15 NOVEMBER 2009


A Beirut daily reported late October that Lebanon supported an extension of UNIFIL Commander, Major General Claudio Graziano after the expiration of his term in December. A "big power" was not keen on his replacement, the report added. It was obviously a planted story. UNIFIL questions are usually confined to a limited number of interested parties in the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Office, or UNIFIL officers regularly visiting Beirut (like General Graziano, for example). Around the same time an Israeli daily reported that the Israeli military would prefer to keep the Italian General at least six more months. Prime Minister Netanyahu, the report went on, had called his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi for that purpose. Like in Lebanon, UNIFIL questions in Israel are handled by a limited number of sources, like the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Office, and UNIFIL visitors to Israel (like General Graziano, for example).

The confusion that followed was complicated by the knowledge that Spain, a major contributor to UNIFIL, was ready to name a replacement to take over from the enterprising incumbent. With no government yet in Beirut, it was left to an "official source" to stress that the matter of UNIFIL Command was a matter entirely up to the U.N. Secretary General. Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV noted what it described was "the suspicious international silence" as the Israelis "found themselves encouraged to interfere even in issues supposed to be internal for the international organization." On the other side, an Israeli Foreign Minister Office announced: "We have no preference regarding UNIFIL Command. We will cooperate with any commander." Its Defense Minister Ehud Barak had to prepare his answers as he was heading for a scheduled visit to Madrid -- which was eventually cancelled. In Rome, a Foreign Ministry official assured everyone that there was "no Italian conspiracy."

The rotation of UNIFIL Command had been established since the Force was set up in March 1978, in implementation of resolution 425. Lt. General Emmanuel (Alex) Erskine, of Ghana, was followed by Lt. General Callaghan of Ireland and General Vadset of Norway. During the war of the summer 2006, a French General was in charge. When a meeting was held in Rome to explore the options of international supervision, Prime Minister Romano Prodi worked for establishing a UNIFIL strategic unit at U.N. Headquarters, to be headed by an Italian (mainly to undercut French influence which was in charge of both UNIFIL Command in Naqoura and PeaceKeeping Operations in New York). Another push under Prime Minister Berlusconi got another Italian General to take over, also in Lebanon -- reversing the 2-1 setup. In effect, Italy, on its own and as a proxy, took full charge of UNIFIL. The "supervision" of the then French head of PeaceKeeping, the irrelevant, bungler Guehenno, was limited to almost ceremonial visits with more time spent in Beirut than in the "area of operations." A new PeaceKeeping chief, Alain Le Roy, who is displaying a more effective presence, was accompanied by a refreshing interest of the European Community, including France, in maintaining contact with all factions in Lebanon and ensuring a practical approach to implementing Resolution 1701. When after two years it was time for the Italian General to go, a rotation was normally expected. General Graziano has done an excellent job. He kept his political balance in a very difficult situation. However, there is no question that Spain is a formidable candidate. Its U.N. credentials have been confirmed over the years, particularly during its effective memberships of the Security Council, and especially under the leadership of one of the most experienced diplomats at U.N. Headquarters, Ambassador Juan Antonio Yanez-Barnuevo, former Director of the Spanish Diplomatic Academy and second time Permanent Representative. Its European role will be highlighted further by its Presidency of the Union as of January 2010. Its peacekeeping performance is unblemished. Its Mediterranean involvement unquestioned. Its link to the Arab world and to Israel are historic. The Commitment to Lebanon vividly proven by the sacrifice offered by its dedicated soldiers in defense of Lebanon's sovereignty. With all due affection to our jovial Italian friends, the designation of a Spanish General to Command UNIFIL may not be to the liking of one pompous ambassador in Beirut, but it will certainly be overwhelmingly welcome by the grateful people of Lebanon.

The sooner that confusion over UNIFIL Commanding Officer is over, the better -- not only for Spain, Italy and UNIFIL -- but, most important, for the U.N.'s own reputation.