Spain and the Palestine Question

Spain and the Palestine Question
Upholding Support for Palestine Amidst Growing Relations with Israel

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Yasir Arafat with Felipe González

31 October 1993
Archivo ABC / Alamy Stock Photo
Luis Ramírez

Over the past half-century, Spanish-Palestinian relations have had a complex and multifaceted trajectory. From Franco ’s dictatorship to the modern democratic era, Spain ’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has evolved significantly, reflecting global dynamics and its own domestic concerns.

Spain’s Palestine Policy During the Dictatorship

To comprehend the present state of Spanish-Palestinian relations, it is crucial to understand the historical backdrop. During the Franco dictatorship (1939–1975), Spain’s desire to break its international isolation guided its approach to the Arab world. It did not vote on the Partition Plan on 29 November 1947; it had been excluded from the UN because of its proximity to the Axis powers during World War II . After 1945, General Franco used various “substitution policies” to break Spain’s isolation; he sought rapprochement with both Latin America and the Arab world (especially the monarchies of Jordan , Saudi Arabia , Egypt , Iraq , and Libya ). After the international rehabilitation of Franco in 1955, Spain rejected several Israeli offers to establish diplomatic relations. During the Cold War , Spain aligned itself with the United States to try to stop Soviet penetration in the Mediterranean Sea . After the 1967 War , Spain condemned the Israeli occupation of the Sinai , the Golan Heights , the West Bank (including East Jerusalem ), and the Gaza Strip . The Franco regime made an eventual diplomatic rapprochement with Israel subject to two conditions: the withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories and the internationalization of Jerusalem . During the October 1973 war , Spain prevented the US from using its military bases on Spanish territory to send armaments to Israel. On 22 November 1974, Spain voted in favor of UN General Assembly Resolutions 3236 and 3237, which recognized the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people and the Palestine Liberation Organization as their legitimate representative.

Engagement with the Question of Palestine, 1970s to the early 1990s

After Franco’s death, Spain sought to redefine its foreign policy approach, and its position toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict underwent a gradual transformation. The democratic transition in Spain in the late 1970s allowed for a more nuanced and independent foreign policy, which eventually led to a reassessment of Spain’s relationship with the Palestine question. After the electoral victory of the Union of the Democratic Center (UCD) in 1977, President Adolfo Suarez González adopted a more militant and committed foreign policy in which he called for the Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in 1967 and supported the national rights of the Palestinian people. On 13 September 1979, Suarez became the first European president to receive the president of the PLO, Yasir Arafat , a reception that generated strong protests from the Spain’s Jewish community.

Following the electoral victory of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in October 1982, President Felipe González Márquez stressed his support for a just and lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict within the framework of UN resolutions and international law. At the same time, Gonzalez made dramatic changes to Spanish foreign policy. Although Felipe González had been critical of Spain joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in May 1982, he revised his position once in power and called a referendum on Spain’s continued membership in NATO (this will take place in March 1986). At the same time, he actively worked for joining the European Economic Community , which occurred officially on 1 January 1986. Just 16 days later, Spain established full diplomatic relations with Israel, accompanied by a statement (the Hague Declaration ) reiterating its “non-recognition of any measures aimed at annexing Arab territories occupied since 1967, or at unilaterally altering the nature or status of the city of Jerusalem. Spain rejects the policy of building settlements in the occupied territories and demands their dismantlement as a first step towards the return of the territories [...]. The Spanish Government considers that the legitimate rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people, particularly that of self-determination, must be recognized and guaranteed.” The declaration supported a peace process based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 with the participation of the PLO.

During the first Spanish presidency of the European Economic Community, the Madrid Declaration was adopted on 27 June 1989, demanding “the recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, including their right to self-determination with all that this implies” and the holding of “an International Peace Conference under the auspices of the UN, an appropriate forum for direct negotiations between the parties involved (including the PLO), with a view to reaching a comprehensive, just and lasting solution.” In addition, the statement was strongly opposed to the fait accompli policies practiced by Israel and its attempts to unilaterally alter the status of the Occupied Territories through colonization and settlement construction.

The Madrid Conference was convened on 30 October 1991 in Madrid under the sponsorship of the US and the USSR and set the stage for subsequent peace processes, including the Oslo Agreement of 1993. The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, initiated in 1995, was another milestone of Spain’s new foreign policy. It issued the Barcelona Declaration , which stressed the need to turn the Mediterranean Sea into an area of peace, security, and welfare through political, economic, and cultural cooperation. It also asserted that the Euro-Mediterranean partnership was not intended to replace the Oslo Process “but to contribute to its success” by supporting “the achievement of a just, comprehensive and definitive peace agreement based on the Security Council resolutions and the principles set out in the letters of invitation to the Madrid Conference, including the principle of ‘land for peace.’” The Madrid Conference and the Barcelona Process contributed to the projection of Spain and strengthened it not only in the European sphere, but also in the Mediterranean area.

