Barcelona has suspended official ties with Israel over its violation of Palestinian rights. Barcelona mayor Ada Colau announced on February 8: “I have decided to temporarily suspend relations with the state of Israel and with the official institutions of that state — including the twinning agreements with the Tel Aviv City Council — until the Israeli authorities put an end to the system of violations of the Palestinian people … We cannot be silent.”
The Barcelona-Tel Aviv agreement was originally signed in 1998 in the context of the already moribund Oslo Peace Accords and included a twinning arrangement between Barcelona and Gaza.
Given the pathological sensitivity of the Zionist state to criticism and campaigns against its apartheid rule over the Palestinian people, even in quieter times this decision would have had an explosive impact.
However, coming as it does in the run-up to the May 28 election for Barcelona Council, Colau’s move has guaranteed that the Israel-Palestine conflict will now become an important factor in the contest, and in Spanish politics.
Critical decisions await the council. Should it try to reverse Colau’s decision and restore ties with a state condemned by the United Nations and Amnesty International for systematic violations of human rights?
Will major Catalan parties, like the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) and the governing Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) — that last year helped carry a Catalan parliament resolution describing Israel as an apartheid state — now run for cover when asked to act against it?
Early polling for the election shows a four-way struggle between Colau’s Barcelona Together (BeC), the PSC (her partner in the council administration) and the two pro-independence parties, the ERC and Junts (Together).
The last three forces reacted immediately to Colau’s decision, which was not voted on by the council, but implemented by mayoral decree.
She made the move at a press conference with representatives of the petition campaign “Barcelona with Apartheid NO, Barcelona with Human Rights YES”. The campaign was initiated by the Enough Complicity with Israel platform, enjoying the support of all of Catalonia’s trade union peak bodies and 100 civil associations.
Former PSC deputy-mayor Jaume Collboni, who had recently resigned from the position to concentrate on his election campaign, rushed into print the following day in El País: “Barcelona does not destroy bridges, and shouldn’t break with anyone. On the contrary, I commit myself to restoring the agreement with Tel Aviv. Our Israeli sister city is today a diverse, open, tolerant and progressive capital.”
Collboni was forgetful: in May last year, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Barcelona Council temporarily “destroyed bridges” with Saint Petersburg.
Junts mayoral candidate Xavier Trias sent Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai a letter expressing his “profound discomfort” with Colau’s decision, dubbed as “mistaken, electoralist and undemocratic” and “not reflective of the majority attitude of the people of Barcelona and Catalunya”. He promised to “normalise” relations with Tel Aviv.
The ERC, which is in competition with BeC for the Barcelona progressive vote, avoided criticising a decision that will be popular with many left-minded people and concentrated its fire on Colau’s “unilateral” decision-making.
It also pointed out that the petition of the campaign to suspend ties with Israel did not call for a mayoral decree, but for a decision by the whole council, and that the 3750 signatures needed had been gathered and a date for discussion set.
After some days of silence from the ERC-run Catalan government, foreign affairs minister Meritxell Serret stated that, while it “respected the decisions of other institutions” and maintained its compromise on the “very sensitive” issue of Palestine, her government would maintain Catalonia’s long-standing relation with Israel.
The only political force besides the BeC that celebrated the decision was the left-independentist People’s Unity List (CUP), presently without members on the council but with prospects of returning after May 28. The CUP greeted the decision as resulting from the campaign of pressure on a supposedly reluctant Colau.
Whatever the truth of that insinuation, it would have been hard for the mayor to act otherwise, given that Barcelona Council ombudsman David Bondia Garcia had brought down a judgement in November that counselled suspension of the council’s ties with Israel.
He also recommended that the human rights record of all other cities with which Barcelona is twinned be investigated.
The decree, which Israeli foreign affairs spokesperson Lior Haiat described as “reinforcement for extremists, terrorist groups and antisemites”, was greeted with joy by the Palestinian community in Catalonia.
Salah Jamal, a doctor and one of the founders of the community, remarked that “Colau has been brave”, adding that the twinning of Barcelona and Tel Aviv had achieved nothing.
He said: “If Israel doesn’t take notice of the UN or even the USA, will it pay any attention to Xavier Trias or Ada Colau? When the Oslo Accords were signed there were 20,000 settlers on the West Bank. Now there are more than 700,000.”
In its media release celebrating the decision, the Catalan Association of Jews and Palestinians Together said: “There have already been too many deaths so far this year and too many empty words about the two-state solution. It is time for the Catalan, Spanish and European governments to assume their responsibilities and put an end to the impunity enjoyed by Israel.
“Today, Barcelona has set an example. Let us hope that others will soon follow.”
For the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Colau’s decision recalled “those historic and brave councils who first imposed sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid”.
The counter-mobilisation of the pro-Zionist right followed immediately.
Isabel Ayuso, the ultra-liberal People’s Party (PP) premier of the Community of Madrid, appeared in Tel Aviv alongside Israeli President Isaac Herzog on February 13, boosting her jurisdiction as an unconditional friend of Israel and a “place of opportunities” for its foreign investment.
“We are not going to break relations with anyone, with any country, and much less with a democratic state like Israel,” she said. “This trip is on behalf of all the people of Madrid, of an open, tolerant, prosperous community that defends freedom and life above all else and does not want the decision taken unilaterally by the mayor of Barcelona to be seen outside our borders as a decision by Spain.”
The PP mayor of Madrid, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, rebroadcast the slander of the Israel-Spain Forum Alliance, announcing that Colau’s action “had an obvious antisemitic stench” and that he would suggest to Tel Aviv mayor Huldai that his city twin with Madrid.
Colau replied by calling criticism of the state of Israel as “more than legitimate” and saying her decision should not “be considered as discrimination against the Jewish people, because its target is a government, not a people or a religion”.
The reaction of the right provoked a counterreaction of support, led by a declaration initiated by the Progressive International and signed by prominent left figures from Spain and internationally.
The tensions over the issue between and within Catalonia’s parties have generated a stream of articles from Catalan sympathisers with “moderate” Zionism. For example, pro-ERC historian Joan Culla, after “exposing” Ombudsman Bondia Garcia in the February 14 Ara as a “notorious anti-Israeli activist”, dedicated the rest of his piece to “what about” arguments: What about the twinning of Catalan towns to places in Nicaragua? What about the repression of LGBTQI people in Barcelona’s Iranian twin city of Isfahan?
According to Culla, Colau’s move was “pre-electoral demagogy”, motivated by the need to embarrass the ERC and PSC and stem the loss of left votes to the CUP.
That’s certainly not excluded. But the effect on the Palestine struggle has been wholly positive. Gaza mayor Dr Yahya Sarray said in letter of appreciation: “Your recent decision to stand with the people of Gaza and Palestine has sent a powerful message of solidarity and support.”
After Colau’s announcement, PSC deputy mayor Laia Bonet demanded that the decision be brought before the 41-seat council. At the same time the parties of the right, including Citizens — for whom Colau’s decision was “shameful” and “ideological”, and the PP, for whom it “seeded hatred” — foreshadowed a motion to rescind it.
As the time of writing, the vote on Barcelona Council would be 10 BeC councillors in favour of endorsing the decision, 12 against (the parties of the right), with the PSC in two minds about the political cost of associating with them and ERC about that of supporting Colau.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]