Spain a bastion of support for Palestine?

Israel can count on Spain, led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, to be a loyal arms industry customer. (Israel MFA)

Israel MFA

While preparing to give a lecture in Bilbao, Spain recently, I was surprised to see headlines declaring Spain to be one of Europe’s most anti-Semitic countries. The headlines were based on the findings of a March report by the Observatory on Anti-Semitism in Madrid, an office run by the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities (“Report on anti-Semitism in Spain in 2010” [PDF]). A review of the report reveals that organization deliberately conflated criticism of the State of Israel with a general hostility to Jews.

The Observatory stated that it was notified of 28 incidents of anti-Semitic behavior during 2010. Nine of these incidents were taken out of consideration as they either did not occur on Spanish soil or because they were found not to be anti-Semitic in nature. Some of the remaining 19 incidents were certainly deplorable. They involved verbal or written threats to Jews, the smearing of graffiti — including a swastika — near synagogues and Jewish cultural centers, and the posting of neo-Nazi blogs on the Internet.

But the report also gave some spurious examples. These included a decision by organizers of the gay pride parade in Madrid that a float from Tel Aviv shouldn’t be allowed to participate following Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May last year. Other examples given were a column for El Mundo newspaper by the writer Antonio Gala and a cartoon by the artist El Roto. Both the column and the cartoon sought to compare how Israel treats the Palestinians and how the Nazis treated Jews during the Second World War.

The framework with which the Observatory on anti-Semitism employs when assessing if incidents qualify as anti-Semitic is in itself problematic. The brainchild of Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli government minister, this test identifies people as anti-Semitic if they resort to (1) demonization, (2) double standards or (3) delegitimization. According to Sharansky, demonization can involve likening the State of Israel to Nazi Germany, double standards can involve criticizing Israel in a way that one does not criticize other countries and delegitimization can involve questioning the rights of Jews to have their own state.

Sharansky’s definition has little to do with defending ordinary Jews from racist attack and everything to do with shielding the State of Israel from scrutiny. The “double standards” criterion exposes his test to be particularly weak as Israel is treated far more lightly by governments in North America and Europe, as well as the mainstream media, than other serial abusers of human rights. At the behest of Western powers, the UN Security Council recently imposed and enforced a no-fly zone over Libya. Yet no Western government has advocated a no-fly zone over Gaza.

This was not the first time that threadbare evidence was used to accuse the Spanish public of hating Jews. In September 2009, the Anti-Defamation League, a Zionist lobby group in New York, published a “study” on Spain (“ADL: Anti-Semitism on the Rise in Spain”). The report’s section on “anti-Semitism at anti-Israel rallies,” alleged that protesters holding banners saying “Gaza = Auschwitz” and “Stop the Genocide” were guilty of anti-Semitism.

It is telling that the ADL paper did not quote the definition of genocide endorsed by the UN in 1948. Largely the work of the lawyer Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who fled to the US during the Holocaust, the definition refers to crimes designed to destroy a national or ethnic group in whole or in part by inflicting serious physical or psychological harm on that group. Given the suffering inflicted on Palestinians by Israel, the conclusion that Palestinians are victims of genocide appears inescapable. Research by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, for example, indicates that more than two-thirds of Gazans have displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder over the past few years.

There is a perception among some Israelis that Spain even has an anti-Semitic government. When Trinidad Jimenez, the Spanish foreign minister, visited Hebron in the occupied West Bank during February, a group of Israeli settlers followed her through the streets, shouting “go home anti-Semite.” Speculation that Spain will soon recognize a Palestinian state, coupled with occasional gestures of solidarity towards Palestinians from official Madrid — Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has been photographed sporting the traditional kuffiyeh checkered scarf — have created an impression that the country’s ruling elite has a deep-rooted loathing of Israel. Historic anti-Semitism — Jews were expelled from Spain 500 years ago — is undoubtedly another factor behind that impression.

Yet the notion that Spain’s government is more favorably disposed to the Palestinians than to the State of Israel falls apart under scrutiny. Spain was under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship when Israel was founded in 1948 and it wasn’t until 1986 — more than a decade after Franco’s death — that the two countries established diplomatic relations. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of that relationship, the Israeli President Shimon Peres recently hosted a visit from Crown Prince Felipe and his wife Princess Letizia (“Economic, commercial ties with Spain continue to shine,” The Jerusalem Post, 11 April 2011). The Jerusalem Post marked the occasion by noting that the volume of trade between Israel and Spain was worth about 1.7 billion euros last year. Much emphasis was placed on the potential for growth in scientific and technological cooperation between Spain and Israel during the visit.

The Spanish authorities have attempted to put a positive spin on such cooperation, hinting that most of it is of a civilian nature. Around the time of Israel’s 2008-09 winter invasion of Gaza, Zapatero insisted that Spanish arms sales to Israel were “absolutely insignificant.”

