MADRID (Jun. 9)
Since Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar walked away from a bomb that exploded next to his armored car seven years ago, he has dreamed of crushing the Basque terrorist group ETA.
His campaign scored a significant victory this week when Spain’s Congress of Deputies passed a law that would make it possible to outlaw political parties that “form part of a terrorist network” or “foment hatred and violence as a way of achieving political aims.”
The Spanish Senate is expected to approve the law later this month.
ETA demands independence for Basque-speaking areas in northern Spain and a sliver of southern France.
Despite its tough line with the Basque separatists, however, Spain remains among the most pro-Palestinian countries in Europe, fiercely critical of Israeli retaliation for Arab attacks.
Rejecting protests from some of the Basque region’s Roman Catholic clergy — who claim that the new Parties Law could lead to more separatist violence — the Congress of Deputies approved it by a 304-16 vote.
“Those who shelter terrorists will be prosecuted,” the tough-talking Aznar said at a press conference. “In Spain, our democracy is not willing to be forced into a corner or blackmailed by terrorists.”
Aznar’s administration currently chairs the European Union, and is leading its efforts to appear “neutral” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — though many Israelis find the European Union decidedly pro-Palestinian.
Last year, however, Aznar apparently tried to push toward a more pro-Israeli slant when his foreign minister, Josep Pique, compared Israel’s struggle against Palestinian terrorism with Spain’s war against ETA, which is recognized as a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department.
During a visit to Israel, Pique suggested that Basques who reject being part of Spain are like Arabs who refuse to accept Israel’s right to exist.
“We in Spain, who know what terrorism is, understand Israel,” Pique assured Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. “Spain will win this battle, and so will the State of Israel.”
But even before arriving back in Madrid, Pique’s statements were slammed by opposition lawmakers as “an authentic barbarity” and “absolutely scandalous.” He was forced to retract the comments.
The Israeli and Spanish situations “cannot even be remotely compared,” the conservative newspaper El Mundo scoffed the next day. “Moreover, the methods Israel uses to fight Palestinian violence have been as loathsome as the actions of Islamic fundamentalists.”
However, the editorial writer’s greatest concern appeared to be the logical consequences of any comparison between the Israeli and Spanish situations.
Such comparisons, he wrote, “could boomerang” and legitimize the claims of those who say the Basque conflict “should be resolved through negotiation.”
Aznar, who is staunchly pro-American, has taken advantage of the post-Sept. 11 mood to escalate police crackdowns on ETA, rounding up dozens of suspected members and convincing France and other European countries to arrest and extradite fugitives in record numbers.
Aznar also has refused to negotiate with ETA, which has murdered more than 800 people — mostly politicians and policemen — since it gunned down its first victim in 1968, when Spain was still a dictatorship ruled by Gen. Francisco Franco.
Most Basques condemn ETA’s violence, but polls show that at least half favor a referendum on independence or greater self-rule. The government rejects both options.
Nevertheless, Aznar plans to use the Parties Law against a Basque faction called Batasuna, which usually gets between 10 percent and 15 percent of the vote in regional elections.
Batasuna’s leader, Arnaldo Otegi, refuses to condemn ETA’s attacks, but denies government allegations that it is ETA’s political wing — even though police raids on several party members’ houses have turned up significant quantities of explosives.
While deadly, ETA’s methods are less indiscriminate than the suicide attacks of Palestinian terror groups.
The latest car bombing, on May 23 in Pamplona, was preceded half an hour earlier by a phone call warning authorities of the location of the vehicle and its license plate, giving police sufficient time to clear the area.
ETA’s bloodiest attack — which the group said was a mistake — claimed 21 lives in 1987.
More often its attacks are aimed at specific police, politicians, judges or journalists who are seen as blocking Basque aspirations for independence.