Middle East


Israel Trip Wire

The recent visit by a group of Algerian journalists and academics to Israel triggered controversy in the Algerian press and brought accusations of treason from President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The delegation, the first of its kind, arrived in Tel Aviv June 25 at the invitation of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The six women and five men met with members of the Knesset, traveled to northern Israel, and were briefed about Lebanon.

In the Arab world, and in Algeria in particular, the visit sparked a war of words. Syrian newspapers condemned the delegation and questioned why Algeria would allow the trip while Syria and Lebanon remain at war with Israel. But the most inflammatory response came from the Algerian leader. Bouteflika, in a barrage of excoriating remarks reported in Al-Ahram Weekly (July 6-12), described the delegation’s visit as a “treasonous act” and “disgraceful behavior.”

On a June 30 visit to Tunisia, Bouteflika asked people to “denounce them,” calling the trip a “crime” and act of “violence.” “They have transgressed against the values of their people and committed an unforgivable mistake with regard to the brother peoples in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine,” he was quoted as saying.

Such words have powerful resonance in Algeria, where some 60 journalists have been murdered by religious extremists during nearly a decade of political violence. Algerian newspapers were quick to denounce the president’s harsh words. The independent French-language Algiers-based El Watan (June 28) described the response to the visit by the president and the Islamists as a “diabolical campaign of demolition,” adding, “from mocking questionings to indecent proposals to serious accusations, the many groups condemning the delegation display extraordinary and worrying cynicism and persistence. These reactions…support the statement released by the president.”

Joining the chorus of criticism of Bouteflika’s rhetorical attacks, the London-based Palestinian expatriate Al-Quds al-Arabi (June 28) expressed disbelief that authorities had no advance knowledge of the visit. “After directly or indirectly encouraging the Algerian journalists to take up the Israeli invitation, Algiers subsequently denounced them, incited violence against them, and effectively condemned them to death by accusing them of treason,” the paper remarked. It added: “No sane person can believe that the journalists would have gone to Israel without the knowledge of the Algerian government. The country boasts as efficient an intelligence service as any Arab country....How could the delegation of journalists travel to Israel without such a security service knowing about it?” Al-Quds al-Arabi noted that Bouteflika himself caused a stir in Arab circles in July 1999 when he shook the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Morocco at King Hassan II’s funeral.

The Israeli press gave little attention to the visit or to the controversy in its aftermath. “There are secret contacts,” an Israeli Foreign Ministry source told the conservative Jerusalem Post (June 26), and that “the Foreign Ministry secretly organized this visit.”

Ha’aretz’s Daniel Sobelman, writing in the July 5 edition of the liberal Tel Aviv newspaper, saw Bouteflika’s incendiary remarks as a face-saving gambit, observing that “it is possible that in his comments the Algerian president is trying to divert the criticism against him in the Arab world.”

As for the visiting journalists, they returned to Algiers on July 3 without incident, although, according to Sobelman, “on the eve of the delegation’s return to Algiers, Le Matin of Algiers compared in its editorial Bouteflika to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.”

In a July 16 Ha’aretz article, Daniel Ben Simon observed that “the dispute which broke out about the visit tested the degree of independence enjoyed by the [Algerian] media.”

Supporters among the Algerian press greeted the delegation at the airport, as did a small group of protesters organized by one of Algeria’s legal Islamist parties. Some of the journalists who spoke with reporters defended their visit, saying its aim was to learn firsthand about Israeli society—something which will be of interest to Algerian readers. One unidentified journalist told the independent Arabic-language daily Al-Khabar of Algiers (July 4), “To know your opponent, you have to get close to him.”