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When an Israir charter flight takes off Tuesday morning for Tunis it will be historic not only because it is the maiden trip of an Israeli airline to the North African Arab country. More significantly, it will be carrying a man who left Tunisia, his place of birth, at the age of one and is now returning for the first time as his adopted countryâ€™s foreign minister.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom's trip to Tunisia to attend the UN World Summit on the Information Society will be a success from the moment that he lands.
â€œThe story is simply the fact that weâ€™re going there,â€ said Ofer Bavli, Shalomâ€™s political advisor. â€œJust our arrival is news.â€
Israel has no official diplomatic relations with Tunisia, however Tunisia will be receiving the minister, his family members and a large official delegation with all the pomp and circumstance accorded to countries with which it has peaceful relations.
Tunisian President Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali invited Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in February to visit Tunisia in order to take part in the meeting. Since Shalom will be attending instead of Sharon, Tunisia is according Shalom the status of a head of state, said Ilan Ostfeld, Shalomâ€™s spokesman.
Hosting a UN conference means that Tunisia had no choice but to invite all UN member countries. However, the Tunisians are being particularly forthcoming. During his three-day visit Shalom will be having dinner with Tunisiaâ€™s president and meeting the foreign, commerce, and tourism ministers as well as with other high-ranking officials.
â€œTunisia didnâ€™t have to do that,â€ said Bavli. â€œThey didnâ€™t have to go the extra mile and meet us. There is a message signaling normal relations.â€ This is what Shalom hopes to promote with other Arab countries which do not have relations with Israel. Shalom has made it his personal and professional goal to promote and develop diplomatic relations with Arab and Muslim countries which today consider Israel at worst an enemy and at best a country with which one can do business but only under the table.
Following the Oslo peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, Tunisia raised its diplomatic dialogue with Israel and opened an office in Tel Aviv in 1996. But like other Arab countries which began relations with Israel after Oslo, it broke them off in 2000 during the second intifada.
Israelis who immigrated from Tunisia continue to travel to visit their roots and spend Jewish holidays with the small Jewish community which still exists in Djerba and Gabbes.
Shalom will visit Gabbes, his hometown, and Djerba, with his mother, brother, uncle, and wife who are accompanying him on this trip. In Gabbes he will visit his first home, now occupied by a Muslim family. The house was reportedly renovated and painted by the Tunisian government in expectation of the high-ranking officialâ€™s visit.
Shalom does not expect diplomatic breakthroughs with other Arab countries this trip, said his advisors. But he does hope to promote them. Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have showed more openness recently towards Israel.