During the run-up to the 1996 Spanish parliamentary elections, Jose Maria Aznar survived an assassination attempt by Basque terrorists, emerging virtually unscathed. Some people say the equanimity with which he treated the affair - reports say he simply brushed the dirt off his suit and continued walking - is what made him such a popular figure among Spanish voters, and eventually led to an election victory over his long-serving predecessor, Felipe Gonzalez. Since then, Aznar has become a byword for uncompromising war against terror.
In an interview with Haaretz in June 2003, Aznar made it clear that he does not differentiate between the local terror of the Basque separatist movement ETA, and the global, fundamentalist terror of Al-Qaida. As far as he is concerned, ETA, Al-Qaida, Hamas and Hezbollah are the same, since "differentiating between them merely strengthens the terrorists. One cannot make distinctions based on the source of the terror - in the end, all terror has fundamentalism at its root."
Aznar, however, surprised many in that interview, by saying that he objected to Israel's policy of "targeted killings."
"As someone who has a lot of experience fighting terror, I allow myself to say that the struggle must obey international law," he said. Aznar rejected Ariel Sharon's method of fighting terror. "Only international cooperation, only a concerted effort on the part of Israel and the Palestinians, will defeat terror."
Two weeks before the interview was published, Spain's Foreign Minister Anna Palacio visited Israel. The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem pressured her to support inclusion of Hezbollah in the European Union's list of terror organizations. Israel claimed that the fact that Spain boycotts Batasuma, the political wing of ETA, should justify a similar move against Hezbollah. Asked by Haaretz to comment, Palacio said, "Spain's position is clear. Terror is terror is terror. Even if it has many faces, it has one aim: to destroy common civilian values, whether in Spain, Northern Ireland or Israel."
Palacio was, however, unwilling to speak about Hezbollah. Jerusalem saw her comments as reflecting a widespread European view that even if Hezbollah was a worrisome Islamist organization, it waged its war in the Middle East as a guerrilla group against an army of occupation. The case of ETA is completely different.
Palacio was furious yesterday, in an interview on CNN, that the network insisted on calling ETA a separatist, rather than a terrorist, organization.
The Basque province, one of 17 that make up Spain, is one of the most prosperous regions of the country. Little wonder, therefore, that most of the Basques do not want independence from Spain. Polls show that 23 percent of the inhabitants see themselves as Basques, while 17 percent say they are "more Basque than Spanish." More than 90 percent say they object to ETA's policy of violence.
According to senior commentator Anna Romero of El Mundo, this may be what caused ETA to stray from its usual strategy. "Perhaps the Basque group has realized that the struggle it is conducting has not achieved its goal. That it is, time, therefore, to mimic Al-Qaida's operations."
A Western diplomat in Madrid observed yesterday that, given the success of France and Spain in thwarting terror attacks in the past year, including arresting planners and cell leaders, ETA may have felt that only a spectacular attack could prove it is still a relevant force.
It is now clear to everyone that a terror attack on this scale invites a boomerang response: with Aznar releasing the reigns of power, his party was expected to lose its absolute majority in parliament in Sunday's election. If it becomes clear that ETA was behind the attacks, support for Aznar's party will increase, and would allow it to retain its majority, or perhaps even increase it.
Within the Socialist Party, therefore, some were praying that ETA would be proven not to have a hand in the attack. Former European Union Special Envoy to the Middle East, Miguel Moratinos , and a Socialist Party candidate for parliament, lashed out this week at Aznar's support for the war on Iraq. "We got nothing from it," he said. "On the contrary. Spain is now a prime target for extremist Islamic terror."
Indeed, several terror experts talked about possible collaboration between ETA extremists and Islamic organizations, such as the Al-Qaida terror network. Other stubbornly insisted that the attack was exclusively Islamic. If that turns out to be true, the voting patterns in the election may turn in favor of those who object to Aznar (blindly) toeing the American line.
Either way, Spain is likely to take its fight against terrorism – all terrorism – to new heights. Public opinion will demand it. The Spanish people may start viewing targeted assassinations more sympathetically. They may turn a blind eye if the war in terror crosses the boundaries of international law. They will be told that terrorists' efforts to "frustrate democracy" sometimes force governments to stray from those laws.
It would appear, nonetheless, that the parameters defining the Middle East conflict – "a conflict between two people, not an internal conflict" – will not change in Spain. It is doubtful whether Aznar, who claims that he will solve "the Basque problem" by eradicating terror, will make a similar assertion regarding "the Palestinian problem."
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