Spain’s King Felipe VI usually doesn’t receive more than two state visitors a year. Thus saith the protocol. In 2017, which is soon to conclude, there has been only one – the president of Israel. Spain was caught up in a political crisis, elections were held, the formation of the government was delayed and other planned visits were postponed. A window remained open only for Reuven Rivlin.
That’s one reason for the importance of the visit – to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the countries – that ended on Wednesday. It was a tremendous success.
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As fate would have it, Rivlin’s trip was set to take place in the midst of the Catalonian independence drama. The Spanish, who’d organized a semi-royal reception for him and his wife, Nechama, expected the kind of supportive declarations they’d received from European countries and the United States. But it didn’t arrive. Prime Minister Netanyahu took his time: His Foreign Ministry was silent and let the Spanish stew. They weren’t the only ones – the temperature soared in the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, too. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was having a good time in London, surely didn’t shed a tear as the others perspired.
The days passed, but no Israeli declaration of support for Spanish sovereignty was forthcoming. Journalists from important media outlets in Spain who were about to come to Israel to interview the president ahead of his visit got a cancellation notice from the President’s Residence: Rivlin had no intention of having to squirm in the face of media questions because someone else was dragging his feet.
Three days before the visit, a laconic statement, diplomatic in the negative sense of the word, emerged from Jerusalem: “Israel hopes that the internal crisis in Spain will be resolved quickly, by peaceful means and with broad national agreement.” Madrid took that banal and hollow collection of words as the continuation of someone sticking a finger in its eye, and twisting it too, this time. The responses from Spain were of angry affront. How would the president of Israel be received by the king and prime minister if he came with that same message, everyone wondered.
Rivlin had no intention of walking into the trap. From his perspective, as long as this was Israeli policy, his visit was superfluous. The president sought to amend the published text of the Foreign Ministry’s statement, adding a sentence to it saying, “Spain is one country for us, and all the problems it’s coping with at this time are internal.”
The edited version was transmitted to the prime minister in London. No threat accompanied it. But if anyone got the impression that this wasn’t merely a suggestion but a definitive assertion that brooked no alternative – he was probably right. If the prime minister and foreign minister had insisted on the original version, the president would have stayed home. Amid a huge scandal.
Last Friday morning, less than 48 hours before the flight to Madrid, Netanyahu blinked. He informed the president’s bureau that the text was acceptable to him. In his speech before the Spanish Congress and Senate, Rivlin enhanced the text: “Spain is one country for us, a single political and sovereign entity,” he declared in a festive tone of voice. The delegates gave him a lengthy standing ovation.
The visit, then, was a roaring success. Rivlin was pleased.
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