Catalunya-Israel: Jordi Pujol, Catalunya’s Nationalism and “Non-Official Relations”
- Jordi Pujol and the Jews: The origins of the relation
Although Catalunya is not an independent state, non-formal relations between the regional Government of Catalunya (Generalitat) and the Government of Israel have been persistent and active since 1986. One of those who has made possible this closeness is Jordi Pujol, President of the Generalitat of Catalunya between 1980 and 2003. Interestingly, Pujol studied at a private middle German Pro-Nazi school in Barcelona, because his father wanted for him an anti-ecclesiastical and laic education. Although growing up in such environment, Jordi Pujol always had misgivings against Nazism. Postures that were consolidated when he started college and better comprehended the atrocities perpetuated in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
But it is during his adolescence when Pujol begins to see the Jews as an inspiration through Zionism. As a Catalan, and because of the repression suffered during the Franco regime as a young student-Pujol was sent to jail for two years and a half because of his ideas- he learned that a conglomerate of people sharing ideals can stand up and claim their culture and language. Thus, they can also claim their national aspirations.
It should be remembered that anti-Semitism and the anti-Jews rhetoric was a constant the narrative of Franco’s regime. Similarly, Catalans were called the “Jews of Spain” under the fascist ruling, and suffered a strong repression. They were even forbidden from speaking catalan in public, just like Jews couldn’t speak yiddish in several European countries. This is why Pujol sympathized with the essence of the national aspirations of the Jews in Israel based on Zionism. This affinity was strengthened because of three main reasons: his personal closeness to the Tenenbaum family, the comparison that the francoism created between the Jews and the Catalans, and the struggle the Jewish people had to have a state after the Holocaust. David Tennenbaum was a Jew who arrived from Galitzia to Berlin but that with the rise of Nazism went to Gijón, Spain, and from there to Catalunya. There, he became a businessman and met Florenci Pujol-Jordi Pujol’s father. The interest of Jordi Pujol for Israel was so great that Mr. Tennenbaum recommended him Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat book and the biography of Chaim Weizmann. Pujol read those books, which caused a profound impact on him. (Jordi Pujol i els jueus, 40) .
His interest lead him to closely follow the diplomatic process in the UN which ended-up with the approval of the Partition Plan in 1947. In his memories, he explains that he was avidly listening to the radio when Israel declared its independence in 1948. In addition, he closely followed the development of the War of Independence of Israel in 1948 and the later conflicts that this country will have with its Arab neighbors. Like the Catalan socialists in exile, who during the 1950’s and 1960’s supported Israel and saw it as a socio-cultural-economic example to follow in the future, Jordi Pujol strongly believed in the existence of the State of Israel. (Jordi Pujol i els jueus, 55). That is why he considered essential for the Catalanism of the future to be based on reviving their culture, language and identity. Already in 1965, and in full clandestinity, Pujol wrote an article entitled “Israel” in which he praised that “the Jews evoked their past, history, language, culture and religion to create and shape a state, and that should be an example to the us” (Jordi Pujol i els jueus, 61).
- Jordi Pujol as the bridge between Spain and Israel
When diplomatic relations between Israel and Spain were established in 1986, Pujol was seen as a politician within the Spanish set to rely on. Moreover, Franco’s and post-transition Spain was very Pro-Arab. An example of this is that the Spanish Government President, Alfonso Súarez, met with Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, on September 13th, 1979 in Spain. All of this took place while Arafat was militarily supporting the Basque terrorist group ETA. This meeting showed that even though Spain was now moving towards a “democratic politico-social model”, their alliance with the arabs and the PLO-who at the time was considered a terrorist group the West- was an unbreakable vincle (“El presidente Suárez recibirá hoy a Yasser Arafat en Madrid”, El País). However, Pujol was key in the process of establishing serious and close diplomatic relations between Spain and Israel, and he even advocated for this to happen. In fact, a year before relations were established, Pujol made clear that if Spain wanted to enter the European Economic Community-what will later become the European Union- it should recognize all the countries that the members of this entity recognize (Pujol i els jueus, 102).
