Jaw-jaw is just a start

By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 12/02/07):

Ignacio de Juana has 25 brutal deaths on what passes for his conscience. He was one of Eta’s worst murder machines from the 1980s, caught and dispatched to prison. But now his long sentences are somehow deemed served, and he should, quite legally, be turned free – if the Spanish supreme court hadn’t suddenly tacked on a dozen, extraneous years for luck. So De Juana has gone on hunger strike. So another chapter in the book of global terror opens.

We were always taught to exalt jaw-jaw above war-war, of course, and perhaps Churchill was right in most of the cases that defined his time. But now things can seem very different. Now jaw-jaw, much too often, is what keeps the pot of war-war boiling.Take De Juana’s Spain, run by a soft-spoken prime minister who hopes that talk can end the long nightmare of Basque terrorism. Indeed, for a while, his cautious negotiation offered the appearance of hope. But then, a few weeks ago, a bomb went off in an airport car park, two civilians died – and everything has changed. A government that prided itself on its peacemaking skills has to snarl and posture instead. An opposition that appeared to be losing the argument is back in business. The great debate about terrorism – deal or no deal? – grows infernally complex again. This is Europe 2007, but the self-same issues fester far and wide.

See how those issues connect. José Luis Zapatero is prime minister of Spain, in part, because mass bombings on Madrid trains blew him and his socialists into office. They’d promised to bring troops back from Iraq. Stop the world, we want to get off? Most voters did. And Eta, the homegrown terrorist foe that had taken 800 lives over four bloody decades? One sort of peace led to another. Last March the remnants of Basque separatism were persuaded along the route trodden many years before by Gerry Adams. They declared a semi-demi-permanent ceasefire. They thought they’d found a perfect partner in Zapatero.

But one blast at Barajas terminal four probably put paid to that. It was a huge blast – and an obvious warning of more to come. You didn’t keep your promises, Eta proclaimed. You didn’t stop rounding up our men. You didn’t let prisoners like De Juana go free. You didn’t recognise our political wing. You just strung us along. Now you have to deliver.

There’s a degree of bravado here, of course. Eta chose negotiation because it was on its knees. Another government clampdown could well finish the movement as any kind of fighting force. But there is also – to breathe the truth that Madrid prefers not to heed – a flicker of validity to Basque disillusion. Had the peace talks actually started? No. Had terrorists who might have thought themselves safe from arrest been hunted down? Yes. Was recognition of Batasuna still held up by the kind of who-blinks-first questions that dog Hizbullah? Yes, irritatingly so. Were more charges pulled out of the woodwork to keep De Juana inside? Absolutely.

Process, what process? Anybody on the sidelines might reasonably conclude that, if the threat of violence is lost, then so is the pressure that brings governments to the table. Lay down your arms and we’ll string you along. Hang around for months and years, while your young fighters give up and marry and have children and lose interest, and you’ll lose in any case.

There’s the infernal bit, laid bare. Democratic administrations can’t talk while the armed struggle goes on – but nor can they easily deliver meaningful (hinted) concessions when the guns are laid aside. They are unreliable partners if they, and the people they represent, have too much to lose.

You lose if you are a riven Spain where scores of your own top people, judges among them, have been gunned down, if both victory and justice head your agenda. You lose if you are an Israeli government asked the hardest questions – about UN resolutions, and then Jerusalem itself. You lose if you are Sri Lanka, defending its hegemony against the Tamils. Governments setting out to negotiate want jaw-jaw while war-war goes on.

But once that conflict pauses, in exhaustion or hope, what’s left? The standard model for Madrid is Belfast, though it doesn’t quite work because most of the killing there was Catholic versus Protestant, and utterly remote from mainland British experience. We didn’t care enough. But make the war umbilical, where you yourself live, and what’s left? Inescapably, shamefully, democratically – not much but temporising delay. A protracted drama of jaw-jaw that ducks hard choices like De Juana – and panders to self-delusion. Talk doesn’t always do it. Talking to terror means delivering, too.