players, others said the problem was with Saied, not with the diplomats.

Saied underscored his commitment to the Palestinian cause and staunch opposition to normalisation with Israel in a televised interview about his first 100 days in office.

Saied strongly criticised US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which would grant Palestinians limited statehood but also give Israel sovereignty over Jerusalem, the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and allow annexation of settlement blocks in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

Tunisian foreign policy experts said the fierce rhetoric used by Saied and the Islamist-led parliament move Tunisia further away from its traditional diplomatic position.

In the early years of Tunisia’s independence, Tunisia was one of the first Arab countries to call for recognition of the UN-sanctioned 1948 partition plan.

This diplomatic posture helped Tunisia develop better security, diplomatic and financial ties with the West, as well as receive a steady flow of tourists from Israel, mostly Jews of Tunisian origin drawn to the annual Jewish pilgrimage on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

Saied, speaking on state television, said: “The day of liberation for Palestine will come with al Quds (Jerusalem) as its capital.” Arab leaders have rarely used the word “liberation” in this context, with most simply insisting on the right of Palestinians to have a state of their own.

Saied also hinted at the possibility of proposing legislation to parliament that would deem normalisation with Israel a crime of “high treason.”

“I repeat it anew now for everyone to hear: Normalisation is high treason,” he said.

Saied lamented the “defeatist” mentality in Arab societies that he said paralysed their ability to achieve victory. “The culture of defeat which dominates Arab society is more bearing than the defeat itself. This defeatist thinking cannot be the beginning of triumph,” he said.