Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- In an in-depth interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman discusses the stalled Middle East peace process, Lebanese –Syrian relations, the UN Security Council and the Iran nuclear dossier and other regional issues.
The following is the full test of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Mr. President, what are the results of your visit to Saudi Arabia, and your meeting with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques?
[Sleiman] First of all, we have to address our thanks and appreciation to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz for the hospitality with which he received us. Second, his personal liking of Lebanon and the Lebanese is not surprising, neither is the Saudi support for Lebanon at all levels and in all fields, especially during the days of the crisis, and also after the July 2006 aggression. It was necessary to consult with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques on the eve of the Arab summit, and on the eve of the international and regional activities in the region.
You know that there are attempts now to conduct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and also attempts to negotiate between the Israelis and the Syrians through the Turkish mediation. We have become members of the UN Security Council for the two years 2010 and 2011. After the famous summit meeting between the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and President Bashar al-Assad, it was necessary to meet King Abdullah to consult and coordinate with him about all the activities that influence the destiny of the Arab nation, and influence every Arab country, especially Lebanon.
As for the results, always the results of meetings with King Abdullah are good. The coordination was good, and we discussed all the possibilities that we might face, and the way to deal with each of them. We also discussed the bilateral relations in all fields, whether political, security, or economic. You know that Saudi Arabia has a major role in reviving the Lebanese economy through the aid it used to give Lebanon under the critical conditions and the credits and deposits it transfers to the Lebanese banks. Today, we focused on investment and partnership in investment projects in Lebanon, because Lebanon is on the verge of another promising year. The same as 2009 was a good year for Lebanon in all fields in which Lebanon achieved economic growth of 8 to 9 percent, we hope that 2010 will be a prosperous year. Therefore there is encouragement to invest in Lebanon.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What have the bilateral relations achieved? What are the political, economic, and other fields of cooperation?
[Sleiman] The bilateral relations are at their best politically, economically, socially, and in the field of security. This applies to the fields of pursuing the implementation of [UN Security Council] Resolution 1701, confronting the Israeli threats, fighting terrorism, finding a just solution for the issue of the Palestinian refugees that prevent their settlement in Lebanon, and continuing to build the state capabilities and the foundations of economic and social development in Lebanon.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Now you are in the Gulf close to a dossier that preoccupies the world and the UN Security Council in which today you represent the Arab world, and whose presidency you will assume soon. How do you see the developments of the situation in the UN Security Council?
[Sleiman] Lebanon, which is now a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the two years 2010 and 2011, will be the voice of the Arab group in defending the Arab rights and the humanitarian issues at the UN Security Council. There is no doubt that the situation in the region is boiling as a result of Israel’s intransigence, and its practices and threats of launching a war under more than one pretext it is trying to fabricate. Nevertheless, Lebanon still calls for reviving the process of the comprehensive and just peace on the basis of the Madrid agreement, and the Arab peace initiative, which was launched by King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz. In fact, Israel still is following a policy of fait accompli, and escape to the front, a policy to which the international community has started to object. However, there still is a need to exert pressure on Israel, rather than retreating in front of its intransigence. Unfortunately, the current international stances do not indicate either a desire or an ability to adopt such stances and resolutions that compel Israel to adopt the peace option, and to adhere to its requirements.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There have been reports that US officials have checked Lebanon’s opinion of probable sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear dossier. Is this true? What will Lebanon’s stance be if this issue is presented?
[Sleiman] Lebanon is at the forefront of the countries that call for making the Middle East region completely free from nuclear weapons, starting with Israel, which still refuses to joint the NPT and boasts about possessing nuclear weapons and nuclear heads, while the Iranian officials have said publicly that their use of nuclear energy is for peaceful purposes.
Anyway, Lebanon prefers the continuation of the diplomatic efforts; as for the policy of imposing sanctions, it has not resulted in the aspired for benefits in the cases in which it was used, such as in Iraq, because it harmed the civilian population. As Lebanon is a member of the UN Security Council, it will consult with the Arab League in order to unite the stances toward any draft resolution to impose sanctions before it is presented to the UN Security Council.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You talk about the promising things awaiting Lebanon, but there are fears , such as the Israeli threats, and the cloudy regional climate. Where does Lebanon stand with respect to all these conditions?
