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Tunisia’s top diplomat exhorts Trump not to abandon Palestinian statehood

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui urged the president-elect not to give up on Middle East peace.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui speaks during the 8th ministerial meeting of Libya's neighbouring countries in Tunis, Tunisia March 22, 2016. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi - RTSBQCR

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia’s top diplomat urged President-elect Donald Trump not to give up on Tunisia’s fledgling democracy and Palestinian aspirations during a wide-ranging interview in his office.

Casting Tunisia as “exactly the anti-model of what the terrorists want,” Khemaies Jhinaoui told Al-Monitor Jan. 12 that he was confident the United States would remain a strong partner under the new administration, despite Trump’s narrow focus on counterterrorism during and since the presidential campaign.

“Of course, we’ve had some contacts with Mr. Trump’s team,” said Jhinaoui, who took office in January 2016. “How things will evolve, all that will depend on the policy he will adopt regarding the region as a whole. But at the bilateral level, I am confident the relationship will only grow stronger.”

He went on to applaud last month’s UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israeli settlements and last week’s Middle East peace conference in Paris. Trump has angrily denounced both developments and has nominated as his ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a hard-line opponent of a two-state solution.

“Of course we’re going to continue to support this cause, because it is a just cause,” Jhinaoui said of the two-state solution. “The United States, which helped Tunisia gain its independence and is a champion of freedom, cannot forget the rights of a people still subject to colonization.”

The diplomat represents a country where all factions, from right-wing Islamists to left-wing secularists, are largely united in support of the Palestinian cause, especially after a 1985 Israeli air raid on the PLO headquarters here that killed numerous civilians.

Speaking just days after protesters marched down Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis to protest the return of foreign fighters, Jhinaoui categorically denied any foreign pressure to take them back.

“They haven’t asked, and even if they did, we wouldn’t necessarily comply,” he said. “We’re a sovereign nation; we decide how to handle our problems, of course with the help of our friends, our partners.”

Jhinaoui was equally blunt in laying the blame squarely on Europe — and the United States — for the chaos in neighboring Libya, which has hit Tunisia hard.

“Today, Libya is a country without a state. It’s a country with three governments. It’s a country in chaos,” he told Al-Monitor. “And it’s not the Libyans’ fault — it’s the fault of a foreign intervention; let’s not forget that, frankly.”

What does he see as the international community’s role now? Butt out, and, as in Syria, let the parties on the ground work out their differences under the auspices of the United Nations.

“Syrians must, beyond their differences, reach an agreement,” he said. “And foreign actors must get out of the way to let them do it.”

Below is the full transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length.

Al-Monitor:  Tunisian newspapers these days are full of reports that European countries — especially Germany — have asked Tunisia to take back thousands of Tunisians accused of fighting alongside jihadis in Iraq and Syria. Is there any truth to this?

Jhinaoui:  Everything you’ve been reading in the press is wrong. No one’s asked us anything; not the Americans, not the Europeans — not to build prisons or take back foreign fighters. They haven’t asked, and even if they did, we wouldn’t necessarily comply. We’re a sovereign nation; we decide how to handle our problems, of course with the help of our friends, our partners.

These people left the country not to engage in tourism. They left because they were recruited by terrorist factions — and Tunisia fights terrorism. It’s the gravest threat to our stability today. So if foreign fighters return to Tunisia, they will be treated as terrorists and dealt with according to a national law voted by parliament that establishes conditions for how to deal with them. If they return, of course, we have competent agencies that will handle them.

Al-Monitor:  Nevertheless, the press reported after the Christmas market massacre in Berlin that Germany threatened to cancel bilateral aid if Tunisia doesn’t take back some of its citizens.

Jhinaoui:  There is a lot of confusion on this issue. We have bilateral agreements with certain European countries concerning the readmission of people who don’t have the right papers. These aren’t terrorists; they’re Tunisian citizens who left the country in an irregular manner and today find themselves in Europe, where our friends discover that they don’t have the right to be there. If we’re sure that they’re in fact Tunisians who don’t have the right to reside abroad, of course it’s normal that we should take them back.

