Israel’s Links with Basque-Catalan Nationalism (3)

Between January 1974 and May 1977-one month before the first democratic elections after Franco’s death-Euskadi’s Government in exile and the BNP requested and obtained military training from two Israeli captains belonging to elite units. The contacts were made by Primitivo Abad Gorostiza, who had a long military career. He was a commander for the gudaris (Basque soldiers) during the Spanish Civil War, and amid World War II he was integrated into the Basque Brigade, fighting alongside American troops. From January 9 to February 6, 1974 Primitivo Abad visited Tel Aviv to take, as head of the Solidarity of Basque Workers group (SBW), a course on labor and cooperative issues taught by the Histadrut- the General Confederation of Workers of Israel.

But their mission, was really different. According to the indications made by the powerful BNP leader Juan Ajuriaguerra, he must contact Israeli soldiers who are willing to train paramilitary commandos who, under the guarantee of the Basque Government, will be sent to Israel. Through Josu de Arenaza, member of Buru Batzar (National Council) of the BNP in Vizcaya, Abad  comes in contact with captain Yair Dori Yussif. This military captain belonged to an elite unit of parachutists of the Israel Defense Forces (Nacionalismo vasco-Estado de Israel: Historia de unas relaciones secretas-c).

       Captured two years earlier in the Sinai by the Egyptian army, he was the sole survivor of a special commando composed of fifteen members. After eleven months of being in captivity, and because of the successful mediation performed by the Red Cross, he was exchanged for several wounded Egyptians soldiers. At this point, the Basque emissary communicated to Dori the purpose of his mission, indicating that in addition to training commandos in Israel itself, there is a possibility that he and other Israeli military commanders selected for training will have to go to the French Basque Country. Abad assures “not to use the knowledge acquired for other reasons than the national freedom of Euskadi” (Lisbona, 261).

       On February 6, Primitivo Abad had a meeting in Paris with the Basque Government President, Jesús María de Leizaola. He transmits the acceptance of Captain Yair Dori to carry out the requested mission. The lehendakari approves and goes even further by stating that in the near future he will make efforts to establish, even if unofficially, informal relations with the Jewish State. Eight days later, Abad asked Juan Ajuriaguerra, Joseba Rezóla and Luis María Retolaza to have a meeting with the captain in Paris to which the Lehendakari himself will attend. The meeting is set to take place in the French capital on April 8th, 1974. In that meeting participated Yair Dori- who had just arrived from Tel Aviv-, Lehendakari Leizaola and Mikel Isasi. The latter had been a liaison between the youth of the BNP and EKIN, the incipient group of ETA, and had some military knowledge since in the early sixties he had participated in a course organized by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.

       The Basque leaders explained the Israeli captain that it is unknown how are they going to leave clandestinity, that they believed that a state of violence will appear after the dictatorship, and that before that happened they wanted to have a series of commandos that could maintain public order. Dori must select other Israeli officers in order to help him. In the beginning, he contacts three other captains, also belonging to elite units. Together they prepare a program for a two weeks-long course. In subsequent contacts, Abad reports that the best date to carry out the first “military session” will be August, and that the size of the group to be trained will be of fifteen or twenty people.

       The Region of Vizcaya counted already with 19 companies with 103 fighters each one. The training place was going to be the BNP’s party house in Bayonne. Since it was a small group, Yair Dori Yussif decided to move with only two other captains. It is proposed to travel from Tel Aviv to Paris by plane and to take a train from there to Bayonne. However, at the end of July 1974, by request of the Basque nationalists, the trip was postponed. Franco’s sudden illness make them cautious before launching into such an operation. In addition, the general assembly of the BNP to be held on July 6 was postponed until September or October. In any case, Captain Dori is informed that his help is important to them and that they will contact him soon with new information (Nacionalismo vasco-Estado de Israel: Historia de unas relaciones secretas-d). 

       Additionally, the BNP was immersed in a serious economic crisis, and therefore the delay was accepted. The treasury of the BNP and the Basque Government couldn’t afford to hire the Israeli military at that time. After several contacts by letter and after more than a year, in September 1975, Abad communicates to Dori that all the mechanisms have been put in place again to carry out the postponed mission. Throughout October, Ajuriaguerra, Retolaza, Isasi and Abad himself, began carefully selecting the personnel who would participate in these training sessions. On December 7th 1975, seventeen days after Franco’s death, Ajuriaguerra asked Abad to contact Dori and to expedite his transfer to Bayonne. He added that he was being asked about the possibility of a short visit to the Basque Country to gain field knowledge and to better comprehend its peculiarities.

