Sharm, Aqaba? Behind the Scenes, Europe Will Be There

The Spanish foreign minister tells Haaretz that Israel misunderstands Europe

Spanish Foreign Minister Anna Palacio very much wanted to meet Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. She wanted to tell him how bad Israel's situation is in Europe. She also wanted to tell him that she is entirely aware of the fact that Europe's image in Israel is at least as bad.

She wanted to have a heart to heart talk with him, and to convince him that something must be done about it - that there is a need to open a new dialogue, to educate, to explain, to get rid of stereotypes, to understand one another. This is after all a matter of mutual interest. Israel and Europe are fated to cooperate. They have to erase the growing "deficit of confidence" between them.

But Sharon added her to a growing list of boycotted leaders. It is true that a short trip to St. Petersburg separated her visit to Israel the day before yesterday and her visit to the Muqata at the end of last week.

However, Ariel Sharon will not let anyone escape from his sharp gaze. The fate of those who visit Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat is decreed in advance, and if their name is not Joschka Fischer, they won't get to see the prime minister. Did we say dialogue? Not even a discourse of the deaf.

Palacio, 54, is the first woman foreign minister of Spain. Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar appointed her to the job in July 2002, after unexpectedly deposing her predecessor, Josep Pique. He needed a confidante who would carry out his policy and his decisions. Palacio is considered a very direct, honest politician, without mannerisms. She says what she thinks, and what she thinks is what Aznar thinks. His opinions are her opinions.

And these opinions - it has turned out in recent months - coincide with those of U.S. President George Bush in many areas. This was true regarding the issue of Iraq as well as the issue of the fight against terrorism, and a series of international issues. But not on the issue of the Middle East conflict.

Until recently, Aznar and Arafat were considered to have a close relationship. Arafat has often visited Madrid. Recently, the prime minister of Spain understood that he would have to abandon his Palestinian partner; that the dialogue has to be conducted from now on with Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). But he wanted to do it gradually, so that the boycott wouldn't be brutal.

At least that was the assumption in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. There they reported that Palacio had rejected the appeal of her American counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who asked her not to visit Ramallah, declaring that it would be her last visit. A kind of Spanish parting from the chairman.

In an interview with Haaretz, Palacio prefers to dwell on the importance that Spain attributes to a continuation of the connection with Arafat. She understands the American position that demands that Arafat be neutralized completely, but supports the European position that in order to strengthen the chance for peace, Arafat has to be provided with motivation not to undermine the process and Abbas' status.

"I think that wisdom lies somewhere between the two views," she explains. "Our connection with Arafat is based on two elements. One stems from our awareness that Arafat has legitimacy, which he draws from the Palestinian people. The second is meant to enable us to transmit a very clear message to him - and that is what I did during my visit. This message combines admiration for the courageous step he took with the appointment of the Abbas government, and a demand that he keep it up, allowing the government to operate and not undermine its actions."

As Palacio explained in a private conversation, Arafat is a symbol, like the king of Spain. But King Juan Carlos allows the prime minister to run the country. In her opinion, we have to make sure that Arafat does the same.

Principles or interests

Spain's policy in the Middle East is traditionally considered pro-Arab. Senior Spanish officials privately admit that the source of this policy lies in the Franco period - the isolated dictator needed allies, and the Arab regimes were ready to break his isolation.

In recent years, Spain has been trying to become close to "all the sides in the conflict," but in Israel its position is still considered "typically European," in other words "unbalanced."

In Jerusalem they remember Palacio mainly for the comparison she made after the Israeli Air Force attack in Gaza, in July 2002, to the capture of the Spanish island of Perejil by Moroccan soldiers. According to her comparison, both the operations were similar in their illegality.

Palacio admits that the Spanish public tends to support the side it identifies as weak, the Palestinians. But she doesn't see this as anti-Israeli, and certainly not anti-Semitic. "We have had anti-Semitic incidents, and we have to be on our guard and to treat them with the full severity of the law. In any case, it is not a widespread phenomenon," she says.

Palacio is sorry for the "simplistic" view of Israeli public opinion regarding Europe, "a view that doesn't suit the complex reality at all."

She summarily rejects the claim that Spain's policy in the Middle East, and the pressures it is applying to promote a solution, are meant as payment to Arab countries in Israeli coin for the Spanish position on the Iraqi war.