A November 2009 by Nova, a Barcelona group promoting nonviolence, exposed Zapatero’s claims as false (“Spain-Israel Military, Homeland Security …”). Official data stating that Spain sold more than 32 million euros worth of weapons to Israel between 1995 and 2008 did not tell the whole story, according to the study. Those figures do not take into account how Indra, a leading Spanish arms manufacturer, supplies components to the F-16 fighter jets produced by Lockheed Martin. Once completed, those warplanes — used extensively during the Gaza attacks and Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon — are exported from the US to Israel.

Indra brags on its website how it has been acclaimed as one of the world’s most ethical companies by a “think tank” called the Ethisphere Institute (“Indra, the only Spanish company …”). Among the other firms viewed as highly ethical by Ethisphere were Caterpillar and CRH, which have supplied bulldozers for the destruction of Palestinian homes (and the murder of American solidarity activist Rachel Corrie) and cement used to build Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank, respectively.

When a pregnant Carme Chacon became Spain’s first-ever female defense minister in 2008, Time magazine mused that by appointing her Zapatero may be “making a kinder, gentler statement about the armed forces” (“Spain’s Pregnant Defense Minister,” Time, 15 April 2008). Time was wide of the mark. Chacon has enjoyed a cordial relationship with her Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak, untroubled by his long track record of oppressing Palestinians (as both a military and political leader). Within less than two years of Chacon’s appointment, Spain signed an agreement paving the way for far-reaching military cooperation with Israel, with a particular focus on the development of weapons for future wars. Spain has become an important customer for Israel’s burgeoning arms industry; Israel Aerospace Industries, for example, is scheduled to deliver a consignment of pilotless unmanned aerial vehicles - or drones — to Spain in 2012. Known as “Herons,” these remote-controlled killing machines were “battle-tested” by Israel during the winter Gaza attacks. At least 87 civilians died from Israeli drone attacks in that three-week offensive, investigations by human rights monitors found. The Spanish forces taking part in NATO’s war in Afghanistan have Israeli drones in their arsenal, too.

Although there was widespread public opposition to Israel’s war on Gaza, the political leadership in Spain has not had any qualms about bolstering its ties with Israel. Alejandro Pozo, author of the Nova report, said “it is a scandal” that in 2009, Spain authorized arms sales worth 2.8 million euros to Israel, most of them in the categories of bombs, torpedoes, missiles and rockets. This was in addition to the almost 1.2 million euros worth of “dual-use” exports (which have both civilian and military applications) approved by Spain to Israel that year. Moreover, it was separate from the 3.7 million euros in weapons actually delivered from Spanish firms to Israel in 2009 (the relevant licenses for those sales had been approved before the Gaza attacks).

Spain has proven so accommodating to Israel lately that it has even allowed Israel shape its human rights legislation. Since 1985, Spain had an important law on its statute books relating to universal jurisdiction, the principle under which crimes against humanity could be tried in Spanish courts irrespective of where they were committed. The law had been invoked to issue an arrest warrant against the Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet and to prosecute an ex-navy officer involved in Argentina’s “dirty war” of the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet when it was used by Palestinian human rights campaigners in an effort to hold Israel to account for a 2002 operation in which 14 Palestinian civilians were killed, Spain’s then foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos promised his Israeli equivalent Tzipi Livni in early 2009 that the law would be watered down (“Israel says Spain will amend war crimes law,” Reuters, 30 January 2009). Moratinos kept his word: later in 2009, a bill restricting universal jurisdiction to cases with a clear Spanish link was approved by both houses in the Spanish parliament.

With the ruling Socialists faring badly in opinion polls, there is a high probability they will cede power to the center-right Popular Party after parliamentary elections slated for next year. The Popular Party is likely to be even more hawkish in its support for Israel, judging by the behavior of its former leader Jose Maria Aznar, who was prime minister from 1996 to 2004. On the day Israel attacked the Freedom Flotilla in May last year, Aznar presided over the inaugural meeting of the Friends of Israel, a grouping of other retired politicians and diplomats, including the one-time Czech president Vaclav Havel and Jon Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN.

In a speech he gave in New England earlier this month, Aznar argued that it is strategically and morally imperative that the West defend Israel (“CAMERA honors The Friends of Israel Initiative,” Friends of Israel, 10 April 2011). He added that “When people are delegitimizing Israel, our roots and the values of pluralism, tolerance, innovation, liberty and human dignity are delegitimized as well,” he said.

It is no coincidence that Aznar is also a director of Rupert Murdoch’s FOX News Corporation. For the kind of baseless propaganda he has been peddling about Israel is worthy of FOX News and other outlets in Murdoch’s media empire. The tragedy is that although Aznar is no longer in office, he is still taken seriously and the views he espouses still resonate in Madrid’s corridors of power.

Regardless of what the Zionist lobby may claim, Israel can count Spain as a loyal customer of its arms industry. The Madrid government’s occasional gestures of sympathy towards the Palestinians amount to little more than posturing and are worthy only of contempt.

David Cronin’s book Europe’s Alliance with Israel: Aiding the Occupation is published by PlutoPress (Pluto Books)