José María Aznar and his friends, when they talk about Israel, often use the word “normal.” Israel is a “normal country,” they say, and ought to be accepted as normal, and defended as normal: a “normal democratic country,” or a “normal Western country,” with virtues and flaws like any other such country. This was a big Ben-Gurion word, too, about Israel. The father of modern Israel said some version of the following: “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.” And they do. But Israel is far from normal in the realm of world affairs. Normality seems some far-off, high goal.
Who is the aforementioned Aznar, and who are his friends? Aznar was prime minister of Spain for two terms, 1996 to 2004. He is something relatively rare in Europe (Western Europe, that is): a Reagan-style conservative. The friends we are talking about are, not only Aznar’s friends, but friends of Israel as well — members of the Friends of Israel Initiative, which Aznar started last year. The purpose of the group is to counter what its members regard as a campaign of delegitimization against Israel. They are committed to a “relegitimization.” The cause of the West and the cause of Israel are one, they say. And the fate of the West and the fate of Israel are the same. Aznar puts it bluntly, starkly: “If we let Israel go down, we all go down.”
The idea for the Friends, or FoII, as the group is often known, came in the first part of 2009. Two important things happened in that period: Barack Obama became president of the United States, and Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister of Israel (having served in that role before, in the 1990s). Obama was clearly the least Israel-friendly man to sit in the Oval Office in a long while. The U.S.-Israel relationship, on which so much depended, was in question. And Netanyahu? As a conservative and hawk, he would be a target for political and cultural elites around the world, and his country would be more unpopular than ever. Aznar recalls what he told his friend Netanyahu, right after the Israeli elections: “Be careful, because the world is looking for a new George W. Bush to blame for everything.” And “Bibi” was the obvious candidate.
With Israel looking increasingly friendless, Aznar decided to start his group. He did so with the help of his onetime national-security adviser, Rafael Bardají, who would become the group’s executive director. The two of them approached people they knew to be pro-Israel, along with some they weren’t so sure about. By Bardají’s estimate, about 70 percent of the people they invited to join, joined. Others were reluctant to take the risk of being associated with Israel. They did not want to be “stigmatized,” as Bardají says. He was disappointed in some of them, as happens in politics, and life.
The Friends are a diverse group, comprising statesmen, scholars, businessmen, and others. Václav Havel is a member. He, of course, is the Czech playwright, dissident, politician, and hero. He has long lent his support to unfashionable causes, including Cuban democracy. Another member is Alejandro Toledo, the former president of Peru. Still another is David Trimble, the Northern Irish politician who is now Lord David Trimble. With John Hume, he won the 1998 Nobel peace prize, for the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the “Troubles,” or seems to have done.
There are Americans among the Friends. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, for instance. And George Weigel, the Catholic intellectual who is the preeminent biographer of John Paul II. And Robert Agostinelli, a financial maestro based in Paris. Other members include Andrew Roberts, the British historian, and Marcello Pera, an Italian philosopher and politician.
When they started out, the Friends were eleven in number, a small but potent group. One writer, David Steiner, referred to them as a “minyan of former legislators, executives,” and so on. (A “minyan,” in Jewish law, is the number of persons required to be present before a religious service can be conducted.) One thing the minyan does not have is many Jews: There are maybe two of them (not that counting is seemly). FoII is conscious of being a non-Jewish group. They think they are more effective as such, or effective in a way that a Jewish group, or Jewish lobby, is not.
They had their first meeting on June 1, 2010 — the day after Israeli authorities stopped the appallingly named “Freedom Flotilla,” which sought to break the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza. The Friends of Israel were meeting in Paris, off the Champs-Elysées, and they heard the anti-Israel demonstrations outside. That reinforced the need for their efforts: the need to promote a greater understanding of Israel and its predicament, plus a greater understanding of the connection between Israel and the West at large. The Friends signed a thoughtful but firm “Statement,” their manifesto, making their claims and taking their stand.
So, what does FoII do? Their activities are both public and private. In public, they speak, write articles, debate, and engage in what goes under the general heading of “advocacy.” They do this particularly well. You may not think that the world needs another white paper, or another speech. But these things count, emboldening friends, persuading the unsure, and putting foes on the defensive. Also, the group arranges for people — parliamentarians, judges, journalists, and the like — to go to Israel, to see the situation up close.
