Tunisian diplomacy, politics face Mideast ripple effects

Tunisian UN representative abruptly recalled home, reportedly over White House complaints about position on US peace plan.
Sunday 09/02/2020
Tunisian Ambassador to the UN Moncef Baati. (Flickr)
Tunisian Ambassador to the UN Moncef Baati. (Flickr)

TUNIS - Issues related to Tunisia’s stance regarding the United States’ Middle East peace plan and normalisation with Israel have intruded into the country’s diplomatic relations and domestic debate.

Moncef Baati, a veteran diplomat, was fired February 7 as Tunisia’s UN ambassador over his handling of issues including a UN Security Council draft resolution over the recently released US peace plan.

Diplomatic sources attributed Baati’s abrupt recall to complaints from the White House.

Media reports said a Tunisian-Indonesian draft resolution, dated February 4, stated it “strongly regrets” that the plan presented by the United States and Israel “breaches international law and internationally endorsed terms of reference for the achievement of a just, comprehensive and lasting solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It was not clear if the draft had been cleared by Baati with the home office.

A Tunisian Foreign Ministry statement said: “Tunisia’s ambassador to the United Nations has been dismissed for purely professional reasons concerning his weak performance and lack of coordination with the ministry on important matters under discussion at the United Nations.”

Official sources in Tunis accused Baati, who, since the beginning of the year, occupied a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, of going beyond instructions of his government in his position against US President Donald Trump’s Deal of the Century.

French TV channel France 24 quoted Baati as denying the accusation that he went beyond instructions, saying he

was too professional to neglect consulting with the home office.

Sources in Tunis said the Tunisian government was seemingly worried about the possible effect on Tunisian-US relations from Washington’s unhappiness about the country’s stance on the issue.

A source told Foreign Policy magazine: “Tunisia’s new president is looking to remove top officials

from the previous government, including Baati, and a complaint delivered from the White House sealed his fate.”

The magazine stated that the decision to fire Baati followed “complaints from the United States” and was “viewed as part of an effort to head off a major rift in relations with the United States at the start of his administration.”

Baati, a career diplomat who had served previously as Tunisian representative at UN headquarters in Geneva, left retirement last September and was appointed to the United Nations in New York ahead of Tunisia taking a year-long seat on the Security Council as of January.

Tunisian President Kais Saied strongly criticised Trump’s Middle East peace plan, calling it “the injustice of the century.”

The plan 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.

Tunisia needs US and Western support to shore up its economy and help it face security challenges with a domestic jihadist problem and threats of militant infiltration from Libya and Algeria.

Because of his sudden recall, Baati missed a closed-door briefing February 6 on the US peace plan at the Security Council by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Kushner said after the briefing that he blamed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the spike in anti-Israeli violence. “Calls for days of rage in response and he said that even before he saw the plan,” Kushner said.

Abbas, who is to address the United Nations on February 11, has spoken with Saied and “thanked him for Tunisian support,” said the Tunisian presidency.

Tunisia also found itself embroiled in controversy over the issue of normalisation with Israel after Tunisian women tennis players’ decision to play an Israeli team in the Fed Cup tournament.  The Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement accusing the players of violating “historic commitments of Tunisia towards the Palestinian cause.”

Saied has equated normalisation with Israel with “high treason.”