Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat- Philippe Douste-Blazy is scheduled to visit the Middle East on the 6th, 7th, and 8th of September for the first time since his appointment to the Foreign Ministry in June 2005. In his first interview with the Arabic media, the French minister spoke exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat on all the region”s burning issues, from Palestine and Israel, to the Lebanese-Syrian situation, Iraq, and the Iranian nuclear program.
(Q) This will be your first visit to the Middle East region, what are your expectations?
(A) First, allow me to say that I am delighted about my upcoming visit to this region of the world, which I hope finds peace as soon as possible. The evacuation of the settlements in the Gaza Strip is a good thing. We welcomed this brave decision and its speedy implementation far from any real problems; however, it is only an initial stage. It is an important step toward the revival of the Road Map because the commitments both parties agreed to prior to the withdrawal are yet to be fulfilled. This is how both parties feel, and it is time to address tangible issues.
We feel that Israel should freeze its settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and should find a solution to the issue of the isolating wall in accordance with international law. This is essential if we are to move toward the establishment of a viable Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders. The land this state is to be established on must be preserved. We feel that this matter highly concerns Israel, which is entitled to security and peace. For their part, the Palestinians must enforce their control over fundamentalist groups and must seek radical reform.
France is in favor of convening the international peace conference stipulated in the Road Map for the sake of re-launching the peace process. As I recall, the Road Map stipulates that two peace conferences be held. It would be best to pursue these conferences but with as much pragmatism as possible, meaning step after step forward. The first step has been taken and it is only natural to move on to the next step. We must not be excessive in calling for action while doing nothing at all. We are convinced that this is a historic moment, and I wish to commend Israel on its brave decision, and the Palestinian officials on the collective sense of responsibility they demonstrated.
(Q) There is a prevalent feeling among Palestinians that we are on the brink of a third intifadah, because while finalizing its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel is rushing to impose its control over the West Bank to the extent that the latest settlement projects in the Jerusalem area would effectively split the West Bank into two parts. What should be done at this point, and how can this scenario be avoided?
(A) We have to be careful about rumors. The only good policy is that of tangible steps. We understand that the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip should constitute an initial stage that must be followed by other withdrawals from the West Bank in the nearest time possible. This is what the Road Map dictates. The Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is meant to bring us closer to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, which would guarantee Israel”s security. Since we are on this subject, I wish to say that we strongly condemn all Israeli settlement expansion activities in the West Bank. We believe that the withdrawal will energize the peace process; therefore, the peace alternative must be revisited following the important step that is the Israeli withdrawal.
(Q) What can France do to revive the Road Map? Moreover, what role can the European Union play?
(A) What is important today is for the Palestinian Authority to be at the head of a high-quality administration that provides the kind of services expected from state organs, services such as security, justice, education, and so on. Every population has its good days and its bad days, and when times are rough, the deprived segments of society reach out to fundamentalist parties, some of which capitalize on the suffering of the people. We therefore find it natural for the PA to receive assistance in establishing state bodies, and I am convinced that this assistance is in the interest of both the Palestinian and Israeli sides. We feel that PA President Mahmud Abbas is on the right track. Both France and the European Union can help the Palestinians in various areas, such as the construction of vital infrastructure like the seaport, airport, and others.
(Q) Can you help find a solution for the issue of border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Egypt in light of Israel”s desire to maintain its control over them and Palestinian fears that such control would enable Israel to seal them whenever it wants?
(A) If I am to head to this region, then I will do so in order to talk to both sides and increase international involvement in the search for a moderate resolution to this conflict. The finalization of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is not the solution to every single problem, but it is an important turning point that must be followed by more steps.
(Q) Will you ask that the Quartet (United Nations, United States, EU, and Russia) to convene?
(A) The members of the Quartet are in agreement with one another. I wish to say that we back (Quartet special envoy) Wolfensohn”s plan, and that our views on how to help the Palestinians build the infrastructure in the Gaza Strip are incorporated into Wolfensohn”s plan.
(Q) Can you reassure Palestinians that France understands their fears with regard to settlements and the wall?
(A) I already said that we condemn all settlement expansion activity and believe that the withdrawals that began in the Gaza Strip must be concluded in the West Bank.
(Q) Is Israel more responsive to you now that French-Israeli relations have improved?
(A) You are aware of the friendship between France and the Arab countries, just because we are friends with the Arabs does not mean that we cannot establish a relationship with Israel based on friendship and respect. It is important that our ties be strong with both parties.
(Q) How would you evaluate the recent developments in Lebanon, especially the arrest of former and incumbent top security commanders?
(A) We learned of the opinions of a number of Lebanese security commanders during the course of the international investigation being conducted by Judge Mehlis into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri. We support the international fact-finding commission that was mandated by the UN Security Council to shed light on this crime. The UNSC will examine the final report to be presented by Mehlis, and will draw its on conclusions when the time comes. We have shown great interest in the commission”s provisional report, and we are satisfied with the commission”s progress and the good cooperation it received from Lebanese authorities.
