Tunisia okays special flights for Lag Ba'Omer

Holiday flight may be the first step towards regular commercial flights between the two countries.

shalom in tunisia 298.88 (photo credit: GPO)
shalom in tunisia 298.88
(photo credit: GPO)
In another significant step forward in relations between Tunisia and Israel, Tunisia authorized a commercial flight between the two countries, which have no official diplomatic relations, Israeli officials said Thursday. In a meeting in Tunis a few hours before flying to Gabbes, the city of his birth, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met with Tunisian Tourism Minister Tijari Haddad Thursday and encouraged him to facilitate Israeli tourism to Tunisia, a country with an ancient Jewish community. Haddad told the top Israeli diplomat that Tunisia would allow a direct flight between the two countries for Lag Ba'Omer. The holiday is a popular time for Tunisian and non-Tunisian Jewish tourists who crowd the city for its special celebration. Israeli officials believe the holiday flight is the first step before approving regular commercial flights between the two countries, which can pave the way for normal diplomatic relations. Such relations are not strange to Tunisians. Tunisia has a history of good relations between its local Jewish and Muslim communities. And following the Oslo Accords, Tunisia began low-level diplomatic relations with Israel by opening a representation office in Tel Aviv in 1996. It was closed in 2000 during the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The Tunisian announcement was a sweet conclusion to a diplomatic trip filled with high-level talks and high emotions. Shalom traveled to Tunisia with a large delegation to attend the UN World Summit on the Information Society. During the three-day conference Shalom met with leaders of Tunisia, the UN, the Palestinian Authority, and Mauritania, as well as the tourism and foreign ministers of Tunisia. He also addressed the UN summit assembly where for the first time he addressed a group of world leaders on Arab soil with which Israel has no relations. Shalom was accompanied by a 130-person strong delegation of Israeli diplomats, mayors, businessmen, journalists, security, and his wife and Tunisian-born mother. Communications Minister Dalia Itzik and Shas party leader and MK Eli Yishai also joined the trip. Shalom said he believes that his Tunisian roots helped promote the good relations with the Tunisians. "Even the [Tunisian] foreign minister told me that it's much easier for them to talk to me," Shalom told reporters following his meeting with Tunisian Foreign Minister Abdulwahab Abdullah also on Thursday. "In fact when they invited the prime minister [Ariel Sharon] to the summit they sent messages that they would prefer that I come," Shalom added while speaking from the Israir flight from Gabbes to Tel Aviv - the first such flight to ever take place. In a surprise move of openness, Abdullah allowed Israeli reporters into the room following the meeting, but declined to say if and when Tunisia would make full diplomatic relations with Israel. "You must ask Mr. Shalom," Abdullah told The Jerusalem Post, afterwards. "I wish I had the authorization to tell you." Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was also in attendance at the World Summit. Speaking with Associated Press Television News in what he said was his first interview in English since taking office a year ago, Abbas denied there are al-Qaida cells operating in Gaza or the West Bank, countering claims made by President Moshe Katsav earlier this week. Abbas also dismissed US and Israeli objections to members of Hamas running for office in January's parliamentary elections. AP contributed to this report.