Spain seeks to improve relations with Israel after years of diplomatic distance

Arancha González Laya will become the first Spanish foreign affairs minister to officially visit the country since 2015

Spain’s Foreign Affairs Minister Arancha González Laya.
Spain’s Foreign Affairs Minister Arancha González Laya.Chema Moya (EFE)

It took Spain four decades to establish relations with the State of Israel, which was created in 1948, and nearly six years to end its recent protracted diplomatic distance with the country. After this long period of frosty relations, Arancha González Laya on Wednesday will become the first Spanish foreign affairs minister to officially visit Israel since 2015.

Relations between Spain and Israel began to deteriorate in 2017 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to take a strong stance against the Catalan separatist movement, which held an illegal referendum on independence in October of that year. Subsequent political crises in both countries, leading to a record number of consecutive elections, further complicated affairs.

But both countries now appear to want to mend ties. Diplomatic sources from Israel say that relations with Spain have improved in recent months. For example, according to these sources, Spain has adopted a more “balanced position” in the European Union, neither defending Israel’s right to expand settlements on occupied Palestinian territory at all costs nor proposing sanctions against Israel under the European Union-Israel partnership agreement.

Diplomatic sources say Israel appears to have appreciated “the different tone” in its communication with Spain

Unilateral steps like those taken by Sweden in 2014 to recognize the state of Palestine without the backing of the European Union have not been followed by Spain or other members of the EU. And it has been six years since Spain’s lower house, the Congress of Deputies, approved with near-unanimous support a non-binding proposal in favor of recognizing Palestine as an independent state, within a two-state solution.

According to these diplomatic sources, Israel appears to have appreciated “the different tone” in its communication with Spain, a veiled allusion to Spain’s recent gestures of rapprochement. Last July, Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo condemned antisemitism at the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, which represents around 45,000 people. The deputy prime minister also endorsed the working definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016. While concerns have been raised that the definition is being used to protect Israel from political criticism, Spain calls it a “useful tool of orientation in education” but not “legally binding,” according to an official document.

Importantly too, Spain abstained this year from a vote to condemn Israel at the United Nations Human Rights Council. In 2018, it was the only EU country to call for an international investigation into the death of 200 Palestinians at the Gaza border, who were killed by snipers from the Israeli army. When the investigation was approved by the UN Human Rights Council, Spain’s ambassador to Israel at the time, Manuel Gómez Acebo, was called to appear before the Israeli Foreign Ministry to receive a formal complaint on the issue.

González Laya’s visit to Israel marks an important step toward improving relations, but it will not be a complete visit. Unlike her predecessor, José Manuel García-Margallo, who was received by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2015, González Laya will be received by the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. On Thursday, she will travel to Palestine, where she is expected to pass on a personal message from Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Silence on Catalan independence

Diplomatic spokespersons from Israel described the Catalan breakaway attempt in 2017 as “an internal issue that must be resolved by dialogue.” Back in 2013, the then-premier of Catalonia, Artur Mas, said that Israel was “the travel companion chosen by Catalonia at a unique moment,” during a speech at Tel Aviv University.

When the Catalan government approved a unilateral declaration of independence on October 27, Spain called on Israel to express its position on the subject. But it was five days before the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry published an official statement. This ambivalence was further heightened when President Rivlin visited Spain. At an official dinner hosted by Spain’s King Felipe VI, Rivlin opened his speech by saying: “Spain for us is one country and the majesty of the king is a symbol of this unity.”

This timid message was in stark contrast to the statement issued by the US State Department on October 27 that said: “Catalonia is an integral part of Spain and the United States supports the measures adopted by the constitutional government of Spain to maintain a strong and united Spain.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.


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