Al-Monitor:  Even if they’re suspected of having fought alongside the Islamic State [Daesh]?

Jhinaoui:  This has nothing to do with Daesh. If they’re with Daesh, they get dealt with differently. We prefer that they [the Europeans] judge them themselves, of course. If our friends discover that these are terrorists, it makes more sense for them to judge them themselves, according to their own laws. We’ve never had cases like that where European countries send us back alleged Daesh fighters. If they’ve committed acts of terrorism [abroad], logically they should be judged in those countries.

Al-Monitor:  What can you tell us about Tunisia’s role in the Libyan peace talks?

Jhinaoui:  Libya, for us, is a national security issue. The Libyan dossier is at the top of our priorities, for obvious reasons. We are the only country [among Libya’s six neighbors] to have kept our borders open. Libya was a major economic partner — we were doing $2.5 billion worth of trade in 2010, and today all that has evaporated. Today, Libya is a country without a state. It’s a country with three governments. It’s a country in chaos. And it’s not the Libyans’ fault — it’s the fault of a foreign intervention; let’s not forget that, frankly.

We want Libya to regain its stability and retain its territorial integrity, that it not be divided. Libya must not plunge into civil war. And Tunisia, let me say it plainly, is the country the Libyans respect the most, because we kept our borders open. They come from all walks of life, all political tendencies come here to Tunis. We open our doors; they talk, and we don’t interfere in their discussions. What we ask is to encourage a Libyan dialogue and, for starters, to stop foreign interference. Encourage the Libyans, beyond their political differences, to sit around a table and find a political resolution to the conflict.

Last March, we organized a meeting of all the neighboring countries, here in Tunis. That’s when we first introduced the government of [Libyan Prime Minister Fayez] al-Sarraj. I later accompanied the prime minister to visit him in Tripoli and encouraged him to expand his power over the entire country. Unfortunately, for various complicated reasons, he couldn’t do it. Of course, we still back this government that has been endorsed by the UN Security Council. But at the same time we tell Mr. Sarraj, like we tell other factions, to move beyond their differences and compromise. All these foreign actors should instead help Libyans themselves find a solution. We’re here to help them, not replace them.

Al-Monitor:  Recent reports indicate that a lawmaker who’s part of the Islamist Ennahda Party, Ahmed Laamari, recently signed a cross-border deal with certain Libyan militias. Does that kind of independent diplomacy help or hinder your efforts?

Jhinaoui:  We don’t recognize that kind of initiative. It’s very simple. Only the state is authorized to negotiate with foreign parties and find a solution. Everything else, for us, doesn’t exist. It’s a fiction. It doesn’t help. We act through official channels. If civil society can help the government find a solution, great. But civil society cannot replace the government.

Al-Monitor:  What is Tunisia’s position regarding the demands of Khalifa Hifter, who commands an army in the east?

Jhinaoui: We have nothing against Hifter. He has to be part of the solution rather than being against or outside the solution. We mustn’t exclude him, because he represents a real force on the ground. Likewise, last week we hosted Aguila [Saleh Issa], the president of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, and we’re going to host other Libyan representatives to encourage them to work toward a political settlement.

Al-Monitor:  Following the defeat of the Syrian rebels in Aleppo, some are calling for Tunisia to reinstate its ambassador in Damascus. What do you think of that?

Jhinaoui:  It was during the Troika period [in 2011-2013] that we decided to recall the ambassador. In fact, there was no ambassador in place at the time — we recalled a fictitious ambassador. It was a symbolic decision. But Tunisia never ruptured diplomatic relations with Syria; we still have a working mission at the consular level. And it’s a decision that was taken by the Arab League; it wasn’t a Tunisian decision. Tunisia aligned itself with the Arab League position.

