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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has secretly asked Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to keep his country in charge of the United Nations force in Lebanon rather than handing control to Spain as planned, causing chagrin in Madrid.

The issue, which has turned into a serious diplomatic incident, was expected to feature prominently in talks between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Spanish officials this week. It appears that Barak, who left for Spain on Sunday to discuss bilateral diplomatic and security-related ties, needs to provide a solid explanation for Israel's request if he is to avert a full-blown crisis.

In making the request of Italy earlier this month, Netanyahu sided with the Israel Defense Forces' argument that Israel should make an effort to keep Italy's Major General Claudio Graziano in charge of the UN Interim Force in Lebonon for at least another six months beyond the scheduled end of his term in a few weeks. The IDF said that though there was no problem with Spanish command of UNIFIL in general, the situation in Lebanon is very sensitive at this time and replacing the UNIFIL commander now is liable to cause difficulties in coordination and destabilize the situation.

The Foreign Ministry, however, said Israel should not get involved in the planned change in command, so as not to insult the major European countries that take part in UNIFIL - Italy, France and Spain, which are due to decide shortly who will be the next commander - and to avoid unnecessary friction. The ministry also said the issue involved a political struggle among the European countries that revolves around their international reputations and their roles in the Afghanistan war.

A Spanish diplomat questioned Israel's argument, asking in a conversation with Haaretz: "What does a 'sensitive period in Lebanon' mean? When isn't there tension in Lebanon? What kind of argument is this?"

Spanish officials were also angered by the initial concealment of the conversation between Netanyahu and Berlusconi, a lack of coordination between the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry and the wrong messages the Spanish government received.

Netanyahu adopted the IDF perspective, but kept his request discreet. However, it was so discreet that the Foreign Ministry didn't know what was going on. Italy told Spain that the Israelis, along with the Lebanese and the Americans, wanted to extend the Italian command of UNIFIL by six months. But when Spanish officials asked the Foreign Ministry for clarification, they got the wrong information because of the lack of internal Israeli coordination.

When the Spanish ambassador to Israel, Alvaro Iranzo, asked Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon to clarify the Israeli request, Ayalon - who had never been informed of Netanyahu's conversation with Berlusconi - denied that Israel was getting involved in the UNIFIL transfer of power. Israeli representatives in Madrid and the United Nations were instructed to make similar statements.