The Spanish foreign minister’s take on solidarity with Israel

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: In Spain, BDS is illegal and the government adopted the IHRA definition, but banning Hezbollah and greater scrutiny of antagonistic NGOs are off the table.

SPANISH FOREIGN Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya in Jerusalem on December 10, 2020. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
SPANISH FOREIGN Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya in Jerusalem on December 10, 2020.
Israelis love Spain. Barcelona and Madrid are consistently among the top cities Israelis travel to when there isn’t a pandemic, and their soccer teams have many, many fans in Israel.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi even professed to his enthusiasm for Madrid in his press conference with Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya on Wednesday, and she laughed that, in their phone conversations, she found that Ashkenazi knew of restaurants and bars in the Spanish capital that she had never heard of.
But does Spain love Israel? In an interview on Thursday, Gonzalez Laya, the first Spanish foreign minister to visit Israel in six years, addressed issues regarding the relations between the countries, ranging from Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and support for NGOs, to antisemitism, to women’s STEM education.
Tourism and soccer aside, Spain is one of a group of EU countries that are consistently harder on Israel than the official policy. This comes out in their positions in EU foreign policy debates, as well as in their UN voting patterns.
Spain, like many other countries in Europe, also donates to a number of international and Palestinian organizations that support boycotts against Israel, as well as lawfare, as think tank NGO Monitor has reported.
At least one organization whose projects the Spanish Foreign Ministry’s development agency AECID has supported, the Union of Agricultural Workers, had employees with ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – an EU-designated terrorist organization – two of whom are on trial for the August 2019 bombing that took the life of 17-year-old Rina Shnerb.
Gonzalez Laya did not accept the suggestion that such contributions may require greater scrutiny.
“We don’t fund organizations, we fund projects,” Gonzalez Laya said. “We do this after we are satisfied the initiatives are linked to the objectives AECID promotes.”
In Israel, Gonzalez Laya explained, Spain contributes to projects that “promote human rights.” In the Palestinian Authority, the funding is meant to improve socioeconomic conditions. Spanish citizens are very strongly in favor of showing solidarity with other countries, she added.
“We are very careful with whom we work. Every program we finance, we ask the organization to sign that they are not on the blacklist of any international organization. We do this because we want to be very scrupulous with what we do with our taxpayers’ money.... Certainly the country that has suffered the most in Europe from terrorism takes financing terrorism very seriously,” she said.
Confronted with the argument that money is fungible, and Spain funds projects of an organization with terrorist ties, she said: “When we work with an NGO, we are very scrupulous in making sure the financing [Spain] provides goes to projects approved to meet our objectives. Money is fungible to a point. It can be used to improve irrigation... connecting women entrepreneurs to markets, providing arable lands,” but not for activities against the law in Spain.
One kind of activity that goes against the principle of nondiscrimination in Spain’s constitution is boycotts of Israel.
Over 100 Spanish municipalities and provincial governments have declared boycotts against Israel in recent years, Spanish pro-Israel organization ACOM has reported, and many of these proposals come from the far-left Podemos Party, which is in the governing coalition. Gonzalez Laya herself is a political independent with a career of working on trade issues in international organizations.
Spanish courts have struck down 75 of these boycotts, which Gonzalez Laya pointed out.
“Any public authority in Spain that engages in BDS is prosecuted by our public prosecutor,” she said. “Spain is one of the countries in Europe that has the harshest approach to BDS.
“For the same reason, we do not promote activities that have to do with BDS outside Spain,” Gonzalez Laya added, once again arguing that the funding goes to specific projects meeting development objectives, regardless of the organizations’ broader actions.
Gonzalez Laya spoke right before her planned visit to Ramallah. Asked if she would bring up the PA’s incitement against Israel, especially in the form of monthly payments to terrorists and their families, her answer was a point-blank no.
“I intend to have a discussion about Spain-Palestine relations, which are close and which we want to continue to nurture,” she said. “Just two months ago we had the opportunity to sign the next 10-year cooperation plan between Palestine and Spain.”
Gonzalez Laya used the word “Palestine,” though Spain does not recognize a Palestinian state, in keeping with EU policy. However, the Spanish parliament has called on the government to recognize one.
