Tunisia abandons two-state solution; courts Iran, China, and Russia

June 5, 2024

  • The war in Gaza has accelerated a major shift in Tunisia’s foreign policy.
  • One of the first Arab countries to advocate for a two-state solution, Tunisia has now abandoned it.
  • That shift has left Tunisia more isolated geopolitically, prompting it to now court Iran, China, and Russia.
Tunisian President Kais Saied and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands following a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China May 31, 2024.
Tunisian President Kais Saied and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands following a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China May 31, 2024. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang/Pool.

Last week, Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, made his first trip to China and signed a strategic partnership with President Xi Jinping. The week prior, Saied made headlines for becoming the first Tunisian president to visit Iran since the Islamic Revolution. And before that, rumors swirled about Russian planes landing in Djerba.

It is too early to tell whether any of these events mark a major, strategic realignment of Tunisia away from its traditional allies in the West. More likely, Saied is playing global and regional powers against one other to secure the best deal, an art form perfected by other leaders in the region.

But Saied has made one major shift to Tunisia’s foreign policy that in turn might help explain his recent outreach to Iran, China, and Russia. Over the past year, Saied has overseen a sea change in Tunisia’s position on the two-state solution for Israelis and the Palestinians. While Tunisia had historically been an outlier in the region for being one of the first to accept a two-state solution, today it is increasingly becoming an outlier for rejecting it.

While popular at home, this shift has strained Tunisia’s relations with both the West and the Arab Gulf states. It is in this context of greater isolation internationally that Saied now dangles the threat of relations with Iran, China, and Russia.

The first to endorse two states

Tunisia’s founding father, Habib Bourguiba (r. 1956-1987), was one of the first Arab leaders to advocate, albeit cautiously, for negotiations with Israel. While other states in the region were gearing up for war, President Bourguiba in 1965 gave a major speech in Jericho urging Palestinians and Arabs to give up their “all or nothing” strategy, and then told Le Monde that they should accept the United Nations partition plan.

At the United States’ request, Tunisia would later host the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and despite being bombed by Israel in 1985, Bourguiba remained supportive of dialogue until his last days in office. His successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (r. 1987-2011), continued his policies, facilitating talks between the PLO and Israeli officials in Tunis that would then evolve into the Oslo peace process. Although those talks faltered and the second intifada erupted, Ben Ali would sign on to the Arab Peace Initiative (API), advocating a two-state solution. Tunisia’s support for that proposition would survive the 2011 revolution, with Tunisia hosting an Arab League summit in March 2019 that renewed the region’s commitment to the API. For almost 60 years, Tunisia at least paid lip service to the notion of a two-state solution.

The first to abandon it

Saied (r. 2019-) has now initiated a major shift to that long-standing advocacy of two states. In his electoral campaign in 2019, Saied argued that any normalization with Israel was akin to high treason, receiving thunderous applause at a presidential debate. While Saied was initially constrained by Tunisia’s semi-presidential system, his power grab in 2021 and subsequent consolidation of control has allowed him to gradually shift Tunisia’s foreign policy.

At first, the shift was subtle. Saied’s new 2022 constitution went further than previous ones by calling not just for the liberation of Palestine but a Palestinian state with Jerusalem (and not just East Jerusalem) as its capital. In August 2023, Saied rejected rumors he might normalize with Israel, saying Palestinians should instead regain their rights over “all of Palestine.”

But Hamas’s attacks on October 7 and the war thereafter have accelerated Saied’s break with Tunisia’s more moderate tradition. On the night of October 7, Saied described the attacks as “legitimate resistance,” saying that “what some media were referring to as the Gaza envelope is Palestinian land that has been under Zionist occupation for decades,” and that therefore “the Palestinian people have the right to recover it and to recover all of the land of Palestine.” In a video published on his Facebook page, Saied re-emphasized “all” of the land.

What had previously been the president’s personal rhetoric then became official policy. On October 11, the Arab League put out a joint statement condemning the killing of civilians by both sides and pledging support for a two-state solution along the June 4, 1967 borders. But Saied had Tunisia put in a reservation, noting instead “the right of the Palestinian people to establish their independent state on all of the land of Palestine.” Tunisia would continue that pattern over the next few months, routinely issuing reservations to joint statements produced at Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summits, becoming an outlier at these meetings.

In May, these reservations grew increasingly explicit. At the OIC summit in Banjul and then the Arab League summit in Manama, Tunisia expressed its reservations specifically about the use of the terms “June 4, 1967 borders,” “two-state solution,” and “East al-Quds,” emphasizing instead its support for an “independent state on the entire territory of Palestine with Al-Quds Al-Sharif as its capital.” For all intents and purposes, Tunisia abandoned its long-standing official position supporting a two-state solution.

Consequences of the shift

This shift in Tunisian foreign policy has played well at home, earning praise from Tunisians on social media and even from the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Tunisian General Labor Union. In part because of their history of hosting the PLO—and being bombed for it—Tunisians express some of the strongest support for Palestine in public opinion polls. The Arab Barometer, for instance, found that only 9% of Tunisians said it was good for the region that countries have started working with Israel, compared to 19% of Iraqis and Lebanese, 23% of Egyptians, and 32% of Sudanese. This pro-Palestinian sentiment in Tunisia has only grown in the wake of October 7, with the Arab Barometer finding support for normalization with Israel falling from 12% to 1%, and open calls for armed resistance growing from 6% to 36%.

But although Saied’s rhetoric on Israel has garnered him popularity at home, it has also left him even more isolated internationally. He had already complicated Tunisia’s relations with the United States through his coup and continued rejection of what he calls foreign interference. This was simply another nail in the coffin. By November, U.S. State Department officials were telling me they were highly concerned that Saied had become “an outlier in the region,” no longer supportive of a two-state solution. They feared that his “radical rhetoric against Israel” might contribute to extremism, recalling that Tunisia sent the largest per capita contingent of fighters to the Islamic State.

Saied’s positions have also complicated his relations with the Arab Gulf states, who have pursued normalization or are on track to do so. Many had expected Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to openly and financially support Saied’s takeover much like they did Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But they have instead been more hesitant, preferring investment over aid and loans, and allegedly insisting on normalization, or at least toning down Saied’s criticism of it.

Managing isolation

This has left Saied with few strong allies, primarily Algeria and Italy. It is in this context of isolation that we should view Saied’s recent outreach to Iran, China, and Russia. On the one hand, these countries more naturally fit with Saied’s worldview, both on the Palestinian issue as well as on his broader critique of Western imperialism. Saied’s meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, for instance, reportedly centered around Palestine, with Khamenei praising Saied’s “anti-Zionist stance” and emphasizing the need to develop more such stances in the Arab world, and Saied agreeing, saying “the Islamic world must exit its current passive position.”

At the same time, Saied has thus far been careful not to push too far and elicit a rupture with Tunisia’s traditional allies. In November, for instance, Saied quashed a bill in parliament that would have criminalized normalization with Israel, on account of it endangering Tunisia’s external interests, presumably with the West and the Arab Gulf states. Indeed, a full realignment or clean break with the West is near impossible, given the strong links Tunisia’s military has with the United States and its economy has with Europe. A more likely scenario is an attempt to balance between these global and regional powers, securing what it can from each.

Still, whether or not relations with Iran, China, or Russia develop further, it is clear that Saied has already initiated a sea change in one aspect of Tunisia’s foreign policy, departing from its decades-long endorsement of a two-state solution.