On July 10, 1986, Pujol held a dinner to celebrate the recently opened art exhibition “Art in Israel”, promoted by Baltasar Porcel, who was then President of the Association of Catalunya-Israel Cultural Relations alongside recently appointed Ambassador of Israel in Spain, Samuel Hadas. This dinner took place a few months after diplomatic relations were established with the accompaniment of well-known historian Joan Culla, a young Artur Mas-who would later become President of the Generalitat of Catalunya and one of the promoters of the current pro-independence movement of Catalunya-, among others. This supper took place in Casa dels Canonges-the official residence of the President of the Generalitat- where jokingly Jordi Pujol claimed “next year in Jerusalem”.
- The first visit of President Pujol to Israel
One year later, from May 5th to May 9th, 1987, Jordi Pujol visited Israel, accompanied by a delegation of about 90 people. Although Catalunya has no foreign affairs competences, in Tel Aviv he was received by the Spanish ambassador Pedro López Aguirrebengoa -who was a diplomat that the Israeli government did not trust much- and several other israeli cabinet members. Pujol was received like any other international leader.
An interesting detail is that although the President of the Canary Islands, Jerónimo Saavedra, had visited Israel a few months before Jordi Pujol, institutional support and relevant political figures met with Pujol and not with Saavedra. Moreover, Pujol’s visit had the support and consent of the Spanish Government. It is important to highlight that Pujol officially-during his 23 years mandate-visited Israel on three occasions with the purpose of promoting business, investment and cultural exchange: 1987, 1994 and 2003 (Jordi Pujol i el jueus, 108).
The first visit of Pujol sought to make Catalunya visible and to demonstrate that he was Pro-Israel -unlike a Spanish state that even after the Transition was still Pro-Arab-, and to prove that the people of Catalunya could have influence at the international stage. During his first trip, Pujol attended several conferences where he talked about how to invest and how to do business in Catalunya. During this trip, his delegation managed to establish a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Barcelona, and many Israeli companies showed interest in investing in Catalunya. Although it was already the Spanish region that exported the most to Israel, and more than 20,000 Catalans had already visited Israel in 1987, these sectors got strengthened after his visit.
This trip also achieved an agreement by which Israelis would help the Catalan government to establish the kibbutz model in certain areas of Catalunya and the Generalitat would provide Israelis with half a million fish from the Ebro River to repopulate the Sea of Galilee (Jordi Pujol i el jueus, 110). In this trip, there was also controversy, because during a dinner with the President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, the flag of Catalunya was not displayed. Although several members of the Catalan government left, Pujol stayed and during his speech to the Israelis he made clear that his presence in the Jewish State was to make Catalunya’s existence and history known. However, the cordial and elegant way in which Pujol said that was such that interestingly this was the main highlight from that dinner. During this trip, Pujol also met with Shimon Peres, who was then Minister of Foreign Affairs and whom he had met in private in a trip President Pujol did a couple of years earlier. He also met with Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, and then Minister of Industry, Ariel Sharon. Also, Pujol met with the mayor of Tel-Aviv, Shlomo Lahat and with other political leaders of Israel at the time.
Almost at the end of the trip, and during an international fair, Catalunya was mentioned alongside other countries participating in the event without being clarified that it was a region of Spain. This did not cause amusement to the Spanish ambassador in Israel, although he did not complain. Nevertheless, to Pujol this anecdote was very funny one. His subsequent visits to Israel in 1994 and 2003 had similar positive impacts-both politically and economically-on Catalunya. However, the moment of maximum exit came to Pujol on October 28th, 2007 when he was invited to the Knesset to give a speech after receiving the Samuel Toledano Award. This is a political addressing opportunity that is currently only shared with King Philip VI. Not in vain Pujol never visited the occupied territories during his repeated official trips to Israel.
