Israel and Spain celebrate 20 years of diplomatic ties

Everything is in the timing. If the 20th anniversary celebrations of diplomatic ties between Israel and Spain had been launched only four days earlier, outgoing Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom would have been sitting alongside President Moshe Katsav and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos at Beit Hanassi on Tuesday evening instead of incoming Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who was recruited at almost the last minute. Livni will officially take up her new portfolio today at a red carpet changing of the guard ceremony at the Foreign Ministry. When the moderator at Tuesday's Beit Hanassi function kept referring to her as Justice and Absorption Minister, people in the audience protested that he had omitted her new title. But when Livni mounted the podium, it was she who said: "Not yet." Both Katsav and Moratinos noted the tremendous debts that both countries owe to Shimon Peres and to Philippe Gonzales who had been the architects of the historically significant renewed relationship between Spain and the Jewish people. Moritanos announced that there would be a special tribute for them in Madrid where representatives of both countries will express appreciation to them. There was a unique kinship between Spain and the Jews said Katsav, which was why the Inquisition and the subsequent expulsion were so tragic and so painful even though Jews had experienced similar tragedies in other countries. The Inquisition was so much part of the Jewish historical psyche, said Katsav, that every Jewish child who studies Jewish history is conscious of it. The pain said Katsav, was largely due to the fact that the Jews had previously experienced the Golden Age of Spain in which there was so much cultural creativity. Taking up this point, Israel's fifth president Yitzhak Navon, noted that in the 12th and 13th centuries, a third of the world's Jews lived in Spain, and these Spanish Jews were amongst the most educated and affluent of all Jews. Moratinos, a former Spanish ambassador to Israel, who was instrumental in strengthening bilateral ties, said that in view of the once symbiotic relationship between Jews and Spain diplomatic exchanges between Israel and Spain had come far too late. Diplomatic relations should have been established in 1948 he said, but the political situation was not yet ripe. Spain was still a dictatorship and had not embarked on the transitional path to democracy. During the past twenty years however, Spain has done much to atone for its past, he said, citing laws against anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, the official observance on January 27 of Holocaust Day and the commitment by the Spanish Government to create a center of Jewish cultural renaissance not only for Spanish Jews but for Jews from all over the world. Moratinos also recalled the Madrid Peace Conference as did Katsav who credited it with bringing about a turning point in the attitudes of Arab states towards Israel. Livni who concurred with Moratinos that diplomatic ties were late in coming, said that nonetheless close contacts have been formed not only between the governments of both countries but also between the peoples. Navon who is co-director of the planning committee for twentieth anniversary events stated that one of the things he particularly wants to do is to publicize the little known fact that several thousand Jews were saved by Spain during the Holocaust years.