PALM BEACH, Fla. — In 2000, then-Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran.
“And I remember very well at the beginning of my conversation,” the now ex-prime minister explained to attendees gathered at the Temple Emanu-El synagogue to hear him speak last Tuesday.
He ” very clearly [said] in the first or second minute of our conversation, ‘We must to be friends [fight] Israel and the U.S.’ And I told him, ‘Excuse me, but I am in … the other side. I am not available.’”
Aznar wasn’t kidding.
As Prime Minister of Spain from 1996 to 2004, Aznar distinguished himself as a staunch ally of the United States in the war on terror. He also stood out as a supporter of the state of Israel and its right to defend itself.
Supporting Israel is not an obvious position for European politicians, much less Spanish ones. Polls consistently show that Spain is one of the most anti-Israel countries in Europe. A 2012 poll revealed that nearly three-quarters of Spaniards have a negative impression of Israel.
But Aznar’s support for Israel isn’t so much political as it is ideological. He sees the Jewish state battling on the front lines to protect Western civilization against Islamist terrorists who seek to extinguish it.
“If you stand with freedom, if you stand for Western values, you stand with Israel,” he said with a thick Spanish accent during his Tuesday speech.
“Defending Israel, we are defending the West. We are defending our way of life, our values. Simply put, we must to defend Israel if we want to preserve the West as we know it.”
Since leaving office, the 60-year old Aznar has expended much energy standing up for the Jewish state in the international community. In 2010, along with other non-Jewish world leaders and intellectuals, he founded the Friends of Israel Initiative (FOII) to counter efforts to delegitimize Israel in Europe and around the world.
Aznar still heads FOII today, where he is channeling the organization’s resources to, among other things, persuade the European Union to add Hezbollah to the European Union terror list and educate European and Latin American leaders about the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
According to Rafael Bardaji, the executive director of FOII who served as Aznar’s national security adviser while he was prime minister, most of the organization’s work is done behind the scenes.
“Ninety percent of the effort is just reaching out to current leaders of the world — and that is something that is not publicized, because of the nature of the conversation,” he told The Daily Caller, saying Aznar calls “at least one [world leader] a month, at least, if not more.”
Bardaji says none of the leaders associated with FOII, including Aznar, get paid by the organization for their efforts.
“Theoretically” he and Aznar live in Madrid, Bardaji said. But in actuality, “we live on a plane,” he quipped. For his part, Aznar says he visited the U.S. alone roughly 20 times last year. (His favorite city is Santa Fe.)
To be sure, Aznar has been involved in many other activities since leaving office, including serving on numerous corporate boards and associating himself with various think tanks. He also served as a distinguished scholar at Georgetown University and is now a distinguished fellow at Johns Hopkins University. But his pro-Israel activism is striking.
In 1995, Aznar survived a car-bomb attack perpetrated by the Basque terrorist separatist group ETA. But Bardaji says this searing incident doesn’t necessarily explain the former prime minister’s affinity for terror-plagued Israel.
“I think his views on terrorism were already formed before he suffered the attack,” he said. “Probably [Aznar] got reinforced that you cannot negotiate with terrorists, you cannot make an appeasement policy work vis-à-vis terrorism, but I don’t think the attack changed his thinking dramatically.”
During the question-and-answer session after his speech, Aznar was thoughtful but direct.
Asked why Europe has not yet designated Hezbollah a terror organization, he responded bluntly: “The word is fear.”
Questioned whether he believes in his successor José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s “Alliance of Civilizations,” which seeks to bridge the differences between the Western and Islamic worlds, he succinctly said “no” to great applause.
“I reject this idea,” he elaborated. “Appeasement is a big contagion. Every time, everywhere, for every government, appeasement is a big, big, big contagion.”
As for where FOII stands on issues like Israeli settlements, Aznar said world leaders tied to FOII have different opinions, and the issue is not among the “key questions” FOII focuses on.
“We are concentrated in the other questions,” he said.
Aznar says he made his first trip to Israel in 1995 as the leader of the Spanish opposition. While there, he met his first of many Israeli prime ministers.
“I paid a visit to Yitzhak Rabin in Jerusalem,” he said during his speech.
“When I walk into his office, he stood up to great me, at least what I thought at the time. Instead, he come closer to me and said very simply, ‘You expelled the Jews from Spain 500 years ago.’
‘I didn’t take that decision,’ I replied. ‘Can we be friends and talk about the future?'”
Rabin was assassinated soon after Aznar and he met. But Aznar’s friendship with Israel has continued on.