Interview Bourguiba à Zevi juin 1973

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.                             

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