In addition, Gonzalez Laya planned to emphasize the need to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Next year is the 30th anniversary of the Madrid process that started negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Thirty years later, we are in a different world and a different time, but the necessity to inject political energy into the process is even more acute today. We will discuss how to put in more energy,” she said.
Gonzalez Laya contrasted the Abraham Accords, in which Israel established diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, with the situation between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Spain has welcomed the accords.... We think normalization is at the heart of a more resilient neighborhood,” she said. “It would be good to also normalize ties between Israel and Palestine, because that is the closest neighbor.”
Gonzalez Laya said she does not accept the slogan “peace for peace” the Israeli government has used to describe the Abraham Accords. Instead, she said there must be “peace and peace,” with Arab states and with the Palestinians.
Spain is not likely to be one of the next EU members in the wave of countries to ban all Hezbollah activities in recent months.
Gonzalez Laya pointed out the EU policy of outlawing Hezbollah’s military wing, but not its political wing.
Hezbollah does not divide itself into these separate wings, though Brussels does make the distinction, to keep up its engagement with the Lebanese government.
Gonzalez Laya posited that some countries moved to fully ban Hezbollah’s actions “probably bearing in mind that there is Hezbollah political activity within their borders. We haven’t done that in Spain, mostly because we don’t have much political activity in Spain by Hezbollah as a political organization.
“Spain is one of the European countries that has suffered most from terrorism – national, domestic as well as international,” she added. “We know very well, our secret service security apparatus knows very well, that it is something to be taken seriously.”
Spain has over 600 soldiers in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which Gonzalez Laya called “a big show of solidarity to Israel as well as to Lebanon,” and said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ashkenazi thanked her for it.
“Sometimes we have paid with the lives of our own soldiers to do this, because we believe we can contribute to stability and peace,” she added.
Asked about criticisms that UNIFIL does not live up to its mandate and turns a blind eye to Hezbollah’s actions, Gonzalez Laya said the mandate is defined by the UN, and despite Spain’s heavy participation in the matter, it does not have an outsize influence on that mandate.
“The latest edition [of the mandate] made a number of things important to Israel clear, but it made those clarifications on the basis of consensus by UN members,” she said. “Spain makes sure to keep within its mandate to protect the border between Israel and Lebanon.”
Spain also adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism this year, and Gonzalez Laya said that Spain cracks down on antisemitism.
“We record the number of antisemitic incidents every year. We had seven incidents last year. Compare that to the thousands many other members of the EU have,” she said.
“We fight antisemitism at its root, and its root is education, making people understand that Jews are such a big part of Spanish culture,” Gonzalez Laya added.
The Spanish government partly funds the Sephardic Center to promote Sephardic culture in Spain.
In addition, Gonzalez Laya announced the launch of a National Academy of Ladino in Spain during her visit in Israel, which is a joint venture of the Spanish Academy of Language and the Ladino Academy in Israel.
The second prong to fighting antisemitism is through the courts, which Gonzalez Laya said prosecute antisemitic hate crimes and “make clear we cannot afford any antisemitic culture in our country.”
“We want the world to recognize the efforts we have taken to fight antisemitism in our country,” she added.
GONZALEZ LAYA is also a proponent of a feminist foreign policy.
Asked what that means for Spain’s policy toward Israel, she pointed to a joint initiative between the countries to encourage girls in high school to focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.
“Israel and Spain see eye to eye on this....We realized that, for no good reason, girls are less likely to go into STEM,” she stated.
Asked how she promotes a feminist foreign policy in other countries in the Middle East that may be less advanced than Israel on women’s rights, Gonzalez Laya first said “more conservative approaches to women and girls are not exclusive to this region.
“We live in the 21st century, and equality is written into our laws, but for reasons to do with cultures and religion we have not been true to what we put in our constitutions. We need very decisive effort at ensuring equality is the norm in the economy, society, enterprise and political participation,” she said.
To that end, Gonzalez Laya said Spain “is trying to send a message that we all have to work on this and look at ourselves in a critical matter. That is the best way to convince others that we have good intentions, by starting with wanting it at home.”