Accessibility links

Breaking News

Lebanon: Italy Sees Advantages In Leading UN Force

After pulling out of Iraq, Matarazzo says Italy needs to regain prestige in the Middle East (AFP) PRAGUE, August 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Italy says it is willing to head the strengthened United Nations force planned for southern Lebanon. But why has Rome stepped forward to take on a job that France, for example, appears to have spurned? And what conditions is Italy likely to demand for the mandate for such a force, and what makes Rome so acceptable to the main parties in the conflict?

To answer these questions, RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan spoke with Raffaello Matarazzo, who is a top adviser to the head of the Italian lower house of parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Umberto Ranieri of the center-left Olive Party.

RFE/RL: Why has Italy stepped forward to lead this force in Lebanon, which would clearly be a risky mission?

Raffaello Matarazzo: There are different reasons. The main one is that Italy is trying to regain a leading role in its main geographical area, that is, the Mediterranean region and the Middle East.

In the last few years, Italy, with the previous government, has had a more pro-American and pro-Israel foreign policy. The new center-left government is interested in acquiring a new role that is more focused on Europe and to be more active in the Middle East, including the rebuilding of our ties with the Arab world along with our ties with the government of Israel. This is why the new government believes that the strongly pro-American position of the previous government had weakened Italy on both the European and international scene.

So, by assuming a lead role in this conflict, the Italian government believes it can recoup some of these past losses. Besides, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, which was decided by the new government, risked weakening Italy on the international scene.

And you will recall that last year, there was debate regarding the reform of the United Nations Security Council, which involved the possibility of making Germany a permanent member of the council. This would have further declassed Italy on the European scene. Italy believes that taking on a lead role here can help it reacquire prestige and status with regard to the United Nations.

RFE/RL: Is part of it also because Prime Minister Romano Prodi, a former president of the European Commission, wants to see the European Union assume a leading role on the international scene?

Matarazzo: There is also this aspect -- that is, Italy, in Lebanon, believes it can incarnate at the highest-level European policy in the area, and strengthen it. In fact, Europe, with respect to the situation in the Middle East, has always displayed great uncertainty and division, and with regard to the crisis in Iraq, was profoundly divided.

This bid by the center-left government, which is profoundly pro-European and believes deeply in the initiatives of Europe -- as you said, Prodi is the former president of the European Commission -- is also about relaunching the role of the European Union through a markedly pro-European Italian presence in this area.

Italy 'Ideal' For Mission

RFE/RL: In some sense, Italy does appear to be ideal for this mission. It has experience in Lebanon, with soldiers there in the 1980s. And it has demonstrated expertise in military policing and peacekeeping, which has been seen in Kosovo and even in Iraq. What can you tell us about this?

Matarazzo: This is definitely true, in the sense that Italy through the years has developed this peculiarity of being particularly good at peacekeeping, more than at peace enforcement. Indeed, this aspect has characterized our military missions in recent years. In fact, we have seen that Italian military personnel in these kinds of situations have a particular attention, a basic sensitivity and ability to develop positive relations with the local populations, thanks to the basic background and training of our soldiers.

But then there is also a basically pretty good relationship that Italy has developed with the countries of the Arab world, and which the new government is trying to relaunch now. Indeed, Israel's interest in Italy taking the lead role in this probably comes also from this: from the fact that Italy has been balanced in its behavior toward the needs of the Israeli government and those of the local Arab populations, not just the people of Lebanon, but the Palestinian people. In fact, the Palestinian question remains the fundamental issue on which the whole matter can be positively dealt with.

RFE/RL: A propos of Italy's relations with the Arab world, is it true, as some media have reported, that Hizballah itself asked for Italy to assume a greater role in mediating in this conflict? After all, last week, when Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema visited Beirut, he met with, besides the prime minister and other top officials, Hizballah exponents as well as Nabih Berri, who is the speaker of parliament and as such, Lebanon's highest-ranking Shi'ite official.

Matarazzo: D'Alema didn't have a specific meeting in Beirut with Hizballah, but in the context of his talks with the government he certainly did not pull away from meeting with Hizballah representatives, who of course are legitimately elected. I must say, the Italian government, above all D'Alema, is trying to maintain relations with Hizballah because clearly, the ability to speak with all subjects in this extremely delicate phase, especially those who have been legitimized by elections, is key to resolving the controversy. We are of the opinion that we must try to speak to all subjects and that in this extremely delicate phase, dialogue should not be ruled out with anyone.

It is a basic approach that we have also toward Hamas, which was also democratically elected, and Hizballah. The attempt is to try to move these political forces away from their most extreme positions through a dialogue to try to understand their demands. Clearly, when these forces adopt terrorist methods or are subversive, of course our approach changes. But in this crucial phase, dialogue with everyone is fundamental, and I believe this is one of the reasons why Italy is being chosen for this role.

Italy, Israel Seeing Eye-To-Eye?

RFE/RL: In that sense, it's easy to understand why Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has welcomed the idea of Italy leading the international force. But in fact, it was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to publicly come out first and call for Italy take the lead role. How do you explain that?

Matarazzo: Essentially, for these same reasons, because the Israeli government has seen that Italy has been a protagonist in this crisis from the beginning, that it is very interested in reasserting itself in the region, that it's very interested in compensating for the pullout of [troops from] Iraq with another presence in that region that can give Italy a high international profile, and it's very interested in carrying out a role of mediation.

