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Spanish Leader in Kaffiyeh Spurs Backlash After Fierce Criticism of Israel

August 4, 2006
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The prime minister poses for a photo wearing a Palestinian headdress. The opposition accuses him of anti-Semitism and “Israelophobia.” The war between Israel and Hezbollah is having repercussions in Spain in ways not seen before. After decades of pro-Arab sympathies, Spanish governments in recent years have made efforts to moderate their views on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But amid the latest flare-up of violence, the Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has been one of the fiercest critics of Israel in the European Union, accusing it of using “abusive force” and failing to learn what he sees as the lessons of the Iraq war — that military action produces “radicalization, fanaticism and instability.”

At a July 19 rally, Zapatero was photographed wearing a kaffiyeh, the Palestinian headress that in Europe symbolizes the radical anti-Israeli left.

Even though Zapatero didn’t put the kaffiyeh on himself — a member of the Al Fatah youth group did so — the prime minister later said he didn’t regret posing for the photo, and would do it again.

“When in the heat of a tough and bloody war, the prime minister of a country wears the Palestinian symbol and doesn’t do something similar with a Jewish symbol, he is sending plenty of messages, none of which are of neutrality,” Pilar Rahola, a pro-Israeli commentator, wrote in the El Pais newspaper. “Do we need a reminder that that quaint symbol is also used to fire tens of thousands of rockets against Israel, or to indoctrinate suicide bombers?”

Zapatero’s comments and kaffiyeh pose led Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, to say that the “Spanish prime minister wears his anti-Israel bias on his sleeve.”

Zapatero was elected following massive terror bombings on the Spanish train system in March 2004 and immediately pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq.

He has been promoting an “alliance of civilizations” as an alternative to the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, arguing that the threat from Islamic terrorism should be reduced not through military action but through dialogue and mutual understanding between Islam and the West.

Jose Maria Lassalle, a lawmaker from Spain’s conservative Popular Party, said Zapatero’s idealism is leading him to see everything as “good guys vs. bad guys,” blinding him to the complexities of the Middle East conflict.

“He wasted no time in rising to Olympian heights of progressivism with the wings of his dove disguise” and “attacking Israel, blaming it for virtually everything,” Lassalle wrote in the ABC newspaper.

Lassalle acknowledged that popular sentiment in Spain is anti-Israeli, and he accused Zapatero of pandering to it.

Indeed, protesters burned an Israeli flag at a demonstration in front of the Israeli Embassy, while Spanish media have focused on the suffering of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians and underreported the threat to Israel.

The Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago wrote in El Pais, “As long as a single Palestinian is still alive, the holocaust will continue.”

The stepped-up criticism began in late June, as Israel responded with military strikes in the Gaza Strip to the killing of two soldiers and kidnapping of a third by Hamas. At the time, the president of the Madrid regional government, Esperanza Aguirre, made a trip to Israel.

Aguirre wanted to see if Israeli water-management technology could be used in the greater Madrid area, where reservoirs are running low after two years of sustained drought. When she returned, the head of the Socialist faction in the regional assembly criticized her for going while Israeli tanks were “mercilessly invading Gaza.”

The Socialist politician said Aguirre’s visit had helped legitimize “the aggressive, warlike and I would even say genocidal policy by the State of Israel toward Palestine and its population.”

Then Zapatero added his voice.

At a Socialist Party meeting several days after Israel began retaliating for a July 12 Hezbollah attack that left eight Israeli soldiers dead and two captured, Zapatero criticized the death of civilians and said the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq “has only produced radicalization, fanaticism and instability.”

He said it should serve as a “lesson for always, that there should not be another unjustified and illegal military intervention.”

When Socialist Party official Jose Blanco went further and said Lebanese civilians were “deliberate targets” for the Israeli military, Zapatero defended him. He also responded to criticism that his foreign policy was anti-Semitic.

“When somebody disagrees with Spain, you don’t have to call him anti-Spanish,” he said, “and when somebody criticizes Israel, there’s no need to call him an anti-Semite.”

The allegation of anti-Semitism had been leveled by Mauricio Hatchwell, a prominent Spanish Jewish businessman who is a member of a commission investigating Nazi gold transactions during World War II.

Several days later, Gustavo de Aristegui, the Popular Party’s chief foreign affairs spokesman in Parliament, backed up Hatchwell’s accusation, saying Zapatero’s views on Israel are the product of “anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and Israelophobia.”

He said the prime minister had gone further than other European leaders in criticizing Israeli military actions.

“We think it’s scandalous,” de Aristegui told the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “Far from adopting a balanced position, he only referred to the State of Israel and didn’t talk about 1559” — the U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for disarming and disbanding all militias in Lebanese territory — “and at all times avoided criticizing Hezbollah.”

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