Zapatero's Basque Problem in Spain

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Rumor has it that in the years that he pursued the leadership of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), some party barons referred to now-Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero as "Bambi," mocking his apparent softness and naivete. But he quickly shed the nickname with his stunning come-from-behind victory in the March 2004 elections, and his firm handling of the economy and of such complicated challenges as gay marriage, gender equality and Basque and Catalan nationalism. The grandson of an army captain executed by Franco's fascists at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, Zapatero, 46, appeared to have a firm hand on the tiller and a sympathetic mix of youthful confidence, open disposition and fresh ideas.

When the separatist Basque terrorist group ETA announced a "permanent cease-fire" in March of 2006 after prolonged behind-the-scenes preparatory talks between representatives of the Basque Socialist Party (an affiliate of the PSOE) and Batasuna (ETA's political ally, which has been declared illegal by the Spanish Courts), Zapatero appeared to have lucked out once again. Now, he could be the leader who finally put an end to the 40 years of pain, violence and nearly 1,000 deaths that the war with ETA had brought.

The consensus among analysts was that ETA was on the ropes after years of police action and political pressure, and that's what had prompted it to seek a negotiated solution. The same devastating al-Qaeda bombings in Madrid on March 11 that had helped bring Zapatero to power had also turned even many of ETA's traditional supporters decisively against terrorism. So, when ETA announced its cease-fire on March 22, 2006, Zapatero seized the opportunity and opened talks with a group hitherto shunned by the Spanish authorities.

An optimist by nature, Zapatero underestimated the opposition he would encounter in Madrid from the Popular Party of former Prime Minister José María Aznar as well as ETA's resilience, while overestimating the influence Batasuna's political leadership could wield over the band. Already, last summer, there were signs that the process was stagnating — vandalistic attacks by young ETA supporters continued in the Basque Country, while negotiations were plagued by difficulties in agreeing on terms for talking. Still, last December 29 Zapatero boasted that on the ETA question, "we are better off than one year ago, and one year from now we will be better off than today." Whether out of hubris or naievete, the prime minister had mortgaged his political future to ETA.

The very next day ETA planted a bomb at Madrid's Barajas airport, killing two people. At the time, the group issued a patently absurd denial that the attack had broken its own cease-fire, but this week's announcement by ETA that it has suspended the cease-fire only rubber-stamps what everybody in the Basque Country and many in Spain already knew. As Spain awaits his response to the crisis, it appears that the well-intentioned Zapatero has been duped by the extremists. He may well recover and strike back. For that he will need to recover whatever political instincts — and sheer luck — brought him to power. For the moment, Zapatero, who went into the process with ETA lacking a Plan B, looks like a deer frozen in the headlights.