       It seems that from the earliest contacts, the Basque resistance within the francoist Euskadi had expressed its desire that Dori and his men move there to show their commitment with the Basque resistance. On December 17th 1975, the Israeli captain replies that he is willing to move on any date, alongside another commanded of equal rank called Marcos G. and who has no problems with going to Euskadi. Finally, on February 15th, 1976, the green light is given. 

       The purpose of the course was to teach some specific military techniques that they knew could be transmitted to the future Basque government’s security/military forces. For all this, they wanted some extensive knowledge on issues such as forms of recruitment, commitments that they should accept, smaller number or unit cell, square, section, company, etc. Also, geographical distribution of these units in populations of 300,000 people and in villages of 10,000 people or less, materials to be use, means of acquiring them, etc (Lisbona, 233-239).

       Yair Dori and Marcos G. stayed in Bayonne from February 15th, 1976  until March 6th, 1976. There, they trained a group of 18 people including: Primitivo Abad, Mikel Isasi, Antón Ormaza (President of the BNP’S Buru Batzar in Vizcaya) and José Luis Irurita, also a member of Buru Batzar. Juan Ajuriaguerra and Luis María Retolaza personally attended two training sessions. On the 16th and 17th of March the two Israeli captains visited the Spanish Basque Country, although after many hesitation, as they feared a possible arrest in a state that does not maintain-at that moment-diplomatic relations with Israel. Moreover, the delicacy of their mission makes them more suspicious of the journey.

       Anyway Yair Dori asked Abad if the president of the Basque Government in exile contacted with Israel to formalize their relations. From Jerusalem, Abad makes two telephone calls to Jesus Maria de Leizaola, urgently asking him to appear at the Israeli embassy in Paris to “secure the captains” and to explain “the motives of the trip.” (Lisbona, 250). The lehendakari even visited the diplomatic delegation twice, but he himself realizes on Friday May 13th, 1976 that the whole operation has been short-circuited. In Euskadi, 5 people were killed the day before after a terrorist attack was perpetrated. The operation ended up being a failure. Abad, Irarita and Emeldi left Israel on May 19th. Less than a month later, on June 15th, 1977, in the first national elections, the Basque Nationalist Party obtained eight seats. Juan Ajuriaguerra and Xabier Arzalluz became members of the Spanish Deputies Congress during Spain’s Constituent Assembly (Lisbona, 252).

  • The maintenance of the relations from then to nowadays

A “National Home”, so called by the Founding Congress of Zionism in Basle, and later by the Balfour Declaration (1917) (Brenner), is what Basque nationalism wanted and wants for Euskadi. For Basque nationalism the ideas of Theodor Herzl – the Sabino Arana of Basque Nationalism – and its design of a Jewish national state are enriching and very useful. But one of the key elements to learn from Zionism is the common language Jews established in Eretz Israel. For the BNP and Euskadi’s nationalism in general, it is desired to apply the Israeli experience in the recovery of Hebrew within the current borders of Euskadi and beyond (by this I mean Euskal Herria) (Lisbona, 262).

       Thus, between 1978 and 1979 contacts began with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Later in the mid-1980’s, the Basque Government’s Education Minister and spokesman, Pedro Miguel Etxenike, traveled to Israel together with his deputy minister and professor of Linguistics, Koldo Mitxelena, to study and learn the Israeli teaching techniques with the objective of its possible application in Euskadi. As a result of this visit, Israeli specialists in education travelled to Euskadi and signed a collaboration agreement with the Basque Government within the context of a program of technological innovation in education. But Etxenike, in addition to his contacts in Israel during the years he was the Ministry of Education and Culture, he will establish another type of ties in an area that he knows perfectly well because he was  a recognized professor of Physics: nuclear energy (Lisbona, 275).

       Also the Minister of the Interior, Luis María Retolaza, had a close friendship with the Israeli professor of Nuclear Physics, Yavin Avivi. While Etxenike travels to Israel, Avivi visits Euskadi. In June 1981, a large delegation of experts from the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and officials from the Dimona nuclear power plant in the Negev moved to Euskadi to advise on issues of interest to the Lemoniz nuclear power plant project. One of the issues that most interested the Basques was the plant’s security. While the leaders of the Basque Government were trying to reduce the importance of these “nuclear” contacts, authorities in Madrid did not wanted to ignore what was happening in Euskadi.