She says that she has no intention of placating the opinion of the public with which the government was involved in serious conflicts regarding that policy. "Definitely not. If my visit to Arafat had been intended to display political correctness or to profit from public opinion, I would have held this visit 10 days earlier, before the local elections in Spain. That was certainly not my intention. These are serious issues, and the Spanish government is operating here - as on the issue of Iraq - according to its principles, and not from any other considerations."

Principles - on the issue of Iraq? It's possible. There was certainly also no lack of interests here. When Aznar is asked to explain his consistent and strong support of the United States during the war, he presents several reasons.

On the ideological level, he believes, like his British colleague Tony Blair, that Europe must define itself in relation to the Euro-Atlantic treaty. It must honor the treaty and in any case, it must not build itself up by opposing the United States.

Second, thanks to its position on the war, Spain managed to improve its international status significantly, and to be at the crossroads of important international decisions.

Third, and this Aznar will not say in public, turning his back on "old Europe" was influenced to some extent by the fact that France refused to support Spain during its conflict with Morocco over the island of Perejil.

Perhaps most important of all is the support Aznar is getting from the United States in his fight against Basque terror. The inclusion of Batasuna, the political arm of the Basque underground ETA, in the list of terrorist organizations, is apparently the most important gift the Spanish prime minister received from Bush as a prize for his support for the president during the Iraqi war.

Silent on Hezbollah

One of Israel's unconcealed wishes is for Spain to support the inclusion of Hezbollah in the list of terrorist organizations as well. For Israel, the boycotting of Batasuna, an organization defined as political rather than military, is likely to justify a similar boycott of Hezbollah. Palacio, a law graduate, and who during her term as a member of the European Parliament dealt with formulating laws and legal regulations for the war against terror, showed little enthusiasm for the idea.

"Our position is clear, terror is terror is terror. Even if it has many faces, the aim of terror is always the same. Destruction of common civic values, whether in Spain, in Northern Ireland, in Israel or in Chechnya."

Nevertheless, she isn't willing to discuss the case of Hezbollah, with which she says she is not sufficiently familiar. "The procedure of including organizations on the list of terrorist organizations is a long one," she explains, but it is possible that she is avoiding an answer because of the common view that even if Hezbollah is an uncongenial Islamic organization, it waged war in Lebanon as a guerrilla force against an occupying army.

Even though she was boycotted by the prime minister, Palacio wants to compliment Sharon and his government. She isn't willing to supply interpretations for his conflicting declarations on the issue of evacuating the settlements, and she doesn't want to join the Israeli mania of betting on the "the real Sharon."

She prefers to give him a shot of encouragement: "I think that in Europe they didn't sufficiently appreciate the courage shown by the Israeli government in adopting the road map. This is after all the first time that Israel is clearly recognizing the status of a Palestinian state. Its direction is positive. We have to make sure that it doesn't lose sight of this horizon."

Spain's foreign minister believes that President Bush is now determined to be the one to prevent Israel from deviating from that horizon - that he is ready to put his entire weight behind achievement of a solution to the conflict.

"This is an honest man, without extraneous mannerisms," says Palacio. She wants credit for herself and for the Spanish government for the "real and profound" change in Bush. "For a long time we urged Bush and his administration to take the Palestinian-Israeli matter into hand. That is why we feel great satisfaction at the fact that since December 20, the road map has been on the table. I discussed it with my colleague Colin Powell at every possible opportunity, as did Prime Minister Aznar. I allow myself to say, without any false modesty, that the road map is to a very great extent an outcome of European insistence."

Can Bush show the same insistence in an election year? "We have to wait and judge according to the results on the ground. Meanwhile they are positive, and I believe that the same will be true in Sharm al-Sheikh and in Aqaba."

It is impossible not to notice the glaring absence of Europe in general, and Spain in particular, despite its closeness to the United States, from the two summit meetings in Sharm and Aqaba. While the Spanish press discusses the possibility of a new international conference in Madrid, like that in 1991, Palacio cools the enthusiasm.

"Of course, we would be very proud if Madrid were to be chosen to host such a conference, but the question is not on the agenda at the moment." She understands that the rules of the game have changed - that the only player on the field is the United States, and the Madrid Conference will apparently not rerun itself.

Nevertheless, she says that for a long time Europeans have all been harnessed to the peace process. "The only thing that preoccupies us is to have that process move forward. Everyone knows that even if we won't be in the photo album of the Aqaba and Sharm conferences, we were there nevertheless - behind the scenes."