The View from Tunis
There are moderate men in Israel who want only to live in peace with their Arab neighbors, and there are moderate Palestinians who want only to have a Palestinian state next to a Jewish state.
Tunisia’s President differs from Decraene on where the realism and intransigence lie. Just after the visit to Tunis of President Senghor of Senegal, one of Africa’s « four wise men » seeking a solution to the Mideast crisis last year, President Bourguiba talked with Italian journalist TULLIA ZEVI.
Zevi: It’s been said Bourguiba’s moment always comes after major crises. Even if President Sadat of Egypt and the Libyan foreign minister have both called war « inevitable », is there no room for « Bourguibism » in the Middle East? Can you see yourself continuing the task of the « Four Wise Men »?
Bourguiba: As a matter of fact I’ve just met one of the « wise men. » He told me that what blocked all their attempts was the inflexible attitude of Israel, which would not make a declaration of willingness to withdraw from the occupied territories. From then on, there was nothing to discuss. The Arabs have already made plenty of concessions. President Sadat, who at one time wouldn’t even admit the [legitimate] existence of Israel, now accepts it as a fact decided by the U.N.—that’s to say, that part of Palestine given to Israel by the U.N., which Israel has made much larger as a result of wars that the Arabs thoughtlessly made on her.
I believe that the Arabs and the Palestinians are ready to make concessions—to show evidence of realism. But there has to be some realism on the other side too, and the realization that Israel’s security will be much better assured by cooperation with her neighbors than by occupying a large area belonging to other countries and relying on force.
Zevi: Do you agree with President Senghor’s reasons for not breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel?
Bourguiba: No. I believe that to maintain diplomatic relations with a country that refuses to renounce the occupation of a foreign country—as is the case with Israel, by President Senghor’s own account—is in a way to encourage that country.
Zevi: So you believe African states are justified in breaking with Israel?
Bourguiba: I believe that once African nations are convinced Israel is occupying other countries by force, is trying to colonize them, to settle Jews there as France tried to settle Frenchmen in Tunisia or Algeria, they are bound to consider Israel as a colonial power.
Zevi: But the Israelis say that Jews have always lived there.
Bourguiba: We also had French people living in Tunisia. The difference with the French who lived here before the [French] protectorate is that they were French citizens living abroad, and regarded as friends. But when you come with troops to settle colonists, take over people’s land, bring in foreigners, keep the local inhabitants down, Frenchify the country and make it a French administrative province, that’s another matter.
Now that’s just what Israel has done in the provinces she’s conquered. She’s creating kibbutzim, building villages in order to make the present state of affairs irreversible. That’s why Mrs. Golda Meir refuses to commit herself to renouncing annexation.
Zevi: In June President Senghor told me something he said again in Tunis recently [see « Africans, Arabs, Israelis, a Triad of Suffering Peoples », Africa Report, July-August 1972]. He blamed the continuance of tension on Israel’s intransigence, but he also laid a certain amount of responsibility on the Great Powers. He accused them of having torpedoed the Wise Men’s mission because they wanted to keep the search for a solution or non-solution in their own hands.
Bourguiba: No, he did not say that to me. President Senghor was explicit: in his view it was Israel’s unwillingness to make a declaration of non-annexation that blocked their mission. If the major powers have to intervene, it will be only to pave the way for a settlement by putting pressure on one or other of the parties.
The important thing is that peace is now a possibility, given the Arabs’ new attitude, and particularly the attitude of the moderate Palestinians, which must be reinforced and with whom it would be worth talking. That’s what I have always told the Americans, who talked to the North Vietnamese while they were at war with them. Let’s see what these Palestinians have to suggest and whether there are moderate elements with whom an agreement can be reached. We know that on the other side there are moderate elements in Israel who do not agree with Mrs. Golda Meir’s policies, more and more of them, and particularly Zionist socialists who are against the Israeli government’s policy of intransigence and expansionism.
Zevi: Talking of moderate Palestinian elements, Israelis often ask « Who are the Palestinians, and who represents them?
Bourguiba: They have organizations-unfortunately, they have several. I wish they were united. But there is a confederation, the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Zevi: I’ve done research in the Jordanian refugee camps, and talked to mayors on the West Bank. They cast doubt on the representativeness of these groups, which have had no success on the spot because the local people have not helped them.
Bourguiba: The people who live in occupied Palestine remind me of the Tunisians who collaborated with the French during their protectorate. We had the High Council, and the Tunisian Section which was supposed to represent the Tunisians. There were city authorities elected by Tunisians. Whereas we, the Neo-Destour party, continued the resistance movement that was seeking the liberation of Tunisia. We fought for 25 years, until France—which denied we were legitimate spokesmen and only recognized the Bey—was forced to come to terms. And France did not lose in the bargain.
