New dawn for Spain-Israel

By Daniel Leitch, December 1, 2011
A supporter of Mariano Rajoy celebrates his election victory last month

A supporter of Mariano Rajoy celebrates his election victory last month

Following the victory of the centre-right Popular Party in Spain's general elections last month, most eyes will be on the nation's fragile finances. Perhaps just as significant, however, will be a shift in foreign policy. New Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, a self-proclaimed Atlanticist, is widely known to be keen to rebuild bridges with Israel following a diplomatic cold war between the two countries.

Under Rajoy's predecessor, José Luis Zapatero, Spain's relationship with Israel worsened considerably. His strong anti-American streak led to a rather simplistic view of the Middle East, culminating in a series of tirades against Israeli policy.

In 2006, Zapatero was photographed wearing a Palestinian keffiyah at a rally, causing diplomatic concern. The gesture prompted accusations of "barely concealed anti-Zionism" from Popular Party officials. Rajoy, then in opposition, accused the Socialist leader of starting a "crusade against Israel".

In spite of historical ties with the Jewish people - recent DNA surveys suggest that up to 20 per cent of Spaniards have Sephardic ancestry - Spain's relationship with Israel has always been tense. Spain only formally recognised Israel in 1986, largely a legacy of Francisco Franco's dictatorship. Franco's obsession with a supposed Judeo-Masonic conspiracy led him to resist any moves favourable to Israel. Zapatero, a socialist, has been unable or unwilling to appreciate the irony of prolonging the right-wing dictator's hostility towards the Jewish state.

While it would be unfair to accuse Zapatero of antisemitism, his encouragement of anti-Zionism has done little to improve the image of Jews in Spain.

Numerous studies suggest that Spain is now the most antisemitic country in Europe. In 2008, The Pew Research Centre's Global Attitudes project found that 46 per cent of Spaniards held negative views of Jews, as opposed to nine per cent in the UK. This summer, the departing Israeli ambassador to Spain, Raphael Schultz, denounced the "antisemitism and hatred that exist in Spanish society".

So what can we expect from Spain's new leader? Rajoy's Popular Party has sought to re-invent the Spanish right. Any vestiges of Franco are long-gone and his government is keen to mend relations with both Israel and the US. Just a week after being elected, Rajoy put in a friendly call to Netanyahu after the Israeli Prime Minister sent him a congratulatory message on his election. The signs are positive.

Party spokesman Alejandro Muñoz Alonso has said that Spain must "recover the influence that it enjoyed not so long ago". Whether a rapprochement with Israel will lead to a warming of attitudes towards the country's tiny Jewish population remains to be seen.

Daniel Leitch is a former teacher and translator, and a specialist in Spanish politics

    Last updated: 12:10pm, December 1 2011