For months, Tunisia has been in the throes of a spirited debate over the question of whether to include in the country’s new constitution a clause that criminalizes the normalization of relations with Israel.
But this week, the controversy reached fever pitch, as a senior member of the ruling Ennahda party, a relative moderate who had erroneously quoted Hamas officials as objecting to the legislation of anti-normalization laws, was forced to recant his statement and acknowledge that the rulers of the Gaza Strip have consistently advocated boycotting the Jewish state.
A-Sahbi Atiq, head of the Islamist Ennahda’s parliamentary faction, told Tunisian television earlier this week that, during visits to the country earlier this year, both Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal had advised Tunisian officials not to criminalize relations with Israel.
Hamas quickly issued a statement denying Atiq’s claim.
“The Hamas movement has always stressed the need to oppose and combat all forms of official and popular normalization with the Zionist enemy,” read the October 30 statement, which included the assertion that the movement encouraged leaders of “Arab Spring countries” in particular to shun Israel.
Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu also rushed to deny that Haniyeh had ever said anything to the effect that the Arab world should normalize relations with Israel.
Hamas’s unequivocal stance was further articulated on Wednesday by one of the movement’s senior officials in the Gaza Strip. In an interview with the Tunisian daily A-Sabah, Mahmoud al-Zahar said that “we support the criminalization of normalization in the new Tunisian constitution, since the Zionist entity has usurped a vast part of the [Arab] nation and is a colonialist project in the heart of the region.”
But by the time Zahar issued his statement, the Tunisian parliamentarian had already blinked.
On Wednesday, Atiq issued a denial in which he acknowledged that Hamas leaders with whom he had met had indeed “harshly objected” to all forms of normalization with Israel. In comments published by As-Sabah, Atiq said that the misunderstanding had stemmed from the fact that during a general discussion of constitutions in the Arab world, the Hamas officials had noted that no Arab states had drafted anti-normalization clauses.
“This caused me me to mistakenly conclude that they oppose” the legislation of such bans, wrote Atiq.
Widely viewed as the most liberal of Arab states, Tunisia began cooperating diplomatically with Israel in 1994, and two years later the two countries opened mutual representative offices. Tunisia shut its Tel Aviv office in 2000, however, following the outbreak of the Second Intifada.
A popular uprising that began in Tunisia in late 2010 further exacerbated the hostility on the street toward the Jewish state, and after the ouster of president Zine Al-Abidine bin Ali in early 2011, calls for criminalizing ties with Israel abounded.
It was the country’s left-wing and Arab nationalist parties that demanded that Ennahda — which won the elections in October 2011 — introduce legislation that criminalize normalization with Israel, and even draft a constitutional clause to that effect. Ennahda, for its part, has refused to push forward any legislation on the matter, arguing that such legislation was rendered superfluous by the fact that the Tunisian public, in any case, would never abide the normalization of ties with the Jewish state.