President Isaac Herzog was seen chatting briefly with Tunisia’s Prime Minister Najla Bouden at the COP27 UN climate conference in Egypt on Monday, drawing harsh criticism from some commentators in the Arab countries.
Herzog and Bouden exchanged pleasantries as world leaders gathered for a joint photograph at Sharm El-Sheikh.
Footage of the incident, showing Herzog amused, made the rounds on social media. Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati was seen laughing nearby, apparently in response to the exchange.
The evidently brief conversation between the Israeli president and leaders of countries that don’t officially recognize the Jewish state was not received well by many in the Arab world.
“That smile is a sin,” the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese newspaper al-Mayadeen wrote of Bouden.
Other headlines in Arab publications included: “Spreading like wildfire,” an apparent reference to Arab normalization with Israel, and “Bouden’s mishap with the Israeli president.”
Some speculated that the exchange could be interpreted as a sign of warming ties.
“Normalization between Tunisia and Israel? Will [Tunisian President] Kais Saied consider this treason?” an Algerian lawmaker tweeted, according to Israel’s Channel 12.
???????????????????????? Nice to see #Tunisia's prime minister, Mrs. Najla Bouden, exchange smiles and words with #Israel's president Mr. Isaac Herzog at the #COP27 in Egypt. And #Sweden's prime minister Mr. Ulf Kristersson right beside the two of them. pic.twitter.com/EHksxfWuJE
— Inte_Resting (@Inte_Resting) November 7, 2022
Only 11% of Tunisian citizens are interested in normalizing relations with Israel, according to data released last month by Arab Barometer, a nonpartisan research network that examines the social, political, and economic attitudes and values of ordinary citizens across the Arab world.
Though both countries opened official “interest sections” — a de facto consulate — in the 1990s, ties were severed with the outbreak of the Second Intifada and have not been restored.
In May, Bouden, the first female prime minister in the Arab world, was criticized for taking photographs with Jewish pilgrims at the El-Ghriba synagogue in Djerba.
“The Jewish pilgrimage…demonstrates that Tunisia remains a land of peace, tolerance, openness and coexistence,” she said at the time.
Lebanon’s Mikati also came under fire for his role in Monday’s incident, despite not appearing to engage directly with Herzog.
“Who is Mikati talking to and laughing with? What is he saying?” one Lebanese newspaper asked.
Israel is still officially at war with Lebanon. A maritime boundary deal signed between the two countries last month was brokered by the US, with no Israeli or Lebanese officials publicly meeting. Still, the deal was seen by some as tacit recognition of Israel by Lebanon.
Following the public uproar that the leaders’ exchange caused, Herzog’s office issued a clarifying statement on Tuesday.
“The president turned to the leaders standing next to him and introduced himself, as manners dictate,” the President’s Residence said.
“As for the prime minister of Tunisia and prime minister of Lebanon, who were standing nearby, when the leaders introduced themselves to each other, they understood that they could not converse,” the statement continued. “That was the entire conversation between the three leaders.”
Another unusual incident took place during the climate conference in Egypt, when Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg shook hands with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, according to an official close to the Israeli minister. A Palestinian official denied the claim.
Public contact between Israeli and Palestinian leaders is rare.
Associated Press contributed to this report.