[Sleiman] The Israeli threats exist. We know that Israel escapes to the front in order to avoid the international situation that exerts pressure in the direction of peace. As for the Arabs, they have agreed and given Israel the opportunity to apply the Arab peace initiative, which specifically is King Abdullah’s initiative presented to the Beirut summit in 2002. The Arabs have given Israel the opportunity to implement this initiative. Also the international community, especially the EU countries, the United States, and other countries such as Russia, are exerting pressure toward the launching of the peace process. Israel in its turn wants to wriggle out of this pressure, and hence tries to exaggerate the threats coming from Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and others. As for what we should do, we should close the Lebanese ranks, and close the Arab ranks, because this is the best way to confront the possibility of any Israeli aggression whether against Lebanon, or against any country other than Lebanon.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there any real reassurances that you obtained through your international contacts and pursuits to “rein in the Israeli aggressiveness,” as you’ve stated?
[Sleiman] Lebanon is exposed every day to Israeli threats, especially in the recent period when these threats are accompanied by exercises and maneuvers. Lebanon has launched and is continuing to launch a wide international campaign to prevent Israel from implementing its threats against the country. Lebanon will defend itself if it is exposed to any aggression. The only thing to reassure Lebanon is its preparedness, its cohesion, and its unity. Bear in mind that if Israel carries out any aggression while the UN forces and the Lebanese Army are in the south this will constitute a blatant defiance of the international community whose superpowers and influential forces still are working to find a just and comprehensive solution for all aspects of the conflict in the Middle East. Any Israeli adventure is bound to disturb the entire Middle East region, a situation that is not in the interest of the international powers. Anyway, Israel’s resorting to the military option and aggression has become an adventure whose results cannot be calculated, and its absolute failure in the July aggression on Lebanon was a severe lesson. Lebanon is no longer the weak link that the enemy tries to break in order to escape to the front from the international pressure and the peace commitments.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is said that the qucik establishment of the new National Dialog Commission was the result of international and Arab efforts aimed at reining in the tension in the region?
[Sleiman] The issue of the National Dialog Commission is up to the president. I announced that I would form it as soon as the amendment of the law of the municipal and local elections is completed. The commission will convene next Tuesday to discuss the national strategy for defense.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How will you deal with the objections that stemmed domestically on the structure of the National Dialog Commission? Is there a scope for amending it, or for adding new issues to its agenda?
[Sleiman] In any action, step, or decision there always is someone who objects or expresses reservations. When the issue is based on criteria that take into consideration a collection of premises that stem from the Lebanese political structure and social fabric, it becomes apparent that the structure of the National Dialog Commission in the way it was formed is the best that can be done. Moreover, we have not seen any need to conduct any amendment to widen the commission, because if we take this option perhaps this will open the door to additional objections. However, the working team of the presidency can receive proposals from those who want to do so, and even to discuss these proposals with them until the strategy can bring up the largest possible number of opinions.
With regard to the headlines, as I said before, the basis is the national strategy, and the subjects that can stem from it or are linked to it are up to those engaged in the dialog to include or not to include them on the agenda.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Lebanon is living an unprecedented experiment in the world as the weapons of the Lebanese Army and the security forces are combined with weapons of a resistance that is said to have foreign links, and whose decision making also is foreign. Should we fear that Lebanon might pay the price of this duality as it happened in the past?
[Sleiman] It is well known that when a country is exposed to foreign aggression all the national diplomatic, military, manpower, and economic resources unite together, and everybody, each in his field, will be concerned with defending the country and supporting the army. In the previous meetings of the National Dialog Commission we reached the conclusion that the work of the resistance starts after the occupation, or if the army is unable to perform its duties, retreats under the pressure of the enemy, or asks for the support of the resistance.
Here, we ought to point out that the members of the resistance are Lebanese, most of them are from the south, and they have carried their weapons during the absence of the army from the south. The army withdrew from the south after the Palestinians at that time spread across the south, and the Israeli enemy occupied part of the south; this led the sons of the south to organize themselves within the framework of resisting the Israeli occupation, which continued from 1978 until 2000, when the Israeli Army was forced to withdraw from most of the territories, with the exception of the Shab’a Farms, the Kafr Shuba Hills, and the northern part of the Al-Ghajar Village, which remained under occupation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where does Lebanon stand toward the tripartite alliance, which was expressed at the latest Damascus meeting between the Syrian and Iranian presidents and Hezbollah’s secretary general?
[Sleiman] Lebanon has distinguished fraternal relations with Syria, and good relations with Iran. Any meeting benefits Lebanon if it meets its national and fundamental constants with regard to confronting the occupation, deterring the dangers, and restoring the rights.
