Barak Cancels Spain Trip Amid UNIFIL Leadership Crisis

Earlier this month PM Netanyahu asked Italy to remain in charge of UN Interim force in Lebanon.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak cancelled his scheduled visit to Madrid on Friday as tension grows between Israel and Spain due to a disagreement over the command of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

A top ministry official denied that the trip was suspended as a result of the diplomatic disaccord and said that Barak's schedule has changed due to an unforeseen emergency trip to Washington next week.

The Israeli embassy in Madrid and Spanish diplomatic sources confirmed the suspension of the visit, which was scheduled for November 4 and 5.

Following the reported speculations Barak phoned the Spanish Foreign Minister and said that the reason for the trips' sudden cancellation was due to the fact that he will be joining the Prime Minister on his U.S. visit next week.

Ministry officials confirmed the conversation and said that his Spanish counterpart accepted the explanation gracefully.

Earlier this month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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.

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.

Barak and Spanish leaders had been due to discuss issues including the command of the UNIFIL troops which include more than 2,000 Italian and about 1,100 Spanish troops.

Italian General Claudio Graziano is due to hand the command over to a Spanish general in early 2010.

Spanish media reports have claimed Italy wants to retain the command of the troops for longer than planned for reasons including Graziano's career interests.