NEW YORK (Jan. 22)
On Monday, January 13, my Spanish-speaking colleague, Jacobo Kovadloff and I sat in the office of Ambassador Manuel Sassot, Consul General of Spain, discussing the status of the much-reported plan of the Spanish government to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
While the conversation was warm and friendly, we told the Ambassador that many in the American Jewish community were becoming frustrated over the repeated promises to Jewish leaders by Spanish officials that diplomatic ties would soon be established, but that for more than a year nothing has happened.
Ambassador Sassot, who formerly directed the Middle East desk of the Spanish Foreign Ministry, sat back in his chair, and declared firmly, “I can tell you now that the decision has been taken. I have just spoken with our Foreign Ministry in Madrid and it will happen within the next weeks.”
Last week, Spain and Israel exchanged diplomatic formalities in The Netherlands when Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and Premier Shimon Peres, who are personal friends, met in The Hague. That development rightly deserves to be characterized as “historic.” But there ought not to be any euphoria, for a rocky road lies ahead with the Arab world. The rockier that road becomes the more important will be the role of American Jewry in helping sustain Spain’s rightful decision.
INTENSE ARAB PRESSURE ON SPAIN
Spain has been subjected to intense pressures from the Arab League and its member-states threatening reprisals were Spanish-Israeli diplomatic accords realized. The ugliness of that pressure is reflected in a Spanish-language publication issued at the Saudi Embassy in Madrid which declared, “Do you want to establish relations with a racist, fascist and terrorist state?”
But more serious than the propaganda warfare carried out against Spain by Arab nations is the brute fact that the Arab world has become one of the largest buyers of Spanish-made weapons. In the first three quarters of 1983, Spain exported $2.5 billion in goods to the Arab world while total imports came to $5.2 billion, mostly in oil.
Saudi Arabia currently buys $150 million in Spanish arms annually and Madrid is seeking to increase that to $250 million by the end of next year. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Libya are the major Arab investors in Spain, with large holdings in real estate, housing, and tourist-related industries. Spanish exports to Arab countries include steel, trucks, heavy machinery, chemicals, and increasingly, military hardware.
In contrast, trade between Spain and Israel is relatively insignificant. Indeed, they are competitors in the world market for the sale of oranges and other fruits and vegetables. However, technical and cultural ties have been steadily increasing. Israel water experts have been called into Spain’s southernmost region to help solve the crippling drought problem there. Last year, Iberia and El Al signed an agreement launching direct flights between the two countries.
While Felipe Gonzalez is known to be a genuine friend of Israel’s, it is realistic to expect that Arab pressures, especially economic leverage, will force him continuously to make gestures to the Arab world. Thus, in a letter he wrote to the Arab League on April 25, 1985, he assured the Arab governments that not only will Spain’s gesture not entail support of Israel’s policy, but that it may, in fact, benefit Arab interests.
But American Jews have an important role to play in helping counterbalance these inevitable Arab pressures against Spain in the months ahead. Spain has gone through a decade of industrial crisis as a result of the 1973 OPEC-induced oil crisis. The official unemployment rate is around 2.9 million, or almost 22 percent of the available work force, the highest rate in Western Europe.
While Gonzalez’s government has made significant strides in lowering inflation and the trade deficit, Spain is in urgent need of major investments in industry and technology, as well as in increased trade and commerce.
MUTUAL U.S. JEWISH AND SPANISH INTERESTS
As is the case with West and East European governments which have sought American understanding and support, Spain very much needs the sympathetic interest of American Jews in helping to promote increased commercial ties between the United States and Spain. Spanish Embassy officials have freely volunteered that American tourism to Spain is one of the largest producers of much-needed foreign currency, and they are aware that American Jews are among the largest groups of tourists to Spain.
Beyond the natural interest of American Jews in wanting to assure the strengthening of Spanish-Israeli diplomatic and other human contacts, Jews have a profound interest as Americans in helping sustain the democratic institutions and values that have emerged out of the darkness of Franco Spain just some 12 years ago. Those democratic commitments, as well as Spain’s recent firm opposition to terrorism, deserve to place Spain high on the foreign policy agenda of American Jewry.