- Catalunya – Israel relations after Pujol’s presidency
The first tripartite government of the Generalitat of Catalunya- post-Pujol era- broke with this particular political and diplomatic norm in the controversial trip carried out by President Pasqual Maragall and Josep Lluís Carod-Rovira in 2005. Maragall then met with Israeli President, Moshe Katsav, and Deputy Prime Ministers Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert. The two Catalan leaders also met with the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah (Maragall y Carod viajan a Israel y Palestina con una agenda marcada por el equilibrio). Despite of this, Catalunya and Israel maintained close and cordial relations.
- Israel and the recent growth of Catalan pro-independence movement
In more recent times, the arrival of Artur Mas-that young advisor of Territorial Policy and Public Works for President Jordi Pujol, who in 1986 participated on the dinner with the new appointed Israeli ambassador to Spain-brought back a more sympathetic position from Catalunya to Israel with regard to the conflict and many other issues. However, during this new scenario he would also bring with him a nationalist-pro-independence movement, after the failure of the 2006 Catalunya’s Statute Reform, and a Catalan government seeking support for their cause. So despite the fact that the pro-independence movement was in full swing, the visit of President Mas in 2013 gave a lot of international and domestic exposure to the pro-independence leaders.
The official agenda began by visiting-as Pujol did in 1987-the Weizmann Scientific Institute, in the city of Rehovot, where Mas signed a cooperation agreement (Cataluña e Israel: convenios políticos y negocios empresariales polémicos). He then traveled with a delegation of about thirty entrepreneurs and representatives from different research centers to establish links between the two governments, as well as to strengthen economic and knowledge cooperation, and trade relations in the field of technology. On his way back to Tel Aviv, the Catalan president gave a lecture titled “Catalunya, the center of knowledge in southern Europe”, at the School of Law of the University of Tel Aviv, where he made clear the pro-independence aspirations of his administration. He later visited Matimop, the Israeli national agency for industrial cooperation in I + D (Informe: Las relaciones económicas Cataluña-Israel).
Also, Mas met with Israeli Finance Minister at the time, Yair Lapid, in Jerusalem. On the last day in Israel, the Catalan leader was received by President Shimon Peres at the presidential residence in Jerusalem. There he made clear that “as in Israel, in Catalunya there is a people also determined to be free” (Mas pide el apoyo de Israel). This phrase was very controversial and the passivity shown by President Peres before these words, worried the Spanish press and government. The Catalan delegation also had the presence of the Mayor of Barcelona at that time, Xavier Trias, who met with the Mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, at a meeting also attended by the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Catalan Government, Roger Albinyana (Lamelas, El Periódico). Furthermore, before seriously considering moving forward with the independence process, President Artur Mas took two steps: he met with the United States ambassador in Spain and then he went to Israel in November 2013 (Las relaciones entre los gobiernos de Cataluña e Israel, cada vez más estrechas). By December, he sets the referendum date which was hold on November 9th, 2014. So at this point it is clear that President Mas sought support from the United States and Israel. Remarkably, based on the achievements of his trip to Israel, and the way in which he was received, it is likely that he got some support-especially from Shimon Peres. However, this is not the case with Benjamin Netanyahu, who is very close to former right-wing Spanish President, Jose María Aznar. Despite this, Netanyahu has had very ambiguous positions about what would be the Israeli position with regard to an independent Catalunya. Interestingly, the United States ambassador to the United Kingdom in 2013 compared Catalunya with Scotland-a year before the non-binding referendum- and declared that “if Catalunya becomes independent, the US and Catalunya will have to work together” (El embajador de EEUU en Londres afirma que si Catalunya se independiza “habrá que trabajar juntos”).
