Tunisia’s diplomacy stumbles on UN stage, Mideast politics snowballs at home

In its first high-profile action at the Security Council, Tunisia failed in its diplomatic balancing act.
Thursday 13/02/2020
Former Tunisian Ambassador to the UN Moncef Baati. (Flickr)
Former Tunisian Ambassador to the UN Moncef Baati. (Flickr)

TUNIS - Tunisia was selected last June as a non-permanent member of the 15-seat UN Security Council in recognition of its legendary diplomatic moderation.

The achievement was a source of pride for Tunisians amid a social crisis and government instability. Secularists and Islamists alike applauded Tunisia’s return to the world stage "through the big door” after a long period of uncertainty.

The stride came under the stewardship of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died one month later. Tunisia’s role at the Security Council lasts until the end of 2021.

However, in its first high-profile action at the Security Council, Tunisia failed in its diplomatic balancing act. Tunisian Ambassador to the United Nations Moncef Baati was fired by the government after helping draft a resolution critical of the US Middle East peace plan.

Diplomatic experts said there was an unavoidable clash between the country's diplomatic tradition of pro-Western and programmatic stances, on the one hand, and the political convictions of Tunisian President Kais Saied, who staunchly embraces the Palestinian cause and equates normalisation with Israel with “high treason,” on the other.

It is not clear why Baati was abruptly recalled. Vehement criticism of the United States and Israel in the draft resolution, that was circulated prior to the UN Security Council meeting, is said to have displeased the US administration. Firing Baati may have been an attempt at diplomatic damage control by Tunis.

French MP Meyer Habib, a Jew of Tunisian origin, compared Saied’s anti-Israeli rhetoric to “Iran’s obsession” with the Jewish state. He called for the boycott of Tunisian tourism, provoking an outcry in Tunis.

It was expected that the Security Council would vote February 11 on the resolution co-sponsored by Tunisia and Indonesia on the US peace plan but diplomats said many parts of the texts were not acceptable for European members of the council. The Palestinians eventually gave up on seeking a vote on the resolution for lack of international support.

A senior US official told the media: "By not putting forward a polarising resolution, the United Nations Security Council demonstrated that the old way of doing things is over."

Saied's office described Baati as "undisciplined" accusing him of failure to coordinate his actions with the home office. It also said in a statement February 10: “Tunisia did not bow to bargain ploys or pressures because when it sides with a righteous issue it takes into account only the legitimate right.”

In what appeared to be an attempt at justification for the decision to fire Baati, the presidency suggested the UN envoy knew in advance the draft he prepared was doomed.

“The aim of (his initiative) is clear for everyone: harming Tunisia and namely its president, who affirmed at more than one occasion that the right of the Palestinians will not be dismissed despite the long lapse of time,” the statement said.

The US proposal -- US President Donald Trump’s Deal of the Century -- would grant Palestinians limited statehood but also give Israel sovereignty over Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and settlement blocks in the West Bank, was a departure from Tunisia’s traditionally accommodationist approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Saied has assailed the plan as the “injustice of the century,” saying the subject of Palestine “is not an orchard to be a subject of a deal.” The Tunisian parliament called the US proposal “racist.”

Tunisia's statements on the US peace proposal stood apart in the Arab region where more moderate wording prevailed. The presidency reiterated “Tunisia’s stand regarding the Palestinian issue is steadfast and unwavering.”

“Tunisia is concerned about the legitimacy and the right of the Palestinian as much as it determined about its own sovereignty and the independence of its decision,” a statement added.

Analysts said the abrupt sacking of Baati, along with similar firings of the foreign and defence ministers by Saied, risk discouraging officials and diplomats from taking any initiative to address the economic, security and diplomatic challenges the country faces.

Tunisia has been without a government since presidential and parliamentary elections last October. Tunisian civil service has ensured the state's continuity in periods of government instability over the past nine years but Saied’s style in dealing with government senior officials looms large.

Baati, who had been picked by Caid Essebsi, himself a veteran diplomat, to lead Tunisia’s diplomacy at the Security Council, was accused by the president's office of "begging the sympathy of those who support the unjustly called deal (for peace in the Middle East) in order to reverse the decision of his firing.”

“What remains for him to do (to regain his job) is to beg the Zionist occupiers, he who pretends to fight the occupation,” it added.

The issue of normalisation crept into the national debate over the decision by two Tunisian tennis players to play an Israeli team in a recent round of the Fed Cup, sparking denunciation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was followed by an expression of support for the players from Tunisia’s National Olympic Committee.

After that incident, eight political parties and the country's main trade unions took a stand against normalisation. A parliamentary initiative could be introduced in parliament to ban any contact with Israel.

The Tunisian Journalists Union took a cue from Saied and threatened writers with name-and-shame attacks if they were found in their articles as “banalising” normalisation with Israel.