The report also made mentioned the cooperation of Jordan and Israel, but noted insufficiencies in Syria”s cooperation, hence compelling the UNSC to call on all parties, especially the uncooperative ones, to cooperate with the investigation. According to the provisional report, Syria”s failure to cooperate has greatly hindered the investigation; we noted this failure and called on Syria to cooperate.
(Q) Speaking at a UNSC session held the day before yesterday to examine the steps and measures taken by Mehlis, the assistant secretary general of the United Nations said he was saddened by Syria”s refusal to cooperate. Honestly speaking, how can Syria be persuaded to cooperate?
(A) First of all, we are well aware of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad”s recent statements to the German Der Spiegel magazine, in which he emphasized that Mehlis can question whomever he wants in Syria. We would of course like to see these words translated into actions.
(Q) Meaning that you are wagering on good Syrian cooperation?
(A) We trust Judge Mehlis, who is set to present his final report to the UNSC. In the meantime, I cannot say much more because the report is yet to be finished.
(Q) Some Lebanese question the Lebanese judiciary”s ability to try the suspects and fear the negative consequences this report could have on Lebanon”s stability. Do you support the concept of establishing an international court for trying these suspects?
(A) It is still premature to talk about publishing the results of the final report to be prepared by the Mehlis led commission, or about the possibility of establishing an international court to try the suspects. We must first see the report.
(Q) Last Monday, President Chirac reaffirmed France”s commitment to UN Resolutions 1559, 1595, and 1614. Concerning the first resolution, Hezbollah refuses to disarm in the manner stipulated by the resolution, how do you think this resolution can be implemented?
(A) I wish to say that Terje Roed Larsen, the United Nations special envoy for the implementation of this resolution, and with whom I recently met, has the complete trust of the UNSC, and, naturally, that of France. We will definitely be interested in the report he will present to the UNSC this October. As for the disarmament of Hezbollah, I wish to say that our goal is to disarm militias, just as it is the goal of Resolution 1559. We want this resolution to be implemented in all its provisions. It goes without saying that Hezbollah should be disarmed as part of a Lebanese agreement on political integration. We must give them adequate time, for only a country has the resources to accomplish this, meaning that we must help Lebanon strengthen its institutions. Our top priority today is to help the Lebanese Government face up to the challenges before it and facilitate the strengthening and modernization of Lebanese institutions. The Lebanese Government should obviously be given time to achieve reform, especially economic reform.
(Q) Some speak of diplomatic contacts with Israel in a bid to convince it to withdraw from the Shab”a Farms in order to rob Hezbollah of its excuse that it will not disarm so long as these farms are occupied. Are you aware of any such contacts?
(A) No, France is committed to two principles: First, a country”s sovereignty over its land, which is important in Lebanon”s case, because we believe that no country has the right to interfere in the domestic, political, and military affairs of another country. Second, we feel that democracy alone is capable of pushing matters forth and changing them. Look at what happened in Lebanon, who would have thought a year or six months ago that free elections would be held or that such a majority would be formed? This is democracy, and it is vital that we let the Lebanese accomplish economic and then political reform.
(Q) Three short questions on Lebanon: Will you visit Beirut?
(A) You know how much President Chirac cares about this region of the world and how well he knows it. When he feels that my going to Beirut is beneficial, then I will go.
(Q) Has a date been set for the international conference on economic assistance to Lebanon?
(A) We have to discuss this matter with the Lebanese authorities and the international community. A lot has happened in Lebanon during the past three months and it is vital that we give the Lebanese ample time to set a well thought-out reform plan, for there is nothing worst than imposing readymade plans on countries. Lebanon is a great country with history; the Lebanese people are a great people and should be told what to do. Let us wait for the Lebanese Government”s economic reform plan, and let us hold talks with it and the international community.
(Q) Can you reassure the Lebanese during these hard times that France will stand by them?
(A) We must help Lebanon now more than ever because the coming months and years will be decisive. If the Lebanese government lives up to expectations, then the international community will have to offer it considerable assistance, and I am confident that the international community will answer the call.
(Q) How would you describe your relations with Syria? Moreover, what are you asking of Syria in return for normalizing these relations?
(A) France is determined to see the objectives set by Resolution 1559 being met, meaning the reinstatement of Lebanon”s sovereignty, which is also the demand of the international community. France is not pursuing any hostile objectives in Syria, and does not oppose the establishment of exceptional Lebanese-Syrian relations, but these relations must exist between two independent and sovereign countries, and must also be balanced.
(Q) Some wonder about the reasons for the deterioration of relations between you and Damascus, can these relations return to normal?
(A) This is not how we view the matter. We are the Lebanese people”s friends, and we are committed to this friendship. You know that the French president enjoys old relations with Lebanon, which has just as much right to be independent and sovereign as any other country. Resolutions have been passed by the UNSC; all we are doing is backing these resolutions.
