Tunisia looking for ties with Israel

Tunisia's Jewish senator: "There are many signals that the situation will improve very soon."

tunisian senator 298.88 (photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger)
tunisian senator 298.88
(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger)
Tunisia is interested in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, according to Tunisia's only Jewish legislator, though he defended his government's decision to close Israel's liaison office in 2000. "There is really a wish to open relations," Senator Joseph Bismuth told The Jerusalem Post while in Jerusalem Wednesday, but he noted that the "when and how" remains a question, and is linked to the general relationship between Israel and the Arab world. He did say, though, that, "There are many signals that the situation will improve very soon." During the Oslo process, Tunisia established low-level relations with Israel by opening an office here. Israel reciprocated by opening a representation office in Tunisia. A reopening of relations should be on the embassy level, he said, adding: "They should not give it another try as a [liaison] office. It doesn't make sense." But Bismuth supported the government's closure of the Israeli office in Tunis at the beginning of the second intifada. "I think it was a good move, because there probably would have been some problems. At the time, it was very agitated, so in closing the office it made it completely quiet," he explained. "It made things safer for the Tunisian population," he added. "Tunisia never wants to show itself as a violent country." But Tunisia's 1,350 Jews were never in danger, he said, because they have enjoyed peaceful relations with the Arab majority. Bismuth said he even used to converse with members of the PLO when they were headquartered in Tunis. Following their relocation to Gaza and the West Bank, he said there has been no noticeable PLO presence. In fact, the government was seeking to raise the profile of Jews when political figures pushed the successful businessman and president of the Jewish community to join the new senate, inaugurated last year. "They wanted to have a Jew" in the senate, he said. "It's a big step forward to show their will to go to more openness, to more democracy." He said that his Jewishness had not caused him to be treated differently from other parliamentarians. "First of all I'm a Tunisian, so I'm treated as a Tunisian member of the senate," he said. The government, which he is not part of, was supportive of Bismuth's trip to Israel - the octogenarian's first - to participate in the International Convention of Jewish Parliamentarians. He said his visit so far had been "emotional," though he had never considered emigrating from Tunisia like so many of his Jewish brethren did. He noted that many members of the Jewish community were Frenchmen who left when Tunisia gained independence in 1956 and others were businessmen who couldn't tolerate the socialist system. Though Bismuth quipped that "if the socialist period lasted one extra month, I would have been completely ruined," he had never thought about leaving because his family - whose roots stretch back to the Spanish Inquisition - was all there. Nowadays, however, one of his six children and two of his grandchildren live in Israel. His wife, Aase, was born in Denmark - she met her husband while on vacation in Tunisia 42 years ago - and isn't Jewish, but she identifies with the Jewish people and wears a Star of David around her neck. She said that attending synagogue with her husband every Saturday - and 41 years of marriage - had made her "feel" Jewish. She, like her husband, described arriving in the Jewish state as "moving." Bismuth stressed that diplomatic relations would help both Tunisia and Israel. "For the Israelis it's very, very important to put a real foot in Arab countries," he said. "For the Tunisians it's also a good possibility because when you have relations with Israel, it's a big, good sign to European countries and America."