The issue of normalisation with Israel has dominated the Tunisian presidential election debate and become a public concern. It was also a key factor in the electoral run off in the second round that brought Nabil Karoui and Kais Saied head to head, especially when the latter announced in the final debate with his rival that normalisation is treachery and that Palestinian rights are not subject to a statute of limitations. These statements made Saied a national hero, and his popularity grew across the Arab world.
Since he became president, though, his statements and attitudes have changed, perhaps with what some justify as a dose of realism, or what others refer to as official Arab politics. After the UAE announced full normalisation with Israel, the Tunisian president said, in front of the Palestinian ambassador, that normalisation is a sovereign decision and that he does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. He was not asked to condemn the UAE’s move in an official statement, as his supporters and the Tunisian people in general had hoped. He could have remained silent or refrained from justifying normalisation with Israel as a sovereign decision, as if dealing with the occupation does not warrant condemnation but is merely a political option.
President Saied’s shift sums up official Arab behaviour when dealing with the Palestinian cause from the beginning of the occupation in 1948. How many coups, revolutions, internal conflicts or even conflicts between Arab countries carried the slogan of defending the main cause of the Arab people? Regimes in all Arab countries have used the Palestinian cause to market themselves to their people, who are, almost unanimously, sympathetic to Palestine. Such regimes have continued to use genuine popular support for Palestine to boost their own status and, in some cases, even justify dictatorship and ongoing failed policies which ignore public freedoms and civil rights.
Nevertheless, the Arab masses continue to be true to the Palestinian cause, which has led to changes in official propaganda based on the interests of the regimes. In all cases they remain keen to deceive the people. Propaganda portrays failed Arab rulers as heroes who will liberate Jerusalem. Then it talks about the needs of the regime and that creating channels for official relations with Israel is a political necessity which will benefit the Palestinian cause and support the steadfastness of the people in occupied Palestine. One favoured slogan is that governments have necessities, while the people have choices. This strange justification separates the rulers from their people, and establishes that regimes are not obliged to align their policies with the people’s wishes and aspirations.
Following the Oslo Accords, the slogan became “We will accept what the Palestinians accept”. This was a good statement adopted for bad reasons. Yes, the Palestinians are the main party in the conflict with Israel, but signing agreements with the enemy does not bind all Palestinians and does not take away their legitimate rights, including the right to resist the occupation. Events since Oslo prove that the Palestinian resistance movements remain strong, which is hardly surprising, as they are the natural consequence of the occupation: no occupation means no resistance.
After the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions, the liberation of Palestine returned to the agenda, which upset the Arab tyrants, as well as the Israelis and their supporters. The Arab people saw that there was a clear organic link between the regimes and Israel, and that introducing freedoms and returning authority to the people would mean the return of popular aspirations for the liberation of Palestine.
It was no surprise, therefore, that the tyrannical regimes supporting the counterrevolution were prominent in efforts to normalise relations with Israel. The UAE, which sabotaged the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, became the godfather of the new wave of normalisation, and it did so openly and brazenly, with no attempt at trying to justify its move.
Even more dangerous is the UAE’s efforts to turn normalisation from an official decision that betrays the people into an attempt to promote its popularity using propaganda. This is despite the fact that the general public in the Arab region still considers normalisation to be treachery and will never be convinced by the rulers’ justifications, political “necessity” or statements claiming “vital interests”. The people are aware that these are lies told by failed regimes which have burdened and abused their own citizens for decades.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 10 September 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.