Maghreb Islamists and Israel: Worrisome Signs
Recent disputed interactions between Islamist political leaders from Morocco and Tunisia on one hand and Israeli media on the other sparked controversy in their home countries over the issue of normalization with Israel.
A statement made by Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian political party al-Nahda, to Voice of Israel radio at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, has caused a media uproar in Tunisia that is still ongoing.
This has occurred at a time when many political parties, associations, and non-governmental organizations are demanding that the new Tunisian constitution include a section clearly criminalizing normalization with Israel.
Even before the controversial statement, Ghannouchi’s very participation in the WEF, accompanied by his son Maaz, triggered a wide debate about the capacity in which he is participating – given that he does not hold any government position – while Tunisian Finance Minister Hussein Dimassi was not part of the delegation present at the forum.
Ghannouchi’s statement on Voice of Israel radio, in which he said that “the future of Tunisian-Israeli relations is dependent on solving the Palestinian cause,” is still subject to both confirmations and denials.
Al-Nahda party spokesperson and member of its constituent body, Najib Gharbi, has denied that Ghannouchi gave an exclusive statement to the Voice of Israel radio. He said Ghannouchi organized a press conference attended by many journalists. This news conference focused on Tunisia’s economic challenges and opportunities that could drive investment, especially on the part of the European Union (EU).
Mosaique FM, a private radio station in Tunisia, contacted Katz to confirm the news. He said that he got the statement from Ghannouchi directly, right after he had introduced himself and said what media organization he was representing in Davos. The logo of this organization was printed on the admission badge.
Reactions denouncing the Davos encounter poured in, especially after the Israeli journalist was contacted. The leaders of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party condemned the Ghannouchi’s action arguing that it opens the door to normalization with Israel, especially as Ghannouchi was aware of the journalist’s nationality and the radio station he worked for.
Ghannouchi had already told a US magazine, The Weekly Standard, that the new Tunisian constitution will not entail a clause that condemns Israel. He even assured the magazine that the document signed by several parties and associations – as well as political, civil society, and civil rights figures – is a meaningless document.
It is based on this previous statement that many political analysts and parties today condemn Ghannouchi’s latest interview in Davos.
This is not the first time that Ghannouchi makes controversial statements. Before the results of the NCA elections came out, he threatened to have his supporters take to the streets if the elections were rigged.
He also made a statement calling for closure the Syrian Embassy in Tunisia and expelling the ambassador. While in Washington he also said that Saudi Arabia is “threatened” by the revolutions of the Arab Spring.
Perhaps the person who can best relate to Ghannouchi these days is fellow newcomer to the political limelight, Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane. Statements attributed to Benkirane, also made to Voice of Israel radio, raised a storm of controversy in Morocco and within some Palestinian and Arab circles.
This storm has not subsided even though Benkirane, the first prime minister of an Islamist government in Morocco, absolutely denied giving an interview to any Israeli media outlet on the sidelines of the WEF in Davos.
Benkirane said news about him allowing an Israeli radio reporter to interview him is nothing but a distortion. The Moroccan Communication Minister Mustapha el-Khalfi denied that the prime minister gave any Israeli media outlet an exclusive interview.
In the meantime, sources close to the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), which leads the government, did not rule out the possibility that Benkirane might have embroiled himself in this mess by unknowingly speaking with the Israeli reporter.
The Moroccan prime minister did confirm that he engaged in a discussion with some journalists in Davos at the end of his talk on democratization in North Africa after the revolutions of the Arab Spring. But none of the journalists with whom he spoke introduced themselves as Israeli journalists working for an Israeli media outlet.
The Israeli radio station had reported on its website that Ghannouchi said the future of Tunisian-Israeli relations is dependent on reaching a settlement on the Palestinian issue, and that the Moroccan prime minister made a similar statement.
The website added that both leaders had told the Voice of Israel reporter at the WEF that Palestinians have to decide on their own the nature of their relationship with Israel. The leaders said that Islamist movements would act in accordance with the Palestinian decision.
The official Moroccan media avoided the subject altogether except for publishing the denial issued by the Moroccan minister of information.
The private Moroccan media also tried to side-step the issue. They addressed it timidly by limiting their coverage to presenting both accounts, that of the Israeli radio station and the official Moroccan denial. These private media outlets avoided going into any additional details or voicing criticism of Benkirane and his party, reminding the audience instead of the party’s previous position of opposing any kind of normalization with Israel.
For their part, parties and associations opposed to normalization with Israel in Morocco warned Benkirane’s government against backing away from the prime minister’s previous positions toward Israel when he was still in the ranks of the opposition.
Some Palestinian figures and organizations did not hide their disappointment with the position of both the Tunisian and Moroccan Islamist leaders despite their denials that they made such statements.
Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior member of Hamas, said: “We are against this pattern and we encourage and advise them not to continue with this policy. I don’t think it is wise to have any kind of normalization with the enemy, neither in the media nor any other way.”
The controversy may be particularly damaging to Benkirane. Less than a week after his government got a vote of confidence from the Moroccan parliament, he found himself under suspicion, accused of “normalization” with Israel.
“His lack of experience, enthusiasm and desire to communicate did not serve him well,” a source close to him told Al-Akhbar.
“That’s how he is. Sometimes he just does not take into account the consequences of certain positions,” another source close the prime minister said. “He will have to be more cautious in the future in dealing with the media and will not answer any journalist’s question on the sidelines of international conferences if he is not sure about their identity and the media [outlet] for which they work. It is one more lesson that being in power has taught Benkirane.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.