It would not be until 2014-a year before the Catalan pro-independence political parties won the Catalan Parliament elections with an absolute majority (Primor, Haaretz), when Santi Vidal, a former judge and member of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) party, said in a political event that Israel was one of the possible countries that could finance an eventual independent Catalan state (Escándalo en Cataluña: denuncian planes de crear una “NSA catalana” con Israel). But not only that, Mr. Vidal also stated that the Mossos d’Esquadra-the Autonomous Catalan Police- had contacts with the Mossad to receive advice about security issues (Campreciós, El Periódico). The Catalan Government denied the veracity of these declarations, and the former Senator of ERC submitted his resignation. It is important to highlight that Vidal filtered that the Catalan Government was collecting data from the Catalan people illegally to be used for a future independence referendum (El juez Santiago Vidal cree que Alemania e Israel financiarán la independencia de Cataluña). In the end, this turned out to be true and the Catalan government used illegally collected information of Catalans to organize polling stations for the referendum of self-determination that was made last October 1st, 2017 (Muñiz Gómez-b). Therefore, Vidal’s declarations cannot be entirely discarded. In one of his political rallies Mr. Vidal even went further by saying: “There is a non-European State that has offered to give credit to the Generalitat in case of independence, and there is a non-official agreement with two non-European investment funds to open a credit line up to €20,000 million in case the central government suspends the aid of the ALF (Autonomous Liquidity Fund) to Catalunya. Also, there is a foreign government, which is not European, who is currently forming a counterintelligence unit of the Mossos d’Esquadra” (Israel, EE.UU. y Alemania, los aliados de Cataluña).
Interestingly, it is during this period of time-according to several non-official reports- that security officers of the Generalitat of Catalunya kept visiting Israel constantly. However, the only visit that is being know by the media is the one made during the beginning of 2017 by the Mossos to meet with Mossad officials (Prensa hoy: Los Mossos se reunieron con el Mossad en Israel). This visit strengthened the theory that Israel might be helping the Mossos to create a counterintelligence unit in case that Catalunya separates from Spain (Los Mossos se reunieron con agentes del Mossad en Israel).
Perhaps this is why the former Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, was hesitant to allow the opening of Israel’s new Honorary Consulate in Barcelona. Maybe this also the reason of why the new consul was Antonio Sánchez Molina, a right-wing, anti-independence catalan attorney who is close to the pro-spanish bourgeoisie in Barcelona. The Israeli Honorary Consulate in Barcelona had been vacant since 1997 and to take over the delegation several names of people aligned with the sovereignist strategy were believed to be under evaluation by the Israeli Embassy in Spain, as Lluis Bassat-Jordi Pujol’s publicist-, David Madí – the right-hand man of Artur Mas- or Carles Vilarrubí, vice-president of the FC Barcelona. But the person chosen by Daniel Kutner, Israel’s ambassador to Spain and Andorra, and accepted by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is at the antipodes of the sovereignty movement. In fact, José Antonio Sánchez Molina has no sympathy for independence and during his youth he was part of an extreme right-wing group in Blanes, Catalunya (Puigdemont apuesta por Israel y Margallo bloquea el consulado honorario en Cataluña. Noticias de Cataluña). Mr. Sánchez Molina is a very active member of the Jewish Community of Barcelona, and a converse who joined the community because of his linkage with the Tarbut Shorashim. So evidently, the current diplomatic policy of the Israeli ambassador in Madrid and Andorra, Daniel Kutner, is very different from that of his predecessor, Alon Bar, who had made numerous gestures of sympathy towards the Catalan and Basque nationalist pro-independence sectors (Alon Bar: ´Hay muchos catalanes que piensan en Israel como un modelo´).
