Israeli defence minister cancels Spain visit

Madrid, October 31: Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak has cancelled a visit to Spain next week amid alleged disagreements between the two nations over the command of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

Barak was scheduled to meet Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and Defence Minister Carme Chacon during his two-day visit which had been scheduled to begin on Wednesday.

The visit will no longer take place due to “agenda reasons”, a Spanish foreign ministry spokesman said on Friday.

The Israeli embassy in Spain said in a statement that Barak had cancelled his visit “due to an unexpected trip” that he must make to the United States “in the coming days.”

This change in his schedule “has no relation with the reports in various media on the change of command at the head of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon,” it added.

Israel has asked Italy to try to remain at the head of the 13,000-strong UNIFIL force for at least another six months rather than handing over to Spain as planned, a senior Israeli official said in Israel on Thursday.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week called (Italian) Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and asked him to try to keep the current commander of UNIFIL Claudio Graziano in his post,” the official said.

Graziano’s term is due to end in a few weeks, with Spain slated to take over.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper said Netanyahu’s move turned into a serious diplomatic incident.

Spain will hold the rotating presidency of the European Union during the first half of 2010 and analysts say it wants to take control of UNIFIL in order to raise its Middle East profile during this time.

Asked about the affair on Friday, Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega denied there was any dispute with Israel and she referred journalists to the “clarifying press release” issued by the Israeli embassy.

She said Barak told Moratinos in a telephone conversation that Israel was “very pleased with the work of Spanish forces” that are taking part in UNIFIL and would be “very happy” to see them take charge of the forces.

About 1,000 Spanish soldiers are deployed with UNIFIL, making it the third largest troop contingent in the force after those from Italy and France.

UNIFIL was set up in 1978 to monitor the border between Israel and southern Lebanon. It was considerably beefed up in the wake of the 2006 war between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas.