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MADRID - For years Spain's prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, has felt his country plays a marginal role in the international arena. That it is not sufficiently appreciated. That its glorious past has not received proper expression in the 20th century. That he is only an average leader at the head of an average country. "A country whose ambitions are greater than its size," as a Spanish editorial writer put it. Aznar also feels alone in his unrelenting campaign against Basque terrorism. He feels his allies in Europe are ignoring his struggle. That they don't understand him.

His hour of glory came after the tremendous shock caused all over the world by the attacks of 9/11. He got wind of a new world order, changes in the balance of power. He understood he had to make the right gamble, and with the help of his acute senses he did so: He turned his back on his traditional allies in Europe, crossed the lines, and penetrated deep into American territory. He harnessed himself completely to the Bush crusade against terror, and demonstrated loyalty - some say blind loyalty - even during the Iraq war. The "Letter of Eight" [signed by eight NATO-member countries] that he initiated, that was meant to express unreserved support of the United States and its policy in Iraq, caused an earthquake in Europe.

In the United States, on the other hand, Aznar became the administration's favorite. Since the end of the war, there is nobody who doesn't count him among its clear victors. Two years ago he was still included in a not very honorable list of leaders whose names Bush couldn't quite recall. "President Aznar," Bush called him. Today, there are some in Madrid who are ready to swear that Bush knows the telephone number of the Moncloa, the palace of the prime minister, by heart.

Israel also had the feeling it was in the camp of the victors. Not only was the fight to protect Israel conducted quickly and efficiently, with Israel emerging without even a scratch, but at the same time Europe, that same hostile continent that is known for its harsh criticism of the Israeli government, concluded the war divided, battered, bleeding, and it's not at all clear when - if ever - Europe will succeed in recovering from the knock-out blow it suffered.

"Irrelevant" - that's how the leader of the world, the United States, today refers to that same Europe that it defines as "old"; the same Europe that is led by the Paris-Berlin axis that tried with all its might to frustrate the unilateral American move in Iraq. The future belongs to another Europe, new, lively, a Europe that has been and is being built in the image of America. The Europe of Blair, Aznar and Berlusconi; the Europe of the Eastern European countries, which will join the European Union next year, and whose agenda is that of Bush and of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

But this rosy script is turning out to be a simplistic and distorted delusion. Even before Jerusalem had time to enjoy the euphoria that accompanied the great victory being won in Iraq, the warnings were already being sent from the embassies in London and Madrid. In American terms, Blair and Aznar may be "new Europeans," it was said there, but this definition does not apply when it comes to the Middle East. Israel's representatives in Europe warned of something else as well: The EU is likely, in the final analysis, to find a way to repair the rifts. This process is likely to be shorter than generally thought, and it may pass through the Middle East. The payment will be made in Israeli coin, in other words, with an increase in the pressure on the Sharon government.

Gaining status

The first to push for creating the linkage - which for Israel is threatening - between the Iraqi war and the peace process in the Middle East, was Jose Maria Aznar. He doesn't deny it. On the contrary, he's proud of it. After all, it is further proof of the status that his country has gained in the international arena. Of the moves that it is managing to implement in the playing field of the big guys. In an exclusive interview with Haaretz from his office in the Moncloa in Madrid, Aznar says, "From my point of view, there is a direct connection between the 1990 Gulf War and the Iraq war of 2003, just as there is a direct connection between the Iraq war and the acceptance of the road map. The map would not have been accepted without a solution to the Iraqi crisis, and that is the reason for the importance I attribute to linking the two issues: They have given the people of Iraq hope regarding the establishment of a democracy with liberties. The hope underlying the implementation of the road map is perhaps even greater, since its consequences don't relate only to Israel and to the Palestinians, but to the stability of the entire region."

Aznar hopes the latest events in the Middle East have not buried the road map, which he calls "the only hope for peace in the Middle East." After all, he has staked his reputation on this "only hope." Does he believe Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he talks about evacuation of the settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity? "Sharon accepted the road map, and he is therefore obligated to implement it fully. The credibility of his government depends on it," he replies.

Does he agree with those who claim that the attempt on the life of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi was nothing but an attempt to destroy the road map? Aznar first chooses to condemn "as strongly as possible" the terror attack that took place last week in Jerusalem (which killed 17 Israelis). He also wants to point out that the security of Israel is a matter "which is not up for negotiation at all." Nevertheless, while saying that, he himself well understands the problems involved in confronting terror, he says he is opposed to the policy of "pinpoint assassinations": "These are mistaken decisions. We have to help [Palestinian Prime Minister] Abu Mazen take control of matters."

Are Abu Mazen's declarations of willingness to fight terror reliable? Isn't Sharon obligated to act in the place of that same "chick without feathers" who is still not capable of doing it himself?

"I am aware of the difficulties facing a leader who has to provide security for his citizens, and who is suddenly required to restrain himself," replies Aznar. "But if Sharon continues to claim he has to act instead of Abu Mazen, and if Abu Mazen is not given the means to operate on his own, it will be very difficult to make progress. There are many enemies trying to ambush the peace, and it requires many compromises. The first compromise on the road to peace is the responsibility of the two leaders. I want to believe in their willingness to meet their commitments to the international community and to implement the map."

What will happen if one or both sides don't meet their commitments? And if in such a case the United States gives up and returns to its passive role, observing the two sides from a distance? Will Spain want to enter the picture and exploit its new status in Washington in order to bring the United States back to activity in the region?

Aznar prefers to be modest and not to take credit for having influence on Bush. Nevertheless, he doesn't hide his satisfaction at the fact that after "long talks" held by the two friends - including one discussion that lasted for hours, at the Bush farm in Texas, the U.S. president began to believe in the road map and in the possibility of moving things in the Middle East. "Bush's trip to the region, to Sharm [el-Sheikh] and to Aqaba, is a consequence of his very clear decision to be involved and to conduct an active policy," says Aznar. This will continue, in his opinion, despite the fact that Bush is in an election year.

Different views over Arafat

A major issue on which Bush and Aznar do not see eye to eye in the Middle East is the question of the status of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. Referring to Sharon, Aznar says, "The person who turned Arafat into a problem has to explain to us what the solution to this problem is. If he doesn't do so, the problem will continue. In any case, isolating Arafat is not the solution, he must be allowed to move around, to travel."

Does Arafat also have to continue to play a role?

"We can agree that Abu Mazen is the main interlocutor," says Aznar, "but it's impossible to ignore the reality: Arafat exists. The fact that some people consider this situation horrifying will not prevent it." In any case, explains Aznar, Spain will not fold in the face of the boycotts imposed by Prime Minister Sharon on those who visit the Muqata, Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. The official visits by Spanish representatives will not stop, and Aznar himself will make his way to Arafat's besieged residence if and when he visits the region.

But doesn't such a policy work as a boomerang in the final analysis? Isn't it because of this policy that Europe isn't participating in conferences such as those at Sharm and Aqaba? On the contrary, doesn't Europe have to apologize for its policy, which Israel considers "imbalanced"?

Aznar's voice is amazingly quiet. Twice during the course of the interview I found myself bringing the recording device closer for fear that his weak voice wouldn't be recorded. He is capable of speaking about subjects which are emotionally fraught for him, in a very low key. Sometimes he seems to be busy reading a lullaby rather than in the midst of an interview. My last question seems to prove that he is in fact capable of speaking in a loud voice. The question seems to disturb him: "I think it is Israel that must change its attitude towards the EU and its policy. Israel must understand that there is complete understanding between Europe and the United States regarding the promotion of the road map and working together. Europe is not looking for an absurd contest with the United States. We are of course aware of the central role of the United States in the region, but we are also convinced of our ability to help promote the peace process. Our presence on the platform at some summit or other is not at all important. What is important is the implementation of the road map. Everyone is aware of Europe's desire to help with that, and we plan to remain active in any case, even if behind the scenes."

Relations with Arabs

Spain's Middle East policy is traditionally considered pro-Arab. This policy originated during the Franco period, with the desire of the isolated dictator to link up with allies willing to end his isolation. This the Arab regimes did. However, despite the fact that in recent years Spain has been trying to become close to "all the sides in the conflict," Aznar claims Spain's relations with the Arab world are still "very good." "The crisis with Morocco over Perijil Island [a dispute regarding sovereignty], and Spain's support of the Iraq war, have not undermined the foundations of these relations." He mentions in this connection his relations with the countries of the Maghreb [Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia], with Libya and Egypt, as well as with Iran and Syria. It can be assumed that he considers this an advantage: Spain as a bridge between the United States and Israel on the one hand, and the Arab countries on the other.

If there is any outstanding issue on which Israel would have expected understanding and cooperation on the part of Spain, it is terrorism. Aznar and his uncompromising fight against terror have become almost synonymous in Spain. He is convinced he will be able to solve the Basque problem by completely destroying terrorism. This desire is almost an obsession with him. It is possible this is related to the fact that he himself was a victim of an attempted attack by Basque terrorists, from which he emerged with only minor scratches. That was during the 1996 election campaign. Some people think that the calm with which he treated the event - according to reports, he got up, shook off the dust and continued on his way - is what won him the affection of the Spanish people, as well as his victory over the "eternal" prime minister, socialist Felipe Gonzales.

When asked about the distinction made by some people between terror of the type practiced by the Basque underground, ETA - terror which is limited in its goals and in its area of operations - and terror of the type practiced by Al-Qaida, which is religious-fundamentalist and universal, he says this is a distinction he doesn't accept. ETA, Al-Qaida, Hamas and Hezbollah are all in the same basket as far as he is concerned, since "distinctions of this type only strengthen the terrorists. One may perhaps distinguish between the ways of fighting terror, but it's impossible to make distinctions between the sources of terror - after all, in the final analysis there is no terror without a foundation of fundamentalism." Despite this, and surprisingly, he adds a clarification directed - once again, apparently - at Prime Minister Sharon: "As a person with great experience in the fight against terror, I allow myself to say this fight must be conducted in accordance with international law and the decisions of the international community." Aznar, it seems, doesn't accept Sharon's one-sided battle against terror: "Only international cooperation, only concerted effort by the Israelis and the Palestinians together, can lead to a victory over terror."

No `ostrich policy'

One of the reasons for Aznar's close relationship with the United States is the considerable assistance that he is receiving from the U.S. administration in his fight against Basque terror. Apparently the most important gift that the Spanish prime minister has received from Bush as a reward for his support of the Iraq war was the inclusion of Batasuna, the political arm of ETA, in the list of terror organizations. As someone who declares that he doesn't distinguish between types of terror, will Aznar agree to initiate a European and international move that will lead to the inclusion of organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah on the list of terrorist organizations? The Spanish prime minister first wants to "examine the implications of such a move for the road map," but he adds that this is a decision "which should be considered."

Aznar's critics may claim that despite the advice he gives, the international fight against terror, in which he is participating, isn't really routing it. Despite his indefatigable efforts, ETA and Batasuna haven't disappeared. Even the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot prevent attacks such as those that took place recently in Saudi Arabia and Casablanca. Is it possible that Egyptian President Mubarak was correct when he warned that while the Gulf War produced bin Laden, the Iraqi war will produce 100 bin Ladens in its turn?

Aznar disagrees: "I didn't accept the argument that bin Laden is a product of the Gulf War, just as I don't agree that the Iraq war will create terror. The problem of terror existed before the war. The development of fundamentalism is an independent phenomenon in several countries. Anyone who adopts Mubarak's statement has as good as decided not to do anything, and not to do anything against terror is in effect to grant it victory. That is unacceptable. The fight against terror is difficult, and requires patience. We cannot conduct an ostrich policy, because our survival depends on it."

The Spanish opposition to the war in Iraq was among the most vehement in Europe. Aznar may be right when he interprets the results of the recent local elections in Spain as proof that many Spaniards have finally accepted his position. However, the Spanish media, at least, are continuing to ask the key questions: Where are the weapons of mass destruction? What were the true motives of the war, when even the connection between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden, which the United States regarded as a solid fact, hasn't actually been proved. Aznar, who was asked whether he doesn't feel that his allies, Bush and Blair, betrayed his confidence, replies that he acted out of profound self-conviction, which has remained as strong as ever:

"I honestly think that terror is the greatest threat to the world today. I also believe that there is a very clear danger in the ability of terrorists to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. After all, what is terror is not the attempt to terrify the public with the best means available." Even in his attitude towards the question of WMD in Iraq, one can detect in Aznar the complete internalization of the American arguments.: "Did we find Saddam Hussein? No. He disappeared, and the WMD disappeared along with him. That's as simple as it sounds, and nevertheless, I am convinced that in the end we will find these weapons too."

Aznar has spoken several times in the past in favor of the idea of a "preventive war." He was also among the few in Europe who expressed support of President Bush's "axis of evil" speech. And despite this, he doesn't imagine a possibility in which Spain would support a new American preventive war against one of the "axis of evil" countries: first, because he refuses to define even the Iraq war as a "preventive war." After all, he says, this was a direct continuation of the first Gulf War. The proof: "Since the Gulf War we have adopted 18 UN resolutions, all of which are a consequence of the Iraqi policy." And second, because he believes that, regarding Iran and North Korea, efforts have to be concentrated on convincing them to respect international law; to promise their nuclear program will be subject to inspection, and will not serve military purposes. He believes this can be accomplished through dialogue.

