(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would not accept the presence of peacekeepers in Lebanon from countries that don't have diplomatic relations with the state, officials said on Sunday.
The decision complicated efforts by the United Nations to form a 15,000-strong peacekeeping force to help enforce a truce that ended 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hizbullah.
The decision was made at a meeting of Olmert's inner Security Cabinet, meeting participants said.
"We will not agree that countries which do not have relations with Israel will participate in the multinational force," Olmert was quoted as saying by one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh - Muslim countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel - are among the only countries to have offered front-line troops for the expanded force.
Europe, which had been expected to lead the force, has been slow to make any firm troop commitments. UN officials have called on Europe to offer more troops to balance commitments from Muslim countries.
The UN cease-fire resolution does not explicitly give Israel authority to block countries from joining the peacekeeping mission, but it does say the force should "coordinate its activities ... with the government of Lebanon and government of Israel."
"Israel believes that it's best that we have the ability to be able to communicate with the international forces," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "As a practical matter, we would have a problem if the international forces don't have the ability to talk to us."
He said the composition of the force should be coordinated between Israel and Lebanon, just as the cease-fire resolution was.
Later Sunday Olmert asked Italy to head the United Nations peace force in Lebanon, and to deploy troops to oversee Lebanon's border with Syria, which is smuggling arms to Hizbullah, Olmert's office said in a statement.
The statement said that in a telephone conversation with Olmert, Italian Premier Romano Prodi said his country intended to send a "significant military force."
In an interview with Rome daily Il Messaggero published Sunday, a leader of Prodi's coalition said Italy would be willing to lead the proposed 15,000-member force if asked by the United Nations.
Regev also urged the wider international community to follow through on its commitment to provide troops, saying the cease-fire could be in danger if the peacekeepers don't quickly deploy.
"Words alone are not going to solve the Lebanon problem," he said. "We urge the international community to follow through on its commitment."
UN officials weren't immediately available for comment.
Lebanese leaders also have expressed concerns about the makeup of the peacekeeping force.
President Emile Lahoud said Saturday that nations with military ties to Israel must not be part of the UN peacekeeping force.
It was not clear whether Lahoud's position was that of the government. He is a political rival of the parliamentary majority, which backs Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
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