Arab solidarity and the prevalence of climates supporting our countries and peoples against the Israeli threats and the various challenges facing our regions are supposed to give us more impregnability and capability. King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz launched at Kuwait summit an important initiative in the direction of reconciliation and harmony, an initiative that cannot be met except with every support and approval.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Previously you expressed your dissatisfaction with the productivity of the government, why? What are the factors that hinder its performance?
[Sleiman] The expression is not accurate. The government is productive, is working, and considers the priorities of the people as its priorities. However, there is a hope and aspiration that it will produce more. What is meant is to ease the political pressure on it from all directions so that it can focus more effectively on dealing with the problems facing it. The proof of the seriousness of this tendency is that the government for some time has been convening two sessions every week, and has been able to launch the appointment campaign, and to ratify the reform project of the municipal elections law, which has been pending for dozens of years, bearing in mind that this takes time.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have assumed the presidency under very grave circumstances in Lebanon, and for many Lebanese you represented the hope for change. However, it seems that many difficulties are facing the launch of the new era, and reduce the effectiveness of its steps all the time. Are there insolvable difficulties? What are these difficulties?
[Sleiman] The critical situation of Lebanon at the domestic and regional levels is not a secret to anyone. The difficulties always exist, but nothing at all is unsolvable. However, dealing with the situation requires patience, deliberation, and care with everybody in order to serve the cause of civil accord and peace. This is what the president does. It is true that people are hoping for more speed, and this is their right. However, it is also true that the structure of the existing political reality and the occasional sharpness between the sides require the officials – the president and the government – to deal rationally, and to make the charter spirit prevail, and this is what is done at this level. If we look at the current reality, 2009 witnessed great development and stability at the political, security, and economic levels that Lebanon has not witnessed for dozens of years.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there a hope for reform in Lebanon under the existing political and sectarian reality?
[Sleiman] There is always hope. Reform has to start somewhere. It is a process that is not limited by a specific period, because it is a continuous process. What is important and fundamental is to start the process, and this is what we are on the verge of undertaking in the issue of administration. If a clear and transparent mechanism is ratified, a mechanism that puts the right man in the right place, this will lead to reducing the loyalty and the belonging to the sectarian authorities, and this loyalty will be transferred to the job. The process of political, administrative, judicial, and economic reform has started.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will Lebanon attend the Libya summit? At what level will this attendance be?
[Sleiman] When the participation of Lebanon in a conference is presented as a political problem, it is up to the Council of Ministers to settle it. In principle, the issue of Lebanon’s participation in the Arab summit in Libya has become at the moment a subject of controversy. Therefore, when we receive the official invitation to attend the summit, we will adopt the suitable decision in the light of the various considerations that control such decision. At that time, we have to ask about the fate of Imam al-Sadr and his two companions. The Lebanese and their representatives at the constitutional authorities want to know the truth about this issue.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will Lebanon be included at a later stage of any peace process, especially in the light of the latest Arab resolution, which approves the beginning of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations within a timetable? Is Lebanon a part of these arrangements which have been agreed by the Arabs in Cairo?
[Sleiman] We do not obstruct any negotiations. As you know, previous negotiations started, and there were indirect negotiations with Syria, and these negotiations might be resumed at a later time. We support the negotiations when they are at equal circumstances for both parties; in this case there is no harm in negotiating. As long as the Arab initiative committee has adopted a stance toward this issue, we do not have another stance. We have reservations on the Arab League covering the negotiations; however, the stance has been adopted, and we hope that these negotiations will lead to a result, but it seems that it will not be at the aspired for level.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Then, you have reservations on the Arab resolution?
[Sleiman] Our own stance is that Lebanon does not want to negotiate with Israel, and does not have any negotiation dossier with Israel. We do not support the Arab League stance of covering the negotiations between a group and Israel, because negotiations are a private issue for every country, and this has nothing to do with the Arab League. The Arab League wants the Arab peace initiative, and promotes this initiative that achieves just and comprehensive peace for all sides and this is the Lebanese stance. On the other hand, the committee for following up the Arab peace initiative has given cover to the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israeli with a majority vote; I do not think that these negotiations will lead to great results.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the source of your pessimism?
[Sleiman] The cause of the pessimism is that Israel does not want peace, is not serious in the peace process, and is not a real partner in the peace process.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the region be kept in suspension in this manner?
