Ben Ali's foreign policy has consisted of maintaining a careful balance between close relations with Western Europe and the United States along with increasing inter-Arab cooperation (including a restoration of good relations with Egypt after a long hiatus following that country's signing of the Camp David accords), as well as seeking support and trade partner-ships with Asian countries. France, its former colonial ruler, remains Tunisia's number one trade partner, with Italy following close behind.
Ben Ali has shown full-support for the Palestinians as violence continued to escalate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) maintained its headquarters in Tunisia during the 1980s until the movement of the organization to assume its leadership of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza in 1994. When the peace process began between the PLO and Israel, Tunisia moved toward normalization of relations with Israel. With the massive 2001–02 Israeli military campaign against the Palestinians, the normalization process had been put on hold. In a 2002 statement, Ben Ali offered full support and solidarity to the Palestinian cause for an independent state and called upon the United States and the European Union to intervene in the situation of heightened Israeli attacks against the Palestinians.
Ben Ali has played an important role in the Arab Maghrebi Union (AMU). The AMU became moribund in the mid-1990s due to strains between various members, but in 1999 it appeared to be reviving under calls from Morocco and Tunisia. In 1993, Ben Ali served as president of the AMU and in April 1994 was at the helm of the Organization of African Unity (OAU, renamed African Union in 2001) for one year. He used that platform to encourage greater cooperation between Europe and Africa, seek improvements in terms of trade for African economies, and to accomplish much-needed debt restructuring for African countries. Tunisia also consistently supported demands of the Organization of African Unity/African Union to add two permanent African seats to the UN Security Council.
In 1999, Ben Ali played an initiating role in the creation of the World Solidarity Fund, calling for cooperation among the nations of the world to eradicate poverty. The goal of the Fund is to serve as an instrument for strengthening mechanisms of humanitarian intervention and as a means to fight poverty in the most destitute parts of the world. The initiative has since gained full support of the UN as well as various other regional organizations.
The president's support of Iraq in the Gulf War brought a withdrawal of investment dollars from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that only began to return in the late 1990s due to a significant lobbying effort by the president. Tunisia consistently called for an end to the UN sanctions against Iraq. President Ben Ali also called for a peaceful resolution to the 2002–03 crisis in Iraq, and for a guarantee of its territorial integrity and sovereignty in light of the U.S.-led war that began on 19 March 2003. He stressed the need to prevent suffering on the part of the Iraqi people, and to avoid the risks of increased tension and instability in the Middle East. After hostilities had ended, Ben Ali in May 2003 called on the international community to address the "deplorable" state of humanitarian conditions in Iraq.
Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the resulting U.S.-initiated War on Terror, Ben Ali issued statements of total condemnation of terrorism worldwide, but firmly warned that nations exercise caution in their responses to prevent unjustified attacks on Arab nations. Ben Ali's strong offensive against internal Islamic groups has brought support and praise from the West, although, he was increasingly criticized by the international community for the methods he uses to control these groups and other political opponents. In late 2002, Ben Ali called for a UN-sponsored conference to adopt an international code of ethics for fighting terrorism and extremism in the world. This appeal followed an April 2002 terrorist attack attributed to the al-Qaeda organization, when a Tunisian detonated a gasladen truck at North Africa's oldest Jewish synagogue, on the resort island of Djerba, Tunisia. Twenty-one people, including fourteen Germans, died in the attack.