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The EU, Israel and the "Arab Spring" States

Tunisia’s relations with Israel in a comparative approach

The case of the debate on normalisation during the Arab Awakening
Samuel Ghiles-Meilhac


Les profondes transformations politiques intervenues en Tunisie depuis le renversement du président Ben Ali en janvier 2011 créent une nouvelle configuration dans les relations diplomatiques entre Israël et les pays arabes. Pour la première fois, c’est une société arabe pluraliste, dotée d’institutions démocratiques, qui débat publiquement de ses stratégies à l’égard d’Israël. Cet article analyse les interactions entre les changements politiques internes de la Tunisie, mis en miroir avec le cas de l’Espagne post-franquiste, et les débats concernant une éventuelle normalisation avec Israël. Le cas tunisien offre une situation complexe et mouvante, face à laquelle l’Union européenne semble être en retrait.

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1A lot of attention has been given to Egypt’s relationship with Israel after Mubarak’s fall and the crisis affecting the first Arab state to have signed a peace treaty with Israel, and very little to the Tunisian case. Tunisia, though it is not directly involved with Middle Eastern security issues related to Israel, does offer a fascinating case study regarding the Arab world approach towards Israel in the aftermath of the Arab Awakening.

2This paper intends to assess the impacts of this regional turmoil on the Tunisian debate on normalization with Israel. To this end, it adopts a comparative approach by first exposing relevant precedents and analysing the factors that enabled a normalization of relations with Israel, whether to mark a political independence with the USSR in the case of some of its former satellites, or due to the influence of the EU in an integration process as in the case of Spain, or as for Egypt and Jordan, in the context of a peace treaty. This paper questions the influence of the democratization factor in the Tunisian debate in the context of the Arab Awakening and whether or not it enables a normalization of relations with Israel. It also take into account the role of the EU in this process in the framework of the EU-Tunisian partnership.

3As argued by the different contributors of this volume, Israel has not been at the heart of the political and social dynamics leading masses of people to take the streets in Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Egypt.

4Yet, Israel’s diplomatic history, marked by long periods of isolation, offers a wide diversity of cases to study the factors leading to a process of establishment or reestablishment of full relations and the Arab Awakening provides a very interesting context in which reassessing them.

Relevant precedents of normalization of relations with Israel

Relations of Post-Soviet countries with Israel : the political break factor

5The Soviet Union and its satellite states had severed all ties with Israel after 1967 Six Day War. The USSR strongly supported Egypt and Syria in their military confrontation with the Jewish state. Romania remained the only exception within the socialist block in maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War brought a complete change. During the processes of democratization of eastern and central Europe at the late 1980’s -early 1990’s, all these states re-established full diplomatic relations with Israel. The Federation of Russia and all the eastern and central European states took the same path and normalized their relations with Israel. Looking at the chronology of these evolutions, we see that the recognition of Israel and the establishment of a variety of partnerships with were not the results of outside pressures.

6These moves took place many years before the enlargement of NATO and then the EU. For example, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary had restored diplomatic relations with Israel since 1989-1990 and became members of NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.

7They followed a regional dynamic that was not limited to newly independent post-communist countries eager to join political and military alliances, as the study of the relations between Israel and the Federation of Russia shows.

  • 1 Barry Rubin, “Unfinished Business and Unexploited Opportunities: Central and Eastern Europe, Jews, (...)

8In turn, the opening of full diplomatic ties with Israel was influenced by two different dynamics. For Central and Oriental European countries willing to integrate the European sphere, the normalization of their relations was due to the willingness of their new leaders. The latters wanted at the same time to mark a break with the anti-Israeli past of the Soviet period and to show a pro-western diplomatic orientation. The common past with Jewish communities decimated by the Nazis and their collaborators also played a role in these political development. Accordingly, in this case, neither the EU nor NATO triggered the establishment of relations with Israel. As a matter of fact, these new Member States seeked to influence the European foreign policy in a more pro-Israeli way1.

  • 2 Robert O. Freedman, “Israeli-Russian Relations since the Collapse of the Soviet Union”, Middle East (...)

9Regarding the Russian Federation, the evolution of its relation with Israel had already started with the end of the Gorbachev era, the last President of the Soviet Union. The establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel, under Boris Yeltsin, responded to a political desire to universalize the diplomatic relations of Russia2. The development of a partnership with Israel, notably at the economic level, continued under the term of Vladimir Putin since summer 1999. Thus, the degree of pluralism of Russian institutions as well as its relations with NATO and the EU do not account for the definition of Moscow’s bilateral relation with Israel at least in a decisive way.

The Spanish scenario: the influence of the integration in the EU

  • 3 In the Shadow of the Holocaust and the Inquisition. Israel’s Relations with Francoist Spain, Raanan (...)
  • 4 Haim Avni, Spain, the Jews, and Franco, The Jewish Society of America, 1982, Philadelphia, pp. 72-7 (...)
  • 5 Avni estimates that “some 30,000 Jews were saved by their passage through Spain” in the first half (...)
  • 6 María Dolores Algora Weber, España en el Mediterráneo: entre las relaciones hispano-árabes y el rec (...)
  • 7 “El reconocimiento de Israel. Un lento acercamiento”, El Pais, 17 January 1986.
  • 8 In January 1979, during an official visit in France, Moshe Dayan, Foreign Minister of Menahem Begin (...)

10At the time of its creation, in 1948, Israel did not intend to establish official ties with Spain. Governed by Franco, whose victory over the Republicans in the 1936-39 civil war had to do with military support and direct implication of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Spain was seen by the left-wing leaders of the new-born State of Israel as an international actor to exclude. Israeli leaders repeatedly publicly condemned the regime of Madrid. On May 16 1949, Israel, which had become an elected member of the United Nations just 5 days before, voted against a proposed resolution on the lifting of the diplomatic sanctions imposed on Spain since 19463. On the Spanish side, two dynamics were colluding in the shaping of diplomacy towards Israel. Franco seemed to have hoped for a moral support from the Jewish state because of some aspects of his policy towards Jews escaping Europe under Nazi rule during the Second World War. Indeed, Spain did help a certain number of Jews, between a few hundreds and a few thousands. From May to autumn 1940, a “generous” visa policy allowed them to cross the Spanish territory if they had valid documents to the United States from Portugal4. Madrid’s diplomats also helped and saved an uncertain number of Jews of Sephardic origins in different parts of Europe and the Balkans5. But for Spain, the most important dimension in the way it viewed the Middle-East was the privileged relationships established with the Arab world at war with Israel6. Thes States froml independ csalst half 6. T7“ElatesAix Dion ofArab Awakenshigo an-born Statetowards Isrcess in to sho feutime totalapseel in the afteend to eing thom botalcsal threcond Worl (...)

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