Spain and Israel Celebrate Ties, but Continue to Differ on Mideast
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Spain and Israel Celebrate Ties, but Continue to Differ on Mideast

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After World War II, most European countries wasted little time in recognizing Israel. But it took Spain 38 years to do so, a delay that long has clouded relations between Spain and Israel. Earlier this month, diplomats and experts from both countries gathered in this mountain retreat northwest of Madrid to reflect on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of Spanish-Israeli ties — and on the differences that remain.

The anniversary is being marked with numerous events sponsored by the Israeli Embassy in Madrid and the Spanish Foreign Ministry. They include film festivals, art exhibits, poetry readings, and the naming of a street in Madrid after the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

A trip to Israel by Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia was planned for this summer, but has been delayed due to Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

“Twenty years have passed, and we can affirm that the Spanish as well as the Israeli people have completely gotten over any resentment,” Spain’s deputy foreign minister, Bernardino Leon, told the seminar.

Leon blamed his own country for what he called “the 38-year vacuum.”

“Without a doubt, Spain was responsible,” he said.

But that confession, however well-intentioned, appeared to be more of a public relations exercise than the historical truth: Historians noted that Spanish dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, who during World War II had been an ally of Germany’s Adolf Hitler, had wanted to establish ties with Israel early on, feeling it would help him improve his international image after the war.

“In its first years of its existence, Israel rejected all the initiatives on the part of Franco’s Spain to establish diplomatic relations,” said Raanan Rein, a professor of Spanish and Latin American history at Tel Aviv University.

Franco’s record was ambiguous. During the Holocaust, his regime helped save thousands of Sephardi Jews in the Balkans and elsewhere by giving them Spanish nationality.

But Israel’s founders were turned off not only by his association with Hitler; they also didn’t want to prejudice the support they had received from the Soviet Union, an enemy of Spain at the time.

In addition, during the British Mandate, many Jews in Palestine had supported the Republican side against Franco and his Fascist allies in the Spanish civil war.

Interestingly, Rein said studies of Israeli Foreign Ministry documents in Jerusalem show that the Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 did not influence the attitudes of Israel’s founders toward Spain.

By the 1950s, the tables had turned: It was now Israel that wanted to establish ties with Spain, which had become an ally of the United States.

“But Spain was no longer interested,” Rein said, since Franco by then had cultivated close contacts with the Arab world.

Spain finally recognized Israel in 1986, 11 years after Franco’s death. At the time, Spain was going through a process of modernization and democratization, and it was joining the European Union.

At the recent seminar, participants from both countries hobnobbed in a luxury, fin de siecle hotel surrounded by a pine forest, while they reminisced on the events of the past two decades.

Participants praised Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero for his efforts to raise Holocaust awareness in Spain. Since 2005, Spain has observed an official Holocaust Memorial Day in January.

The Spanish deputy foreign minister said one of the reasons Spaniards did not feel an urgent need to recognize Israel was because they didn’t feel responsible for “that terrible crime that was the Holocaust.”

Still, not all participants shared Leon’s rosy view of the current state of relations. Some experts pointed out that the governments and peoples continue to differ sharply in their views of the Middle East.

“You can’t ignore the fact that there is much misunderstanding and there is not much knowledge about one country in the other. There are still profound differences about the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Rein said.

Israeli Ambassador Victor Harel said perceptions of Israel in Spain are among the worst in Europe.

Israel has “a very serious image problem” in Spain, Harel said.

He noted that there are more journalists in Israel from Spain than from any country except than the United States.

“They send daily reports about the situation in the Gaza hospitals and the suffering of the Palestinians, but very few about Sderot or Ashkelon,” Israeli cities that have been bombarded by Kassam rockets from Gaza. “We find most of our time” at the embassy “is spent trying to cope with incorrect image of Israel.”

Dolores Algora Weber, a professor of Spanish-Arab relations at the University of San Pablo CEU, noted of Spain that “a very high percentage of the population is anti-Israel.”

Not only did Franco leave the country with a tradition of pro-Arab sympathy, she said, but Spain as a Mediterranean country has long felt an affinity to Arabs and their culture.

“We’re a lot more like them then like the Danes, or the Norwegians for that matter,” she said.

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