[Sleiman] Is it in the interest of Israel to keep the situation in suspension without peace? I think not. It is not in the interest of Israel not to pursue peace; however, the Israeli Government is an extremist one, and it seems that it does not want peace. For this reason it did not give the Palestinians the guarantees to start the negotiations. As it has not given the guarantees, these negotiations are carried out as a trial without any prior guarantees, neither Israeli nor international guarantees.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Should we attach our hopes to a less extremist Israel Government?
[Sleiman] Perhaps, but it is not us who attach hopes. This is because we are serious and sincere about the peace process, and peace is primarily in the interest of Israel.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And peace needs two sides, does it not?
[Sleiman] Of course it needs two sides, and Israel is not a real side in the peace process.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In the light of the presence of such a government in Israel, do you not fear that the situation might go farther in the direction of war in the region?
[Sleiman] The possibilities of war always exist, but Israel knows that the war is not in its interest. In 2006 Israel fought a war against Lebanon; the results were very harmful to Lebanon, but they were also very harmful to Israel.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will that prevent Israel from repeating the war experiment again?
[Sleiman] I believe that this is a fundamental and important factor for not repeating the experiment.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And if it repeats it?
[Sleiman] If it repeats it, then war is war, and we are ready to confront it. Lebanon is not weak; Lebanon is strong, it will defend itself, and all the Lebanese people will defend their country, support the army, and resist the Israeli enemy.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us move to the Lebanese-Syrian dossier. What has the process of clearing the Lebanese-Syrian relations reached after all that it has gone through?
[Sleiman] It is at a very good stage. It needs to consolidate and materialize the relations on the ground among the ministries and institutions concerned in both countries, and it needs to contract partnerships, investments, and production. This is an international issue that is well known. We need urgently to materialize these relations. I believe that there is no longer alienation between the Lebanese and the Syrians at the level of the presidency, the government, and the institutions; naturally there is great communication at the level of the people between Lebanon and Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As we mention the Lebanese-Syrian relations, Lebanon is always the victim of the Arab-Arab disputes. Why is this?
[Sleiman] This is because Lebanon is the country of great diversity, and the meeting point of policies and authorities. For this reason we tried in 2009, after the election of the president, to steer Lebanon away, and not to make it an arena for the Arab disputes, but to make it a place for Arab reconciliation, and for uniting the Arab good intentions. The Lebanese president has been trying to spread the call for this reconciliation, and a great part of this also has taken place because of the initiative of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. The good, even excellent Syrian-Saudi relations – as I hear from the leaders of both countries – have been reflected in a positive way on Lebanon. We hope that all the relations between the rest [of the Arab countries] will be strengthened, and I do not say reconciled as there is no alienation, for the benefit of the Arab nation, specifically the Saudi, Syrian, and Egyptian relations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Should we understand that you beseech God day and night that the Arabs will continue to be on amicable terms so that Lebanon is spared from all the crossing of politics you mentioned?
[Sleiman] I beseech God, and I work for keeping the good relations between the Arab countries, not only so that Lebanon remains calm, but also for the sake of the Arab cause and the Arab nation. This will benefit not only Lebanon, but it certainly will benefit Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your following up of the dossier of the Arab reconciliation, what is the level of achievement in this dossier?
[Sleiman] It is good.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Mr. President, what is the percentage?
[Sleiman] These issues cannot be assessed by percentages, but the chances of progress toward cooperation among the Arab countries are good with the presence of the good will of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in this field.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Earlier, in your previous answers you added the letter “E” that represents Egypt to the “S+S” [Saudi Arabia + Syria] equation?
[Sleiman] I am not talking about an equation for the sake of the situation in Lebanon. The situation in Lebanon is stable and good. I am saying this for the benefit of the Arabs. It is well known that Egypt is the largest Arab country, Syria is a very important country for confronting the Israeli enemy, it is a pivotal country, and also the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a big country with its abilities, its King, and its great effect on the Arab course, especially as the Arab initiative is the initiative of King Abdullah, and it is the only initiative proposed for peace.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that we can say that the Arab interest will not be achieved except through the equation “S+S+E?”
[Sleiman] And more countries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Such as?
[Sleiman] All the Arabs ought to be united, but I have identified Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria because they are the principal countries in this issue. When these countries cooperate, there is no problem between the other countries; there is no problem for Lebanon, Kuwait, or Qatar to stand in solidarity, as everybody wishes this to happen.