Now Tunisia is re-evaluating its interests, but of course it’s quite normal that we would observe what other Arab states are doing. If sending back an ambassador to Damascus today would help with peace talks and help the parties reach a political settlement, we would do it tomorrow. But we’re not there yet.

There is no military solution. Syrians must, beyond their differences, reach an agreement. And foreign actors must get out of the way to let them do it. Foreigners must only act, in our view, under the umbrella of the United Nations — as in Libya, by the way. The only guarantor of an eventual settlement is the Security Council.

Al-Monitor:  Donald Trump’s election in the United States has worried some observers who fear he will adopt a Middle East policy focused only on counterterrorism at the expense of democratization. Do you share those concerns?

Jhinaoui:  It’s the Americans’ choice. We respect it. Beyond the change of administrations, Tunisia has always had excellent relations with the United States. Under [Barack] Obama, we had excellent relations. Frankly, our evaluation is that this won’t change, simply because it’s a relationship based on friendship and shared interests. And I don’t see why Mr. Trump would go change this.

Of course, we’ve had some contacts with Mr. Trump’s team. How things will evolve, all that will depend on the policy he will adopt regarding the region as a whole. But at the bilateral level, I am confident the relationship will only grow stronger. What we are building today in Tunisia is exactly the anti-model of what the terrorists want: a 21st-century democracy. On this point, we are on the same wavelength.

Al-Monitor:  One of Trump’s first actions as president-elect was to nominate a longtime foe of the two-state solution to serve as his ambassador to Israel. What does Tunisia think of this?

Jhinaoui:  Regarding Mr. Trump’s Israel policy, you know our position. We’re not going to change it today. It’s a position that supports the national right of the Palestinian people to have an independent, sovereign state. This process began with the [1993] Oslo Peace Accord — the mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians — and I think the Paris peace conference on Jan. 15 and the UN Security Council resolution in December 2016 are further steps toward recognizing the Palestinian people.

Of course we’re going to continue to support this cause, because it is a just cause. There are obviously a large majority of Tunisians in favor of Palestinian rights, regardless of political affiliation. The United States, which helped Tunisia gain its independence and is a champion of freedom, cannot forget the rights of a people still subject to colonization.

Al-Monitor:  Some media have suggested that the border with Algeria isn’t as secure as we’re meant to believe, that jihadis have been able to cross it freely to set up camp in the Mount Chaambi area in the west of the country, in particular. Do you have any criticism regarding your western neighbor?

Jhinaoui:  We have excellent relations with Algeria, including close cooperation on border controls. It’s a matter of national security not only for Tunisia, but for Algeria as well. We count on Algeria, just as Algeria counts on Tunisia. And I think we’ve never had any suspicion of any lapses on the Algerian side.

Al-Monitor:  The Maghreb remains one of the least interconnected regions of the world because of the conflict over the Western Sahara between Morocco and Algeria. What’s the status of negotiations regarding further economic and commercial integration?

Jhinaoui:  You’re right, this Maghreb project doesn’t work. It doesn’t work as well as Tunisia would like, and it doesn’t work, I suspect, as well as our other partners would like. Tunisia has very normal relations with the other four countries: Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Mauritania. We don’t have any problems on the bilateral level. But unfortunately the lack of Maghreb-wide integration causes us to lose 2 or 3% of growth rate per year. It’s enormous. Given the economic hardships we’re going through, we could use more integration. Because US businesses, for example, don’t want to invest in such a tiny market; they want to invest in a large market, which is the Maghreb market.

The Western Sahara is an issue whose solution lies with the United Nations. We’re at equal distance between all the parties. Through good words, through diplomacy, we’re trying to get out of the impasse we’re currently in. The secretary-general [of the Arab Maghreb Union, Taieb Baccouche] has ideas, which is why I’m meeting with him, to try to rekindle relationships. Maybe we can resume prime minister-level meetings to get out of the current deadlock. We’re not there yet, unfortunately.

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