Endgame for the Spanish ETA

By now it is clear that the Spanish government is willing to pay the seller’s price for a declaration (suitable for framing, complete with certificate of authenticity) by the Basque terror group ETA, stating that it is going out of business, disarming, and calling it quits on a murder spree that has claimed 857 lives over the past half century.

ETA wants an amnesty for the killers and a parliamentary presence for their enablers that will allow true believers in the radical Basque nationalist cause to compete openly for power and political authority with negligible risk to their personal safety and of not getting what they want. The terms and details have all been worked out in clandestine negotiations that have been held regularly since even before ETA declared a “permanent, general and verifiable” ceasefire last January.

Now, with general elections approaching and polls showing the ruling Socialist party trailing by over 15 percentage points, it is in both sides’ interest to close the deal. Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is exiting politics, but wants to be remembered as Mr. Peace, and not for having piloted the Spanish economy into its death-spin. For its part, ETA would prefer an outcome that does not give the conservative Popular Party an absolute majority that allows them to snub the demands of Spain’s non-violent Basque and Catalan nationalists.

But those are actually secondary considerations. An ETA shutdown sequence would likely have minimal impact on the November 20 polls. A survey at the beginning of October indicates only 3.7 percent of Spaniards consider terrorism to be their country’s most urgent problem. A year ago it was in third place; now it has plunged to tenth. As a result, it will be that much harder for the Socialists to sell an amnesty to those Spaniards who bitterly cling to their simple-minded notions that the thing to do with terrorists is bring them to justice.

In fact, there might never be a better time for doing just that. The group is a sorry shadow of its formerly lethal self. The hit teams are on the run; the recruiting, training, bomb making, support, and extortion networks disrupted or dismantled by coordinated police action in France and Spain. ETA’s last murder was of a French gendarme who died in a shootout during a botched car hijack in France in March 2010.

Police believe the group has been whittled down to 50 or so militants and scarcely a handful have the training or experience to carry out selective assassinations or indiscriminate bomb attacks. Most of them are lying very, very low somewhere in France. The two women and a man now running the show are said to be moving every week from one safe house to another, never venturing out of doors or traveling in the same car. Operationally speaking, unless they abruptly decide to go the suicide vest route, ETA is history.

There is, however, a militant stratum of diehards inside ETA and on its fringes who argue that to throw in the towel now amounts to throwing away the political dividends that shooting people in the back of the neck has earned them. Recent events, however, suggest that both sides have committed to a series of endgame moves, in a bid to deflect charges of a sellout from the dissidents in their respective ranks -- hardline terrorists on the one side, and terrorism hardliners on the other.

This month, the Zapatero government has played its "say you’re sorry and all is forgiven" card, with its client media outlets revealing and playing up an encounter that took place in May between the son of the victim of a 1980 terror attack and a now regretful ETA hitman  -- who is not the killer of the man’s father. The son claimed he was not disappointed with the experience. “I saw a man who was aware of what he had done, and was asking for forgiveness. When you’re faced with something like that, you just can’t feel the hate anymore.”