Key Tunisian coalition partner makes removing Jewish minister a condition of its support

The Nasserist Echaâb party demanded the removal of René Trabelsi, claiming he supports Israel


Tunisia’s parliament voted on Wednesday to approve a new government from which the Minister of Tourism René Trabelsi has been dropped at the last minute.

The only Jewish minister in the Arab world, Mr Trabelsi was removed last week following pressure from the Arab nationalist party Echaâb, which made it a condition for gaining their support.

The prime minister-designate Elyes Fakhfakh has been seeking to establish a broad coalition to secure the 109 votes he needs for a majority in the Tunisian parliament.

Echaâb claimed Mr Trabelsi had been “guilty of normalisation with the State of Israel”.

Its leader Moncef Bouzezi announced on IFM radio last week that his party had been responsible for Mr Fakhfakh’s decision to drop Trabelsi: “We literally said to the prime minister-designate: it’s either us or Trabelsi. And they chose us.”

Since Mr Trabelsi’s appointment in November 2018, he has frequently been accused of pro-Israeli sentiment.

Yet he has never deviated from the government position of refusing all diplomatic and trade relations with Israel.

In June 2019 he even publicly condemned Israeli tourists who were filmed in Tunisia expressing support for the IDF.

This has not stopped Mr Trabelsi’s opponents looking for opportunities to present him as favouring normalisation with Israel.

There was an outcry in early 2019 when an interview with him was broadcast on the Israeli channel i24, even though it had originally been conducted with a Palestinian journalist.

Later that year, there were calls for Mr Trabelsi to resign after he defended the rights of Israeli pilgrims to come to the Tunisian island of Djerba, which hosts Africa’s oldest synagogue.

Yet he had made clear that this support for Israelis to travel to Tunisia is not a step towards establishing relations with the Jewish state.

“[Normalisation] would require bilateral agreements”, he emphasised to Tunisian newspaper La Presse. “[Pilgrims] have a right to visit even if they live in Israel.”

The hostility to Mr Trabelsi comes from a small but vocal minority in Tunisia.

The country’s fragmented political scene means that the Nasserist Echaâb party, which has only 15 of the 217 seats in parliament, has disproportionate power to make demands.

By contrast, Mr Trabelsi’s place in the government has not called into question by Ennahda, the country’s mainstream Islamist party, which is also part of Mr Fakhfakh’s coalition.

Tasked by the new president Kaïs Saïed with forming a government, the prime minister-designate has had to keep a wide range of parties on his side.

He is an outsider figure with no party support of his own and has been under great pressure to avoid a repeat of the events of January, when an Ennahda-backed government was rejected by parliament.

If Fakhfakh’s proposal meets a similar fate, Mr Saïed could call fresh elections.

Following a series of intense negotiations, last Sunday Mr Fakhfakh invited six party leaders to Carthage to sign his “government contract”, the basis for his broad coalition. The programme of eight key policy areas has proven vague enough to secure the support of six different parliamentary groups. 

In the lead-up to Wednesday’s vote, Mr Fakhfakh repeatedly emphasised the importance of unity between the parties in his fledgling coalition.

That unity has come at the price of Mr Trabelsi’s place in the government.

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