The Friends’ main activity, however, takes place in private. This is “peer-to-peer contact,” discussions with those in power, or positions of influence, about Israel. Bardají says, “Thanks to the quality of the network we have, we can slip into various capitals,” to see whoever needs to be seen, to make whatever case needs to be made. For example, Latin American leaders such as Lula da Silva began a movement at the end of last year to secure a region-wide recognition of a Palestinian state. Aznar and some others jumped on planes to tour the capitals, explaining why such recognition, without a peace agreement, was a bad idea. The movement toward region-wide recognition was halted. Because of the Friends? They cannot have hurt.
One purpose of the Friends, to quote their literature, is to give courage to “political leaders who are pro-Israel by conviction, but feel stymied by the anti-Israel dispositions” around them. Another purpose is to “help all friends of Israel, primarily in Europe but also elsewhere, who currently find themselves isolated and disconnected.”
FoII is not a “closed club,” as Bardají says: It will get larger. Most of the “founder members” are from Europe, but there will be other recruits from Australia, Japan, India, etc. The West, in FoII’s view, is not so much a geographical concept as a political one, relating to values. One new member is another American, Donna Shalala, who served in President Clinton’s cabinet. Since 2001, she has been president of the University of Miami. Her politics are very different from, say, Bolton’s: She is a strong liberal Democrat. But she is united with her fellow members on Israel. (By the way, she is the daughter of Maronite Christians who immigrated to America from Lebanon.)
The majority of the Friends are right-leaning, although a figure like Havel, as Bardají points out, is “above politics.” Bardají says that the group will seek a greater political balance. And here we see how the world can take strange turns: Who could have guessed, in the middle of the last century, that a Friends of Israel group would be predominantly conservative, having to search out members on the left?
FoII operates on a shoestring, supported by private donations. There is only one full-time employee, and she is the only person paid. Aznar, Bardají, and all the Friends work pro bono. The group does not have formal ties to Israel. Originally, says Bardají, key Israelis were skeptical of the initiative, which surprised him. They wondered whether the group was sincere, whether it would have staying power, whether it would be effective. Now these Israelis appreciate what FoII has been able to do, by Bardají’s account.
Finally, we get to the question of motivation: What causes men such as Aznar and Bardají (nice Christian boys from Spain) to put themselves out for Israel? Presumably, it is not for the popularity, or the money. Both men say, of course, that they are putting themselves out, not only for Israel, but for themselves: for Europe, the West, and democracy. (Sounds almost like Henry V, true.) Bardají says that he would be loath to get too “Huntingtonian” about it, but he sees Israel “in the vanguard of a civilizational struggle.” Europe, he says, is not nearly awake enough to this struggle. Aznar emphasizes that he has always been for freedom and democracy, and the preservation of those values. That’s why he got into politics in the first place. He says that, from Morocco to Pakistan, which is a very long stretch of the earth, the only democracy, the only country that safeguards human rights, is Israel. That ought to matter.
When he was prime minister, Spain was remarkably — to some, refreshingly — pro-Israel in its policy. That has changed under Aznar’s successor, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. A keen Socialist, this PM runs one of the most Israel-hostile governments in Europe.
Aznar is one to note that the “world” — the world as represented in its “international bodies” — is prone to ganging up on Israel. This is “morally disgusting,” among other things. Consider some statistics from Eye on the UN. Last year, the United Nations took more “human-rights actions” against Israel than against any other nation: 145. In second place was Sudan, with a mere 50. Sudan’s government is genocidal. In third place was the “Democratic Republic” of the Congo. Then came Somalia. In fifth place was the United States. (North Korea did 20 places better.)
Against this kind of world, Aznar and his friends speak up. In a speech several weeks ago, he recited a credo of sorts — beginning a string of sentences with “I believe.” The first was, “I believe in Israel. And I am not ashamed to say it.” Neither are those friends. One of Aznar’s signature pleas seems terribly modest, and it relates to the concept discussed at the outset of this piece, normality: “All we want is a normal and reasonable conversation about Israel. Surely, that is not too much to ask.”