And even Israel knows that in order to do all of that, it is very important to have relations not just with the Israeli government, but with the Arab world. We know that at the moment, anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment has deepened in the region, and so even the Israeli government understands that a government that is more impartial and seeks to mediate, like the Italian government, can be ideal.

Perhaps Israel prefers Italy rather than France because French diplomacy, with respect to Italy's, has tended more toward the Arabs, and because France also has a postcolonial tradition of interests that make France less neutral.

Not Looking To Confront Hizballah

RFE/RL: Now, Prodi has said that he wants a clearer mandate for this international force, perhaps even a new UN resolution that clearly spells out the details. What kind of mandate does Italy need?

Matarazzo: First of all, clear rules of engagement on behalf of the United Nations. I don't believe that in this phase, precisely for the reasons I was explaining, that Italy is really interested in having heavy weaponry.

Of course, we must ensure the security of our soldiers on site and that there are no victims; that our soldiers are able to defend themselves and therefore, that they are well armed without ending up like the previous mission, UNIFIL, which not only had a lot of casualties, but turned out to be absolutely impotent.

I don't believe, however, that Italy will insist particularly on getting heavy weaponry or to have a particularly aggressive policy aimed at the demilitarization of Hizballah.

RFE/RL: Yet just yesterday [August 21], U.S. President George W. Bush said the final goal of the force should be the disarming of Hizballah.

Matarazzo: Certainly, this should be the final goal, because only the disarming of Hizballah can create the conditions for the security of Israel, which is key to peace in the region. But I believe this goal can be reached in steps.

In the initial phase, it will be key to reestablish a climate of cohabitation on the territory. By ensuring security in the area, the main goal of this phase would be to reconstruct the political conditions so that the much-weakened Lebanese government can reconstitute itself. It can do so with help from Hizballah.

If Hizballah can have a political role, I believe it will also be interested, with the help of diplomacy, in taking part in the gradual disarming of its soldiers. This might seem utopian politics, and of course it is a longer-term scenario; we're not talking about right now.

Now, the conditions for dialogue are so bad that we can't talk about this right now. But the goal of the force should be to help create the political conditions to rebuild the Lebanese government, in which Hizballah can have a role provided that it takes part in the disarming of its forces in south Lebanon.

RFE/RL: Nonetheless, this mission is very risky.

Matarazzo: The first risk is losing people. The fact that some young Italians can die is clearly the biggest worry of the government. That's why it was positive in the joint Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian Senate and Chamber of Deputies, the resolution to support this mission was approved by a wide majority.

The second risk is political: that Italy could take the lead of an initiative that ends up being sterile, ineffective, and repeats the failure of UNIFIL, which has been there since 1978 and was unable to resolve anything. Therefore, that Italy could be the protagonist of yet another failure in the Middle East, which not only would weaken Italy, it would weaken Europe, it would weaken the United Nations, and it would become a prelude to fresh violence that would be the worse disaster that could possibly take place.

Still, I believe that because of the different approach that the Italian government has so far shown, as well as that of the United Nations and Israel, which for the first time in its history has approved the presence of an international force in the area -- that there can be the conditions so that this mission is not a failure for the European Union or the United Nations.

Besides, we have arrived at such a dramatic phase here, one in which the security tissue of the whole area has come apart, that the chances of this conflict getting extended further, involving Syria and Iran, have increased with respect to the past. So, the margin for error now is less and the risks are much higher.

And this is producing an international commitment that wasn't there in the past. It seems there is now a widespread understanding, even in the U.S. and Israeli administrations, that we can't repeat the errors of the past. I believe all this presents the conditions that will enable this mission to be successful, and not a failure.

UN Peacekeepers

UN Peacekeepers
UN peacekeepers in Haiti in February 2006 (AFP)

MISSION In cases in which international intervention in regional conflicts is deemed necessary, peacekeeping missions authorized by the UN Security Council provide legitimacy by demonstrating the commitment of the international community to address such crises.

MANDATE UN peacekeeping missions are prepared, managed, and directed by the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The unique mandates of peacekeeping missions falls under the authority of the UN's Security Council and General Assembly, and under the command of the UN secretary-general.

MONEY Funding for UN peacekeeping missions is provided by UN member states. All are legally obliged to pay a share under an established formula. The leading financial providers as of 2006 were: the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, Spain, China, and the Netherlands.

MORE All UN peacekeeping missions share the goals of alleviating human suffering and creating conditions for self-sustaining peace. Missions can consist of armed or unarmed military components, depending on their mandate, and various civilian tasks.

Military operations can include:
· Deploying to prevent the outbreak of conflict or the spillover of conflict across borders;
· Stabilizing conflict situations after a cease-fire in order to create an environment for the parties to reach a lasting peace agreement;
· Assisting in implementing comprehensive peace agreements;
· Leading states or territories through a transition to stable government, based on democratic principles, good governance, and economic development.

HISTORY There have been 60 peacekeeping operations since 1948. Fifteen peacekeeping missions were in operation in mid-2006, employing more than 60,000 troops, 7,000 police, and over 2,500 military observers. Peacekeeping operations in 2006 were supported by uniformed personnel provided by 109 countries.

(source: UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations)


Middle East: UN Mulls New International Force For Lebanon
Georgia: Issue Of Russian Peacekeepers Heats Up
UN: U.S. Presses For Peacekeeper Deployment To Darfur