Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has canceled a November 4 and 5 visit to Spain amid a dispute over the command of the European-led United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The visit was called off after reports surfaced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had secretly asked Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to keep Italy in command of the 13,000-strong UNIFIL force for six months longer than planned, instead of allowing Spain to take over.
Italian General Claudio Graziano is scheduled to turn the command over to a Spanish general in February 2010. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz says Israeli officials want Graziano to stay on because they believe that replacing the UNIFIL commander now might further destabilize the already precarious security situation in southern Lebanon. The Spanish newspaper El País adds that Italian officials want to retain the command because it would be beneficial to Graziano’s career.
In any case, considering that Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero leads what is arguably the most anti-Israel government in Europe, Netanyahu is probably justified in having some misgivings about a Spanish-led UNIFIL.
Indeed, the unabashedly pro-Arab, pro-Hamas, pro-Hezbollah, and pro-Iranian Zapatero says the Middle East will be a top priority when Spain takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union in January 2010. Spanish officials now worry that a six-month delay in taking over the UNIFIL command will deprive Zapatero of a bully pulpit he believes will help him raise his profile in the region.
UNIFIL was first established in 1978 to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon; Israel had invaded the country in an effort to destroy Palestinian guerrillas and their bases south of the Litani River. After the 2006 Lebanon War, however, UNIFIL was expanded and essentially taken over by Europeans who were angry with U.S. President George W. Bush for his refusal to pressure Israel to halt its military retaliation against Hezbollah provocations.
At the time, most European leaders did not even pretend evenhandedness, and many waxed lyrical about “the disproportionate use of force” by Israel. By far the most vocal European critic of Israel was Zapatero, a self-described post-modern feminist pacifist who believes that “no counterterrorism offensive can ever be justified if it involves the loss of innocent human life.”
In an effort to prove his pro-Palestinian bona fides, Zapatero gave the keynote address at an anti-Israel rally in Alicante that took place during the war. After demonizing Israel for acting “illegally,” Zapatero famously allowed himself to be photographed wearing a Palestinian kaffiyeh. Pressed by critics who feared that Zapatero was inciting Spanish society, which has a well-documented historical predisposition to anti-Semitism, Zapatero said he did not regret posing for the photo and would do so again. Fair enough.
But both friends and foes believe that Zapatero’s increasingly erratic anti-Israel antics are undermining Spain’s international credibility. And indeed, the Zapatero government is becoming more radical in its anti-Israel bias.
Earlier this year, for example, a Spanish magistrate aligned with the Socialist Party attempted to prosecute Israeli officials for war crimes. In August, the Zapatero government paid for 40 Spanish activists to travel to Israel to rebuild Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem that the Israeli government deemed illegal and tore down in 2008. More recently, Zapatero’s Housing Ministry disqualified a group of Israeli academics from a solar power design competition (which is being sponsored by the U.S. Energy Department) because their university is in the West Bank.
But what about UNIFIL, where Spain has deployed around 1,000 troops?
Most analysts agree that UNIFIL’s mission has been compromised from the start. Although UN Resolution 1701, which brought an end to the Lebanon War in August 2006, is unequivocal in its call for an arms embargo, UNIFIL’s rules of engagement were deliberately muddled by countries like Spain to prevent the force from actively looking for Hezbollah’s weapons.
The lack of a clear commitment by UNIFIL to disarm Hezbollah is a shortcoming that Iran and Syria have been quick to exploit. They have rebuilt Hezbollah’s arsenal while Europeans have stood by and watched.
As early as October 2006, Terje Roed-Larsen, the special UN envoy for Lebanon, reported that “there have been arms coming across the border into Lebanon.” In April 2007, Walid Jumblatt, a senior Lebanese politician, told Al-Jazeera television that Lebanese security agents were helping Hezbollah guerrillas smuggle weapons across the porous border with Syria. In June of that year, Roed-Larsen again warned the Security Council of an “alarming and deeply disturbing picture” of “a steady flow of weapons and armed elements across the border from Syria.”
More recently, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) released a video showing Hezbollah fighters clearing munitions from the home of party member Abdel Nasser Issa in southern Lebanon, where a mysterious explosion took place on October 12.
But weapons are not the only item on Hezbollah’s shopping list. The group has also built an independent wireless phone network throughout southern Lebanon and in Beirut. And underground cables have been found running parallel to those of the state phone system, a development that could complicate intelligence gathering on Hezbollah during a future war.
This may explain why Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s ever-pompous leader, keeps boasting that he now possesses an arsenal of rockets that can reach “any corner” of the state of Israel, including Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, the EU has steadfastly refused to add Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations. EU officials say they do not have enough information to make a judgement one way or the other; they have even tried to justify themselves by saying the issue is legal, not moral, in nature.
But what explains European duplicity vis-à-vis Hezbollah? Fear, fear, and more fear.
Europeans are afraid to call Hezbollah what it is because they fear reprisals against European interests at home and abroad. Europeans are afraid that if they take a hard line against Hezbollah, their troops in Lebanon may be attacked. They are also afraid that Hezbollah (which is said to have operatives in every EU country) may activate sleeper cells to carry out attacks inside Europe. And Europeans are afraid of inciting the thousands of shiftless young Muslim immigrants in towns and cities throughout “Eurabia.” Indeed, the fear of angry Muslims is so pervasive in Europe that in practical terms Islam has already established a de facto veto on European foreign policymaking.
Fear also drives the European-led UNIFIL. In an entirely predictable turn of events, European peacekeepers sent to Lebanon as supposedly neutral observers have been converted into Hezbollah’s primary protectors, largely because Hezbollah guerrillas are now the primary protectors of European peacekeepers.
After six Spanish peacekeepers were killed in a bomb attack in Lebanon in June 2007, Zapatero started cooperating with Hezbollah to determine who killed the Spanish soldiers. Zapatero then went one step further and recruited Hezbollah and even Iran to safeguard Spanish troops, presumably as a way to safeguard his own job.
In August 2007, the Spain’s hapless foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, phoned Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and bizarrely praised Iran’s “constructive and effective role in resolving regional crises.” Moratinos also described as “positive” his personal relationship with Hezbollah.
As it turns out, Spanish intelligence agents met secretly with Hezbollah militants, who agreed to provide “escorts” to protect Spanish UNIFIL patrols. The quid pro quo is that Spanish troops must look the other way as Hezbollah rearms for its next war against Israel.
On the military level, analysts will be hard-pressed to say whether Italian troops are really any better or any worse than their Spanish counterparts. But on the political level, Netanyahu is saying that Italy is the least worst alternative to having Zapatero run the UNIFIL charade.