While assessing 100 days in office, Saied brands US peace plan ‘injustice of the century’

The Tunisian parliament also lashed out at the US proposal, calling it “racist.”
Friday 31/01/2020
Tunisian President Kais Saied. (AFP)
Tunisian President Kais Saied. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian President Kais Saied assailed US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan as the “injustice of the century,” saying Palestine “is not an orchard to be a subject of a deal.”

Saied’s vehement reaction to the US proposal, which 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 pragmatic approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Tunisian parliament also lashed out at the US proposal, calling it “racist.”

The rhetoric used by Saied, a retired university law professor, and the tone of the Islamist-led Tunisian parliament’s resolution seem to shift Tunisia’s diplomatic discourse away from its traditional stances. Under President Habib Bourguiba, in office 1957-87, Tunisia was one of the first Arab countries to call for recognition of the UN-sanctioned 1948 partition plan.

Tunis’s moderate diplomatic posture helped it 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 to assess his first 100 days in office, 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 said he weighed in on the US peace proposal because he felt a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry would not go far enough in condemning the plan. The Tunisian Foreign Ministry said: “Tunisia follows with great concern the announcement by the American administration of its initiative for a resolution of the Palestinian issue.”

“I loathe this wording, such concepts,” Saied said. “Foreign ministries are always expressing concerns in stick-in-the-mud communiques that Tunisians and the whole Arab nation are fed up with.

“The mistake was corrected. I intervened myself to explain that this is not acceptable by any measure.”

Asked whether there would be another statement by the ministry, Saied said: “I’m here to explain the state’s stance.” Saied gave no answer when asked what action he planned to take, including whether he would summon the US ambassador to Tunisia to express his opposition.

Saied 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.

“What is normal is to end the violations (against) Palestine and the usurpation of the land of Palestine and its people’s forced exile.”

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.

Saied’s embrace of the Palestinian cause helped him surge in popularity during presidential elections, which he won with a record 73% of the vote.

Saied’s victory was also attributed to support from Islamists, those on the far left and disillusioned independents.

His commitment to the Palestinian cause after his election is another indication that he plans to stick to his pledges. However, while the more diplomatic stance would likely satisfy Tunisia’s leftist and pan-Arab groups, it risks alienating the country’s traditional allies in the West.

Speaking about his domestic agenda, Saied promised to give people “the legal means” of achieving economic development, especially in neglected regions of the country, as well as usher in a more decentralised form of government that would shift decision-making power to local communities.

Asked about how he had implemented his agenda in the first 100 days, Saied said that he had been working in silence. He gave the example of a planned health-care complex in the central city of Kairouan, to be built with Saudi financial support, and similar projects expected to follow.