Politics and Memory: The Case of Spain

The rehabilitated transatlantic alliance means that every visit to Israel by a European PM reflects a constellation of powers that for years had not spoken with one voice, and is speaking with one now.

Israel's relations with the European continent are complex. If the United States - a country with a Protestant heritage, a large measure of Christian Zionism and no small measure of mutual interest - shares with Israel an identity of an immigrant society born of a pioneering spirit, Israel's relations with Europe are highly entangled in history and memory that are difficult if not impossible to sever.

Spain is a special case. Its relations with Israel are the direct result of its late break with the legacy of the Franco dictatorship, but also of the memory of the major Jewish contribution to the shaping of the Spanish nation. The collective memory, of course, includes the legacy of the expulsion of the Jews and the Inquisition. But in Europe, nowhere is a distant memory of flourishing Jewish life as present and contemporary as in Spain.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, who will be arriving on his first official visit to Israel this week, was not slower than any of his predecessors in his attempts to bridge the years of severed contact. With clear intent to include Spain in the European memory of Nazism's victims, he visited the Mauthausen concentration camp a matter of weeks after he was elected prime minister in 2004. He was also responsible for establishing Spain's official Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Although his foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, is identified perhaps more than any other European foreign minister with the challenges and frustrations of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Zapatero government understood that the key to influence was developing proper bilateral relations with Israel. This was the government that opened Sefarad-Israel House in Madrid, which has become a lively home for cultural and political activity, giving wide exposure to Israel's voice and culture for the first time.

It was not easy for Zapatero, as a European leader more sensitive to the established order of international legal principles, to act to change the law that would charge Israeli officials behind the 2002 assassination of Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh, as well as 15 civilians who were killed. The Spanish prime minister's heart was with the law, but political considerations and the desire to strengthen ties with Israel took precedence.

Zapatero also took part in the lightning visit by European leaders during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Level-headed and restrained, his remarks were even more balanced than those by current French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who as a well-known friend of Israel allowed himself many more liberties. With Spain's assumption next January of the European Union's rotating presidency, the signs are that Zapatero will not be shown up by Sarkozy with regard to pressing Iran on the nuclear issue.

In addition, Spain and Israel have complementary economies. Agricultural expertise acquired over years of cooperation, a commitment to developing alternative energy sources in which Spain is a world leader, and ambitions to enter the world of high-tech in which Israel is well established give Zapatero's visit a crucial economic dimension.

And if Zapatero's positions on the peace process don't necessarily make pleasant listening for his Israeli hosts, it should be remembered that the yawning divide between Europe and the United States, which was so wide during the Bush years, is narrowing with the White House's new occupant. The rehabilitated transatlantic alliance means that every visit to Israel by a European prime minister reflects a political-strategic constellation of powers that for years had not spoken with one voice, and is speaking with one now.