Tunisia’s new president regards any ties with Israel as ‘high treason’
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No 'dealings with Zionists'

Tunisia’s new president regards any ties with Israel as ‘high treason’

Kais Saied, a political newcomer who scored a landslide election victory this week, says Jews without Israeli passports are welcome in his country

Conservative academic Kais Saied, center, flanked by his wife Ichraf Chebil, right, celebrates his victory in the Tunisian presidential election in the capital Tunis on October 13, 2019. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)
Conservative academic Kais Saied, center, flanked by his wife Ichraf Chebil, right, celebrates his victory in the Tunisian presidential election in the capital Tunis on October 13, 2019. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

Tunisia’s new president is a hardline opponent of any form of ties with Israel and recently called moves toward relations with the Jewish state “high treason.”

Kais Saied was the clear winner in Sunday’s second and final round of the North African country’s presidential elections, beating rival Nabil Karoui with 77 percent of the votes.

Two days earlier, in the final televised presidential debate, Saied became animated when moderators asked about his stance on normalization of relations with Israel, a sensitive issue in the Arab and Muslim world.

“‘Normalization’ is the wrong word to use,” he retorted. “We should be talking about high treason.”

That is a common Arab nationalist position that ended up earning him praise among supporters and voters.

Tunis currently has no diplomatic relations with Israel. Its parliament was due to vote last year on a draft law criminalizing ties with Jerusalem, but the proposal did not get the endorsement of then-president Caid Essebsi, who died in July.

During the debate, Saied also said Tunisia was in a state of war with the Jewish state.

Saied seemed to express tolerance of Jews, saying that Jewish people with no Israeli passport were welcome to visit the country’s synagogues. But he rejected “dealings with Zionists,” whom he accused of displacing Palestinians.

Hundreds of Israelis, many of them of Tunisian origin, traditionally visit the country’s Ghriba Synagogue for an annual pilgrimage during the Lag Ba’Omer holiday.

Jewish pilgrims take part in the annual pilgrimage at the Ghriba synagogue in the Tunisian resort island of Djerba on May 2, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID)

In June, the country’s Jewish tourism minister said while normalization was off the table, Israelis were welcome to visit.

“There’s no normalization, as that would require bilateral agreements. That the tourists come is no normalization. They have a right to visit even if they live in Israel,” René Trabelsi said.

Born in Tunis on February 22, 1958, into a middle-class family, Saied is an expert on constitutional law who taught at the Tunis faculty of judicial and political sciences from 1999 to 2018, but has no real experience in foreign policy.

So far, he has proposed “principles more than a concrete road map,” according to former diplomat Taoufik Ouanes.

“While sticking to fundamentals, he will make adjustments to Tunisian diplomacy,” he said.

Tunisia’s presidential candidates Kais Saied (L), 61, an independent conservative academic, and business tycoon Nabil Karoui (R), 56, attend a debate before the second round of the presidential elections on October 11, 2019 in Tunis. (Photo by Fethi Belaid / AFP)

The anti-establishment Saied is seen as uptight and unwavering, but beneath his austere style is a commitment to socially conservative views and to decentralizing Tunisia’s political system.

He has defended the death penalty, criminalization of homosexuality and a sexual assault law that punishes unmarried couples who engage in public displays of affection.

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