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Spanish Parliament Endorses Plan for Talks with ETA

The Spanish parliament gave permission this week for the government of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to enter into limited discussions with the Basque terrorist group, ETA. This would not be the first time a Spanish government has held talks with ETA, but doing so openly would be unprecedented. The discussions can end nearly 40 years of terrorist violence in Spain is another matter.

Under the terms approved by Spain's parliament this week, Mr. Zapatero's government has a very narrow margin to maneuver.

The Spanish Prime Minister wants ETA to renounce violence before talks can begin. And those talks are only expected to deal with specific matters like the fate of Basque prisoners, not long-standing demands by the terrorist group for an autonomous country in the Basque regions of northern Spain and part of southwestern France.

But a research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, Serge Carrera, says just calling for an open dialogue with ETA, along with more peaceful, nationalist groups in Spain, is a departure from Spain's previous conservative government.

"They also think that they are clear- the government is clear that implementing more security solutions in the Basque country, or by simply not allowing people to express their political views which might be different from a unique unitarian state, may facilitate more long-term and permanent solutions," he said.

ETA has been blamed for the deaths of more than 800 people in a nearly 40-year campaign of violence.

Mr. Carrera joins other pundits and activists involved in the Basque debate in expressing doubt that Mr. Zapatero's call for dialogue will bring lasting peace to Spain. For one thing, the goals of the Spanish government and that of ETA are radically different.

Madrid wants the Basque country, which already has extensive self-governance powers, to remain part of Spain. ETA wants independence.

"Most of the goal and aims of this organization are rather utopian," he added. "The existence of a Basque country completely independent from the Spanish state, and even including the Basque country which is located in France, is quite unlikely."

Other experts argue that neither Mr. Zapatero nor ETA is in a good position to begin negotiations. That includes Jean Chalvidant, a French analyst who has written extensively on ETA.

Ideally, Mr. Chalvidant says, negotiations should take place when one or another side is in a position of strength. But ETA is at its weakest point since its founding in 1959, he says. More than 700 Basque fighters are currently in jail. Dozens of ETA leaders have been arrested in recent years under stepped-up crackdowns by French and Spanish police.

Mr. Chalvidant also notes that Mr. Zapatero's dialogue proposal is not supported by Spain's largest opposition group, the conservative Popular Party. So the Spanish prime minister, Mr. Chalvidant says, is also operating from a position of weakness.

And there are other reservations. Spokesman Joseba Alvarez, of the Batasuna Party, which is widely considered the political arm of ETA, guardedly praises Mr. Zapatero's initiative at dialogue with ETA.

Mr. Alvarez described this week's approval by the Spanish parliament for the government to talk to ETA as good news. But he said a lasting political agreement must include all political voices in the Basque country, not just those of ETA terrorists. He believes there should be a roundtable that includes them all.

Even if ETA agrees to Mr. Zapatero's terms for a dialogue it is unclear what the next steps will be. Analysts say the shaky peace accord in Northern Ireland involving the IRA terrorist group, for example, is not a model for Spain.

Mr. Carrera of the European policy institute says Spain must create its own model.

"I do not think that we can compare the situation of ETA with IRA to the extent that these organizations have different goals, different methods, different outputs, and different identities. So the plan and any settlement to solve this serious problem with ETA needs to be particular," said Mr. Carrera.

Some critics reject negotiating with ETA. That includes Francisco Alcarez, president of the Association of Victims of Terrorism, a citizens' advocacy group in Spain.

Mr. Alcarez said talking to ETA means legitimizing the attacks ETA has committed - its assassinations, its woundings, its kidnappings over the years. When it comes to ETA, he says, there is nothing to negotiate.

Mr. Chalvidant, the terrorism expert, also fears Prime Minister Zapateros initiative could prove disastrous, but for other reasons.

The worst-case scenario, Mr. Chalvidant says, would be if the Basque country is eventually allowed to secede from Spain. That could open up Pandora's box for other regions to make similar demands.

Whatever the outcome. it is certain that Mr. Zapateros proposal of dialogue with ETA is only the first step of a very difficult process.