Spain, Israel, and the Fight over UNIFIL

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.”