Politics & Policy

Eta Always Knocks Twice

There's no such thing as a trustworthy terrorist.

The Basque terrorist organization ETA declared a “permanent cease-fire” on Wednesday, March 22. No more bombs, no more killings–that is, if some conditions are met by the Spanish government. Is it believable? Well, that depends on how much confidence can be put in the word of a terrorist. This is not the first time ETA has declared a cease-fire. Each previous time, they eventually returned to their bombs and bullets. As it is, this current guarantee, this “permanent cease-fire,” is only a conditional one. ETA is exchanging peace for independence. The length of this cease-fire will depend on how eager the current socialist government in Madrid is to have it be permanent.

In a war, victory comes when one of the parties realizes that its goals are out of reach. ETA’s communiqué makes it quite obvious that the terrorists don’t take themselves to be in this position; they are in no way giving up. On the contrary, they reaffirm their goal of becoming a state independent from Spain.

Why, then, the “permanent cease-fire,” if their political objective is still being pursued? The answer is blatantly obvious: ETA has made this declaration because it believes it can best obtain its aims by leaving its weapons silenced for the time being. The terrorists have left violence aside, but not their weapons–nothing has been said about handing those over. There is no process of disarmament in sight because the government in Madrid is the side expected to be making the concessions, not the terrorists. The weapons will serve as a tool during the talks, and, if there is no final agreement, they will be put back to use.

ETA believes that the time for political processes has come due to the attitude of the current prime minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Zapatero has two qualities in particular that catch the eyes of the terrorists: First, he is an appeaser, as he demonstrated by running from Iraq just as the March 11 bombers demanded. He has shown himself to be more open to accommodation and negotiated solutions than to fighting back and holding firm; second, he has given clear signals that he is willing to give up on the Spain we have known since 1492, when the Moors were finally expelled and the nation was unified, to a Spain of a different shape. He is willing to move from a single, unified nation to a confederation of nations.

The ETA declaration arrived only hours after the socialist-dominated congress approved a new legal framework for Catalonian, declaring the region “a nation” and giving to it most of the powers we normally attribute to a nation state, including national symbols, a separated judiciary system, and foreign representation, among other things. While the socialist government has been desperate to get the cease-fire declared, purely for tactical reasons, and has been announcing it since January last year, ETA waited until the very moment Catalonia was granted the right to secede whenever the regional government in Barcelona wants to.

ETA is not a nihilist organization that seeks terror for its own sake. It has a political agenda, and its violent activities are always politically motivated. This declaration does not come because ETA feels it is losing, but because it sees that Zapatero’s government is weak, both politically and psychologically, and that it is ideologically sensitive to nationalistic forces in Spain. The government’s pride and image can be preserved if ETA will just engage in talks instead of terrorism. Then the right of secession for the Basque Country can be extracted.

The socialist government tends to think that we are in a situation similar to Northen Ireland. But this is a false and risky analogy. There is no Gerry Adams in the Basque Country. The leaders of Herri Batasuna (HB), the political arm of ETA with which the socialists are talking, have no real influence in ETA decisions. On the contrary, ETA governs the HB; they are mere puppets. Unlike the IRA, ETA is not convinced that terrorist violence is not an effective means, so there is no rejection of it–there is no willingness to reject their past and there is no willingness to ask for pardon and forgiveness.

ETA is not even seeking legitimacy since the current government, so eager to get the cease-fire, has been willing to accept HB as a normal political party. In reality, the leaders of HB provide nothing but ETA by a different name, manipulating and eroding the Spanish political system.

The socialist government supposes that the declaration by ETA will cajole their members into presenting to the Spanish a process of pacification. This, they think, will give them a clear electoral advantage, breaking the stalemate that all polls currently show. About one thing, Zapatero is right. The Spanish people have suffered more than 30 years of ETA killings, with a thousand dead, and they are looking for an end to the violence, once and for all. But he is wrong if he thinks that Spaniards are willing to pay any price to bring an end to this suffering. Dismembering Spain, which is what ETA is asking for, is a price too high.

The only way the current cease-fire will become permanent is if major concessions are granted by the Madrid government, and ETA is convinced that Basque independence is irreversible and near. ETA will win, and Spain will loose. And if the political talks fail, ETA will go back to its traditional policy of using car-bombs and other means of intimidation. For the terrorists, this is a win-win game.

Talking with terrorists risks too much and gains little, if anything. Zapatero, the accidental prime minister of Spain, has given up the only important thing for dealing with terror: the position that terrorists will not gain anything from their actions and threats, and that their violent efforts are futile. Zapatero is willing to sell Spain for a temporary peace, when he should be striving to totally disband ETA. That is the way to bring peace; there is no terror when the terrorist organization no longer exists–not when the terrorists say so.

Rafael L. Bardají is a fellow at the Strategic Studies Group (GEES) in Madrid, and a senior adviser to the former president, José María Aznar.

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