(Q) Does this mean that the nature of your relations with Syria hinges on Syria”s conduct towards Lebanon?
(A) This is exactly what I mean.
(Q) We know that France has worked to delay the signing of a partnership agreement between Syrian and the EU, are you still opposed to this signing?
(A) Signing a partnership agreement is a lengthy and complex process. With regard to Syria, the matter is in the hands of the European commission in charge of this affair. The commission will decide whether or not to press forth with preparations for the signing. This is the conventional approach; the matter is a European affair, not a French one.
(Q) There is a widespread feeling that the opportunity to prepare an Iraqi draft constitution was a wasted one. You spoke a few days of the need to preserve the rights of minorities in Iraq, where violence is on the rise. Do you believe that the opportunity to write the constitution was wasted?
(A) The parody in the Iraqi situation today is that on the one hand, there is the feeling that the constitution and the political process are making progress. The referendum on the constitution is supposed to be held before 15 October, the legislative elections will be held before 15 December, and a new government will emerge by the end of the year. On the other hand, we see violence on the rise. This raises the issue of Iraq”s stability, rather, its unity. The draft constitution is but a stage in the process of political transferal in Iraq, and it is up to Iraqis to decide on how the constitution regulates their country far from foreign intervention. France calls on the Iraqi authorities to step up efforts toward holding true national dialogue for the sake of achieving accord among all elements of the Iraqi society, including the Sunnis, on this constitution, which will determine the country”s fate. Some questions remain unanswered, such as the distribution of authority between the executive and legislative authorities, and between these authorities and the authorities in governorates. Also unanswered is the question of the distribution of wealth.
(Q) Am I to understand from this that the Iraqis are on the wrong track?
(A) I am simply saying that we support the constitutional project and are satisfied with the interest demonstrated by all segments of the Iraqi society. We do however call on Iraqis to go the extra mile in order to produce a constitution that is acceptable to all segments of society. The parody is that at the time when progress is being made along the political track, sedition divisions are deepening. We feel that remedying the security situation alone is not enough to bring peace back to Iraq. The security situation should be tackled within the framework of political reconciliation aimed at isolating the extremist groups addicted to violence. It is also essential that the political track be as inclusive as possible. Furthermore, the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq in accordance with Resolution 1546 can only help accomplish this.
(Q) Who can guarantee that Iraq will not disintegrate if the international forces withdraw?
(A) We are not asking for the immediate departure of the multinational forces in Iraq, but its mandate ends at the end of the political track, meaning at the end of the year if the constitution is approved, elections in which everyone participates are held, and a new government emerges. We must then consider Iraq”s sovereignty, and Iraqi authorities will have to set an accurate timeline for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq, in a move that would help stabilize the country once more. This is the French vision; we feel that peace should be achieved through politics and democracy, not through violence.
We feel that the countries neighboring Iraq bear the essential responsibility of guaranteeing stability in the region, and must exert a collective constructive effort. France is committed to Iraq”s unity and is confident that the Iraqi people can formulate a common vision of the future and find the democratic basis for the coexistence of the elements that constitute Iraq.
(Q) Iran wishes to negotiate on its nuclear program with parties other than the European Troika, how does France feel about this?
(A) Negotiations demand partnership and a desire to reach an understanding between the two negotiating parties. For our part, we made proposals to Iran on 5 August within the framework of the negotiations that started in the fall of 2003, and which were meant to restore the international community”s confidence in the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program. However, Iran chose to operate outside the Paris Treaty signed on 15 November 2003 and officially announced last month that it would resume its conversion of Uranium, which is the step that comes before enrichment. It instantly rejected the proposal made by the Troika. On 11 August, the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) adopted a resolution demanding that Iran suspend all Uranium conversion activities. We are waiting to see the report to be published by the IAEA director on 3 September. Our hand is still extended to Iran for the resumption of negotiations if Iran adheres to the Paris Treaty. It is Iran”s decision to make.
(Q) Is it possible to avoid referring the Iranian nuclear file to the UNSC? And what do you expect to achieve if the file is indeed referred?
(A) Iran can avoid having this file referred by fulfilling its commitment to stop its production of nuclear fuel in accordance with the Paris Treaty, and by cooperating and establishing trust. Otherwise, the UNSC will, as was stated by the French President, will have no option but to take the matter into its own hands.
(Q) How do you view the US threat to resort to violence in dealing with Iran? What effect do such statements have on the work of the Troika and its mediation with Tehran?
(A) The Europeans have the support of the United States in their dealings with Iran.
(Q) Iran is asking for guarantees that it will be sake, can you make such guarantees, and how?
(A) This is the essence of the talks we are holding with Tehran. We want to establish long-term political, security, and economic relations the moment we are assured of the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program. The European offer is fitting of the importance of Iran and the role it is meant to play in this world.