Tunisia's draft constitution may ban ties with Israel

Some officials reportedly want clause removed, but face stiff opposition from Islamist parties, Arab nationalists, extreme leftist factions.

July 17, 2011 22:38
3 minute read.
A Tunisian woman holds the national flag.

tunisian flag_311 reuters. (photo credit: Louafi Larbi / Reuters)


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Tunisia is struggling to map out its post-revolutionary future, but early signs indicate the diminutive Mediterranean state may be falling short of hopes it could serve as a regional model for good governance.

In October, Tunisians will elect a new government and choose whether to adopt a presidential or parliamentary system. But a constitutional draft completed earlier this month expressly prohibits normalization of ties with Israel, while upholding support of the Palestinians as state policy and enshrining Islam as the country's official religion.

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Tunisian secularists take on Islamist extremists
Column One: Caution: Storm approaching

Tunisia was the site of the first of the Arab uprisings that have rocked the region since late last year. A frustrated fruit vendor's self-immolation in December led to mass street protests that by the following month had unseated President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.

The country is homogeneous, relatively prosperous and has a tradition of secularism and women's rights - Tunisia was the first Arab state to legalize abortion and remains one of the few anywhere in the Islamic world where it is allowed. Observers had hoped these characteristics would help turn Tunisia into an example of progressive Arab democracy.

Early this month, the authority in charge of post-Ben Ali political reform adopted a "republican pact" to form the basis of a new constitution. The completed pact included the provision prohibiting ties with Israel, though some commission members reportedly favor leaving it out. Islamist parties, along with Arab nationalists and extreme leftist factions, are pushing to implement a constitutional provision that would ban normalization of relations with Israel.

Those reports spurred some 600 people to rally in the capital Tunis a week ago, threatening to unseat leaders believed to support normalization with the Jewish state. Tunisia and Israel briefly opened interest sections in each other's capitals in 1996, but that cooperation ceased in 2000 with the outbreak of the Second Intifada.

"Death to all Tunisians attempting to normalize relations with Israel," said Ahmed Kahlaoui, who chairs a committee opposing the restoration of diplomatic ties. "We will denounce them and publish their names," he said, the AFP news agency reported, speaking at a meeting attended by hundreds of people, some waving anti-Israeli banners. Participants performed songs, dances and poems, and Tunisians veterans who took part in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war gave testimonies, AFP reported.

"We can no longer trust this body's members, which includes academics who support normalization with Israel and have had ties themselves" with Israel, Kahlaoui said. The recently banned Islamist party Al Nahda (Renaissance) opposes removing the anti-normalization provision, as do Arab nationalist factions and those on the extreme left. Polls show Al Nahda enjoys roughly 20 percent of the electorate's support.

Earlier this month, Islamists of the extremist Salafi movement attacked a cinema in Tunis for screening a film about secularism. Hamadi Redissi, president of the Tunisian Observatory for a Democratic Transition, wrote in an op-ed in Saturday's New York Times that Al Nahda "wants to fashion itself in the image of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P. Yet unlike the A.K.P., Al Nahda has never abandoned its hopes for an Islamic state and is strongly opposed to the separation of religion and the state." Of the provision banning normalization with Israel, Redissi wrote, "This is a foolish position that harks back to the obsolete rhetoric of the 1960s. Tunisia is seeking to fully integrate its Islamists — but perhaps at its peril."

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