Zevi: In Palestine there is the problem of a Jewish state recognized by the U.N. in 1947. What would Bourgui-bism consist of, applied to the Middle East? Two states, a Jewish state and a Palestinian state?
Bourguiba: It’s a very delicate matter. It’s a question of an abandoned people, living in tents and wasted by despair to the point of carrying out acts which are a disservice to themselves. I could not condemn these people, since I myself organized and directed counter-terrorism in Tunisia when the French created terror squads in order to terrorize my people. I can’t condemn them, and I am not qualified to speak in their name. They are more qualified to put forward a solution. As representatives of the Palestinian people, they could accept a compromise.
Zevi: Partition, of the former mandated territory?
Bourguiba: Yes, partition, since both parties are claiming the same territory. The compromise solution would be for the territory to be for both of them, so they can live as friends, as neighbors and as brothers. It’s a possibility. But I must repeat that I am not qualified to talk in the name of the Palestinians.
Zevi: I’d like to talk about Tunisia’s relations with the other Arab nations. What are your views on Arab nationalism, pan-Arabism and the unity of the Arab peoples—the myth and the reality?
Bourguiba: We belong to the Arab world. When the Arabs settled in North Africa, they Arabized it like most places where they have been.
But this Arab world has never been united under a king or an emir. Even at the beginning of the Islamic period there were divisions that some-times were transformed Into religious schisms.
Zevi: What are the chances of creating wider Arab groupings? Do you think the aim should be economic integration or political unity?
Bourguiba: I think political unity is very unlikely and in any event a very long way off, and I believe the best way to bring about a certain degree of unity is for neighbors first to begin cooperation. This should gradually be extended with the aim of complementing each other’s efforts. This would allow countries that have been separate for centuries to get to know each other better, to get rid of their frontiers bit by bit, to create an economic whole, which will take a long time.
Political integration will come later. That’s a dream which will not come true today or tomorrow. One must change men’s ideas before creating bodies on paper. Men are attached to their fatherlands for historical reasons, especially if they have fought to liberate them.
During the fight for freedom I formed this people, I raised its level and I gave it the sense of national solidarity that was behind the success of Tunisia’s liberation struggle. It would take a great deal of persuasion to get Tunisians to extend this idea of country, which comprises only little Tunisia, to other regions.
Zevi: Could one talk about a « Bourguib-bist » attitude in contrast to a « Qadhafi-ist » one?
Bourguiba: « Qadhafi-ism » is in favor of creating an immediate, irreversible unity. Colonel’al-Qadhafi believes this approach will help to make unity accepted, to establish it in people’s hearts and minds. Personally, I believe unity must first exist in men’s spirits before it can be translated into a political and diplomatic reality.
Zevi: Talking of Arab integration, economic integration or [political] unification of the Maghreb [Morocco, Algeria ana Tunisia] would be logical.
Bourgutba: It would be logical, but it’s not for tomorrow. At the present moment there are centuries-old frontiers, there are differing customs. We were united to a certain extent by the same colonial experience, we fought against the same colonialist power and that created links of brotherhood and cooperation between us. We are starting with what exists while waiting to achieve the ideal.
What is possible is bilateral cooperation. This is working very well between Tunisia and Algeria, Algeria and Morocco, Tunisia and Morocco. It will take time for this cooperation to bring us to a point where we complement each other. Then the frontiers might be abolished.
We must take the realities into account. This region has been divided into three separate countries for centuries. It’s true that the frontiers didn’t always exist: in Roman times this area was one large Roman province. But they were drawn up centuries ago, and were preserved under the Arabs, the Turks and the Spanish. The three lands have a different history, different problems, different vocations. We cannot simply ignore these frontiers and these facts: they are the product of history.
Zevi: What about pan-African unity, the possibility of a United States of Africa?
Bourguiba: That’s an ideal that may be achieved in 1,000 years, or may never be achieved. That will depend on the Africans. At present they are divided. They were divided by the different colonial regimes they endured. Their frontiers are like the Maghrebian frontiers and they are enduring. Every country is trying to create a personality and express its uniqueness. In the former Belgian Congo, now Zai’re, all the names have been changed. Everybody is trying to regain his own authenticity.
All this is delaying the time when the African nations can be truly united. But until then, as I say, one can cooperate, work together to rebuild Africa, to bring development to the Africans, to augment trade.
Zevi: And an Arab-African symbiosis?
Bourguiba: It’s a possibility. We are part of Africa and we need each other and in fact we are beginning to establish communications links across the Sahara so we can make contact with Black Africa.