Rehabilitating the right

Aznar's great success in the 2000 elections, which led to the final rehabilitation of the right in Spain, brought him many admirers on the European right. One of them, Silvio Berlusconi, at the time still in the opposition in Italy, has turned him into a model for imitation. The admiration, say observers in Madrid, is not mutual. Bush and Rumsfeld may have placed them together in the same pro-American camp, but Aznar prefers to keep away from what he feels is Berlusconi's clownish, corrupt and overly rightist image. When he is asked about Berlusconi's repeated call to bring Israel into the EU as a full member, he barely manages to suppress an impish smile, which is immediately interpreted as a passing thought about "another prank by his Italian colleague."

When the smile disappears under the smoke of his cigar, he says: "I think we have to be realistic. Just as Italy has borders, so does the EU. If we don't maintain these borders we will arrive at an impossible situation. I favor the best possible relations with Israel, but these have to exist in a logical framework. The "association": agreements are the proper framework. Israel cannot be a full member." And Turkey can? "Yes, it depends on Turkey," replies Aznar. Russia? Ukraine? Berlusconi is mentioning them as well as candidates for the EU. Aznar once again rejects the idea: "No. We are speaking at the moment of a Europe with 25-27 members. That's the limit."

`Atlantic' Europe

Some claim Aznar's support of Bush in the Iraq war was meant to harm French President Jacques Chirac for not supporting him when he was fighting Morocco over Perijil Island. Aznar of course rejects this interpretation. He prefers to lavish praise on "the positive and very close relations with France." Later he reveals the most profound motive underlying his severance from the "old Europe." "Whatever happens," says the Spanish prime minister, "we cannot allow the continent to split into `European' Europe on the one hand and `Atlantic' [`American,'] Europe on the other: Europe will be `Atlantic' or it will not exist."

This motto of Aznar's, which conditions the unification of Europe on what he claims is a "necessary" tie to the United States, is undoubtedly his oracle, the compass that defines all his moves. He is very dogmatic about this viewpoint: "There is no alternative to that," he says. "It is a basic condition for world security, for peace and for liberty." Will he act to form a bloc that will include Spain, England and Italy in Western Europe - and perhaps Denmark, Portugal and Holland as well - together with the new members from Eastern Europe? In other words, does he intend to be the executor of the Rumsfeld vision in Europe? Aznar chooses to begin with lip service regarding the cohesive European family: "I don't accept this business of a `new' versus an `old' Europe," he says. "We are all together. The historical development of the continent after World War II is a European success story." But immediately comes the unavoidable continuation of the equation: "On the other hand, this is also an Atlantic success story. After all, we cannot explain the European success without the trans-Atlantic relationship."

Again and again during the course of the interview, Aznar reiterates the importance he attributes to maintaining and reinforcing trans-Atlantic relations. "This is a goal that has become even more important in the enlarged Europe, which will have 25 members." He doesn't exclude the possibility that the balance of powers in such a Europe will change. However, just for that reason, it is surprising when he adds that the enlargement of the EU should not be seen as the end of the federalist vision of Europe.

"The problems underlying expansion are dwarfed in light of the historic window of opportunity it opens for us. In my opinion, it will be possible to establish a European federation even with 25 countries, as long as we preserve the national uniqueness of each of the members; the pluralism that characterizes the EU even now should be maintained."

Should the military intervention of the EU in the Congo - the first intervention outside Europe - also be seen as the first sign of a federation based on a common security policy, liberated from the "vassalization" of the United States? Will Spain support European military intervention in other arenas of conflict as well?

Aznar decides to ignore the provocation implicit in this question. He declares he supports "all the European activities," and says he believes "Europe must in principle take upon itself more responsibility in the area of security." However, as expected, he quickly qualifies his words: "In any case, European intervention must be a part of the Atlantic treaty, it has to be coordinated with NATO. There cannot be a question here of competition with the United States." He says European intervention in the Middle East is not realistic, whereas NATO intervention is "a very interesting possibility." If he reaches the conclusion that it can contribute to promoting the peace process, he doesn't reject the possibility of standing behind such an initiative.