Spain’s Policy toward the Palestinian Authority

After the conservative Popular Party (PP) came to power in 1996, support for the Palestinian issue continued to be one of the cornerstones of Spain’s Middle East policy. Spain became one of the main donors to the Palestinian Authority . Spain’s commitment to assisting Palestinians in their development efforts was channeled through various initiatives. The Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) provided substantial financial and technical assistance to support Palestinian institutions and promote sustainable development. Additionally, Spanish NGOs have played an active role in providing aid and implementing projects on the ground, addressing the pressing needs of the Palestinian population. During José María Aznar ’s first presidency, Spanish diplomat Miguel Ángel Moratinos was appointed European Union Special Envoy to the Middle East Peace Process. Ambassador Moratinos played a relevant role in the Hebron Protocol in January 1997, the Wye River Memorandum in October 1998, the Taba Negotiations in January 2001, the Middle East Quartet in Madrid in April 2002, and the Road Map in April 2003.

Spain’s Alignment with US-Middle East Policy after 2001

However, the failure of the Camp David negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 provoked a turning point which resulted in a rapprochement toward Israel. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the Aznar government opted for the strengthening of relations with the United States and supported the US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. From then on, the Spanish government supported the Bush administration’s approach according to which the resumption of the peace process should be conditional on the fight against terrorism and the reform of the Palestinian Authority. In fact, the Road Map (30 April 2003) promoted by the Madrid Quartet stated that “a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will only be achieved through the end of violence and terrorism, when the Palestinian people have a leadership that acts decisively against terror and has the will to build an active democracy based on tolerance and freedom.”

Following the PSOE’s electoral victory in the 2004 elections, President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero appointed Miguel Ángel Moratinos as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation (2004-2010). During this period, Spanish support to the Occupied Territories increased considerably, reaching more than 100 million euros per year. The Spanish government, as well as numerous nongovernmental organizations, supported projects aimed at improving health care, education, infrastructure, and socioeconomic development in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The first crisis that the new Socialist government had to face was the victory of Hamas in the legislative elections of 25 January 2006, after which Moratinos demanded that the movement recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and approve the Oslo framework as a way of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in line with the positions of the Quartet. Following Israel’s Operation Summer Rains against the Gaza Strip (June – September 2006), Moratinos expressed his concern about conditions in Gaza: “The destruction of civilian infrastructure, such as the Gaza electricity plant, and the isolation of the Strip, give rise to fears of a serious humanitarian crisis among the already hard-hit Palestinian population. The Spanish government’s objective is to prevent and resolve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” However, after Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 – January 2009, the Spanish government modified the universal justice law. The principle of universal justice, enshrined in Article 234 of the Organic Law of the Judiciary of 1985 , established the competence of Spanish jurisdiction to try crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and terrorism committed abroad. In 2008, the Spanish National Court had admitted several complaints against Israeli military personnel accused of having committed war crimes. To avoid a crisis with Israel, the Spanish socialist government passed Organic Law 1/2009 , which limited the scope of this principle by requiring that the victims had ties to Spain.

After the electoral victory of the PP in 2011, President Mariano Rajoy reaffirmed Spain’s position on the Palestinian question. During the official trip of President Mahmoud Abbas to Spain in December 2012, Rajoy expressed his support for the formula of “two States living side by side in peace, security and prosperity” and asserted that this option “is something that has a historical and traditional character in Spain, which is supported by the majority of the Spanish population and all political parties.” Indeed, Spanish public opinion is clearly in favor of a solution based on the two-state solution, as evidenced by numerous surveys carried out in recent years. Although Spanish support for an independent and sovereign Palestinian state was reaffirmed on several occasions by Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo (2011-2016), development cooperation with the Occupied Territories was severely reduced as a result of the Spanish economic crisis.

Spain-Palestine Relations after 2011

The changes brought about by the Arab Spring in 2011 and the proliferation of regional conflicts had a negative impact on Spain’s attention to the Palestinian issue; Palestine ceased to be a priority for Spanish diplomacy. Probably the most important challenge that President Rajoy had to face was the application by Palestine in Autumn 2012 for an observer state status at the UN. After deep deliberations, Spain supported the candidacy of Palestine in accordance with its traditional position. Spain voted on 29 November 2012 in favor of the General Assembly Resolution 67/19 that accorded Palestine non-member observer State status in the United Nations. On 18 November 2014, the Congress of Deputies overwhelmingly approved a nonlegislative proposition presented by the Socialist Parliamentary Group in favor of the recognition of Palestine as an independent state. This initiative urged the government to “recognize Palestine as a State reaffirming the conviction that the only possible solution to the conflict is the coexistence of two States: Israel and Palestine. This recognition must be the consequence of a negotiation process between the parties that guarantees peace and security for both, respect for the rights of citizens and regional stability.” In spite of its apparent categorical nature, this bill made full recognition of the State of Palestine conditional on a consensus within the European Union, which will be difficult to achieve given the disparity of opinions among members.