Despite the fact that in 2016, the current President of Generalitat of Catalunya, Carles Puigdemont, met secretly with members of the Jewish community in Barcelona and with the Israeli Ambassador, Daniel Kutner, to discuss the independence process he was leading, this meeting had no impact on the views of the ambassador with regards to the secessionist matter. So evidently President Puigdemont did not achieve the endorsement he wanted to obtain from Israel to the independence process (Val). In an email that I exchanged with Ambassador Daniel Kutner on October 2th, 2017 after the October 1st, 2017 self-determination referendum in Catalunya, he said that “Israel does not meddle in internal affairs.” This position has been reaffirmed by the Israeli government. On November 1st, 2017 Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry stated that “a peaceful solution should be encountered as soon as possible”. Despite of this, the ministry did not express what the Spanish Ambassador in Tel Aviv, Manuel Gómez-Acebo, wanted Israel to say, which was that Israel believed in a “strong and united Spain”. Mr. Gómez-Acebo wanted Israel to reject the self-proclaimed Republic of Catalunya as the United States, the United Kingdom and several other western countries had previously done.
It is important to mention that in December 2016, Spain voted in favor of resolution 2334 at the United Nations Security Council. This resolution condemned and declared illegal the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Even with regard to Jerusalem, Spain had not supported Israel in the UN and had previously supported resolutions who deny Jewish ties to the capital of Israel. This fact could explain why Israel has not energically rejected the October 27th, 2017 Independence Proclamation of Catalunya and has not publicly supported a “united and strong Spain”. Interestingly, during his visit to Spain between November 5th and November 8th, 2017, the current President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, just talked about how to stop the expansion of the BDS movement since Spain has more than 60 municipalities-of which stand out which Córdoba, Seville, Santiago de Compostela or Gijón-who support this anti-Israel initiative. Also, President Rivlin celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the reestablishment of the Jewish presence in Spain, and during his speech at the Spanish Senate he only mentioned that “Spain is a State, a single sovereign state entity, and all the problems it is dealing with these days are internal affairs” (El presidente del Estado israelí afirma en el Senado que España es una “única entidad estatal soberana”). Moreover, during his visit to Spain on November 21th, 2017-just three weeks after President Rivlin’s visit-Palestinian Authority (PA) President, Mahmoud Abbas, just limited to say that he supports the idea of a “united Spain” after Spain’s King, Felipe VI recognized that “Palestinians deserve their own state.”
This caused that a well-known nationalist pro-independence member of the Spanish Deputies Congress, Joan Tardà, questioned PA leader about his support to the “self-determination right that all the peoples of the world have.” In a letter, written in Spanish by Mr. Tardà to PA’s President Mahmoud Abbas, he said: “We urge you to reconsider your words and make prevail in your interests the struggle for human rights and the legitimate liberties of all oppressed peoples.” At the end of this letter Joan Tardà highlights the “fraternity between the Palestinian and Catalan people’s” (Tardà lamenta la “desconsideración” de Mahmoud Abbas hacia Catalunya). These two visits clearly show the different positions that Israelis, but also the Palestinians-who still desperately looking for more international support in favor of their cause-have with regard to the Catalunya issue. This is why President Abbas is ignoring the Catalan pro-independence cause while is more concerned in expanding the Palestinian support around the world especially among European Union members. Although 130 countries have already diplomatic relations with the PA, the support of countries such as Spain is immensely important for the Palestinians. Clearly, today, Israel prefers to keep an ambiguous opinion with regard to this political conflict while the PA wants to support Spain’s territorial status quo because evidently benefits their cause.
As has been seen along this analysis, the relations between Catalunya and Euskadi with Israel come from afar, and have been maintained throughout time. Before Catalunya or Euskadi becomes independent, relations with Israel should be strengthened. Israel would be a key ally, and from whom to obtain support in the international arena. Although Israel today considers the Catalan issue as “an internal affair” and the current ambassador of Israel in Spain has confirmed it, all these links between Israel and Euskadi, and Israel and Catalunya are conspicuous. Clearly the support of Basque and Catalan society today towards Israel is less because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and because of the current coalition government in Israel. Although all the aforementioned paradigms demonstrate that the ties between Israel and Euskadi, and Israel and Catalunya are unshakable. In the event that one of these two territories separates from Spain-even if it is done by unilateral routes-Israel most probably will decide its real position before such scenarios.