       On one occasion, alarmed by the large number of visas requested by Israeli citizens bound for the Basque Country, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs requests authorization from the Presidency of the Government, to instruct its consulate in Jerusalem to reduce the flow of  ‘scientific’ trips to Spain. The relations between the BPN and Israel continued, and once leading the Basque Government from Euskadi, secret contacts between both sides continued. In 1980, Spain’s Ministry of Interior, prefers British and German security forces to train the future members of the Ertzaintza. Nevertheless, Luis María Retolaza, Euskadi’s Minister of Interior, was interested in asking the Israel Defense Forces to train the new Basque security forces.  

       The Israelis are little used to train the future Basque police-Ertzaintza-, but instead the services of the Mossad and the Israeli military are requested in 1983 to form the Ekintza, an elite corps of the Erizaintza created, above all, to help the Basques create a Basque intelligence entity. This petition was made in April 1986. Some Basque agents of the Ekintza were housed in a kibbutz during their instruction. During this time, the entire leadership of the Basque Government were great admirers of Israel: Luis María Retolaza, counselor; Eli Caldos, Deputy Minister of Interior; Juan José Arrizabalaga, Deputy Minister of Security; Sabino Arrieta, Deputy Minister of Administration and Planning; and Genaro García de Andoain, delegate of Housing Affairs. Some of them had even traveled to Israel several times, sometimes in secret and sometimes not.

       Another issue that has always interested the BNP-who has controlled the Basque Public Institutions since the transition-is the health field. Israel’s health organizations enjoy of great prestige around the world. So the Basques fell in love with Israel in this field too. One of the most successful journeys is the one made by Andoni Monforte in the mid-1980s as a health advisor to the Basque Government. The official reason for his visit to Israel was to get closer to the various cardiovascular research advances the Israelis had achieved. But in reality the trip had two other “secret” reasons. The first to know how Israeli scientists could help in studies on the high percentage in the Basque population with the RH negative factor. The other reason was to contact the Israeli security services to find convergent points of collaboration between the police security forces of Israel and Euskadi. Some of the Basques’ requests are rejected by the Israelis. Let us not forget that Mossad also collaborated closely with Spain’s old intelligence agency-CESID (Lisbona, 293).

    On July 16th, 1994, Basque Nationalist Party President, Xabier Arzalluz, moved to Israel to head a delegation composed also by Aguirre Arizmendi, Senator Caballero Laskibar and Congressman Ollora Ochoa de Aspuru. The motive is to explore the possibilities of reaching an agreement with ETA through a similar process like the one Israel and the PLO carried out weeks prior to the agreement reached in Oslo in August 1993 (Lisbona, 297).

       Arzalluz was also interested in the procedure used to begin direct negotiations, as well as the lengthy decision-making process followed by the Israeli Government. The president of the BNP arrives to meet with Israel’s Prime Minister at the time, Isaac Rabin, and with one of its man of confidence, the architect of the agreements of Oslo, Yosi Beilin. A book on the Jewish people, The Compromise , conditions Xavier Arzalluz on the conception of the world towards Basque nationalism. Since then he has always confessed that he has good friends in Israel. Today, relations between the BNP, which, like Center and Right-wing Catalan nationalism have captured the political scene of their respective peoples, are limited to certain commercial and business agreements, and institutional visits. An example of this is the visit made by the current Israeli Ambassador to Spain, Daniel Kutner, who visited on February 9th, 2016 Euskadi’s current Lehendakari, Iñigo Urkullu, in Vizcaya (+ Eusko Jauralitza-Gobierno Vasco).

About the Author
José Lev Gómez has a BS in Neuroscience with a Minor in Israel Studies from the American University in Washington, DC. He has interned at the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico, at the College Republicans National Committee and The David Project in Washington, DC. In addition to his interest in Spanish politics, diplomacy and security issues in the Middle East, José has worked as coordinator of events related to Israel for American University Hillel and as an events assistant for the Center for Israel Studies at the American University. He recently completed a diplomatic internship at the Iraqi Kurdistan Delegation in Washington, DC. In addition to collaborating with this newspaper, José writes for Diario Judío (Mexico) and has written for newspapers such as El Nuevo Día (Puerto Rico), El Vocero de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico), Latino Rebels (United States) and Red Alert Politics (United States). José is the author of two books: "Panorama Internacional: Una mirada a la geopolítica e historia mundial (2016-2017)" and "Puerto Rico: El nocivismo del insularismo y el colonialismo", and he completed his final project in Israel Studies on the "Relations of Israel with Basque and Catalan Nationalism. Jose is fluent in 5 languages.
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