During the presidency of the socialist Pedro Sánchez Castejón (2018-2023), the government has maintained its traditional support for the creation of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state with territorial continuity alongside Israel. However, it did not champion any significant diplomatic initiative to try to bring the parties back to the negotiating table, not least because Foreign Ministers Josep Borrell (2018-2019), Arancha González Laya (2020-2021), and José Manuel Albares (2021-2023) considered that minimum conditions were not in place to restore dialogue between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

Spain’s support for the Palestinian question has acted as a catalyst for projecting Spain’s image at the international level. Spain’s establishment of relations with Israel did not affect its commitment to the Palestinian question; as part of the European Union, it continued to champion various initiatives in favor of the peace process and the creation of a Palestinian state. However, the obvious contradiction in Spain’s foreign policy is that Israel’s intensive colonization of the West Bank, the Judaization of East Jerusalem, and the blockade of the Gaza Strip have not had any negative effects on Spanish-Israeli bilateral relations, even though they conflict with Spain’s support for a Palestinian state; the two countries have increased their cultural, political, and economic cooperation, particularly notable in the fields of trade and technology (security, defence, research, agriculture, energy, and the environment).

Spanish Civil Society and the Question of Palestine

Traditionally, Spanish society has shown solidarity and support toward the Palestinian question even though the size of the Palestinian community in Spain is quite small (estimated to be about 5,000). An overwhelming majority of Spaniards consider the Palestinians to be the weak part of the equation: an oppressed people fighting to re-establish their rights and to build an independent state on territories that have been occupied by Israel since 1967. This image was reinforced after the 1987 Intifada , which showed that there was a strong party that was occupying a weak party. In all those years, different surveys have also found that solidarity for the Palestinian question is greater among left-wing sectors; the right wing has clear pro-Israeli positions.

Spanish associations are supportive of Palestinian rights and demands. Various organizations and groups have carried out the important task of awareness-raising over the past decades by publishing documents; organizing campaigns; holding demonstrations; and inviting Palestinian politicians, academics, and activists to address Spanish public opinion about the Palestinian question. Very often, they have acted without coordination with one another, which has reduced the effectiveness of these actions. These organizations often “preach to the converted,” and their initiatives have had limited impact beyond their sympathisers.

Within the sphere of civil society, three particularly important initiatives have emerged. The first consisted in the official creation in 1991 of the Comité de ONG sobre la Cuestión Palestina [NGO Commission on the Palestinian Question] by solidarity groups from different regions in Spain, though it had already been in operation for some years. Its aim was to strengthen the presence of Spanish civil society before national institutions and in the international forums. This group sent delegations to the area to find out about the situation on the ground and has issued reports to raise awareness among Spanish public opinion and strengthen relations with progressive Palestinian NGOs carrying out projects in the fields of health, agriculture, and water.

The second initiative has been the creation of the Grupo de ONG por Palestina [Group of NGOs for Palestine] in 2001. The group is constituted as an informal coordination of NGOs from Plataforma 2015 y más [Platform 2015 and More] and the Federación de Asociaciones de Defensa Y promoción de los Derechos Humanos [the Spanish Federation of Associations for the Defending and Promoting Human Rights], which are active “in the field of cooperation with development and solidarity with the Palestinian people and the application of their inalienable rights.” It is made up of nine organizations that have a long presence in Palestine; they have set up around 100 cooperation and humanitarian projects focusing on different areas including health, education, human rights and prisoners’ rights, rural development, gender, water, and sanitation. To support a just peace, they promote international law, human rights, and democratic values and help to institutionally strengthen civil society in the region.

Another initiative is the Red Solidaria contra la Ocupación de Palestina [Solidarity Network against the Occupation of Palestine] or RESCOP. The network, which was created in 2005, is made up of 36 associations and consists in an open, flexible working structure of Palestine solidarity organizations throughout Spain, and is designed to unite their efforts and work together to achieve their aims. To that end they have set up solidarity campaigns, such as the ones held on the occasion of Nakba Day and Land Day . The network is a member of the European Coordination Committee for Palestine and the campaigns Stop the Wall and Boycott Divestment Sanctions .

Selected Bibliography: 

Algora Weber, María Dolores. Las relaciones hispano-árabes durante el aislamiento internacional del régimen de Franco (1946-1950). Madrid: Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, 1995.

Álvarez-Ossorio, Ignacio and Isaías Barreñada, eds. España y la cuestión palestina. Madrid: Los libros de la Catarata, 2003.

Barreñada, Isaías (coord.), José Abu Tarbush, Ignacio Álvarez-Ossorio y José Antonio Sanahuja. Entre España y Palestina: revisión crítica de unas relaciones. Barcelona: Ediciones Bellaterra, 2018.

González García, Isidoro. Relaciones España-Israel y el conflicto de Oriente Medio. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2001.

Moratinos, Miguel Ángel. “El Cuarteto de Oriente Próximo: el papel de la Unión Europea y la implicación internacional en el conflicto.” In I. Álvarez-Ossorio (ed.), Informe sobre el conflicto de Palestina. De los Acuerdos de Oslo a la Hoja de Ruta. Madrid: Ediciones del Oriente y el Mediterráneo, 2003.

Neila, José Luis. España y el Mediterráneo en el siglo XX. Madrid: Sílex, 2011.