London, Asharq Al-Awsat – British Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, warned that if the peace process does not move forward “bad things could happen.” In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat following his return from visiting Damascus and Beirut, Burt revealed that the new government is reviewing its relationship with Hezbollah, and that it is “cautious” with regards to communicating with the organization. The former Labour government distinguished between the political and military wings of Hezbollah, conducting talks with Hezbollah MPs. This was a policy that aroused anger in Washington whose official policy is not to distinguish between the political and military wings of Hezbollah.
During the interview on Thursday, Burt informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “there is a sense of anxiety and frustration among people in the region, and pessimism that if things did not move forward or improve, it will get worse…this summer is going to be a difficult one.” Burt added “This is a strong feeling in Syria and in Lebanon, and I think that our responsibility is to do everything we can to try to take steps to dispel this feeling.”
Alistair Burt is just returning from a trip to Syria and Lebanon, during which he met with a number of Syrian and Lebanese officials. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that the aim of the trip was to stress the importance of peace in the Middle East to the British government. He said “we are completely aware that this is an important year, and we are also aware that there are feelings of frustration because of the lack of progress, and I wanted to directly convey that we share in this, and that we are [also] worried.” He added “we want the negotiations to succeed and for the proximity talks to move towards a stage of comprehensive negotiations, because we do not know the consequences of this not happening.”
Burt received his ministerial portfolio in May, and this represents his first trip to Beirut and Damascus. The British coalition government that is headed by Conservative Party leader David Cameron is keen to show its support for the peace process in the region, without playing a direct role in the mediations between the parties.
Burt denied that Britain is seeking to mediate between Syria and Israel, or re-launch the indirect negotiations that were taking place between the two parties. Burt is well-known as having strong ties with Israel, and he was an active member of the [Conservative] Friends of Israel pressure group within the Conservative Party. However he denied playing any role in the Syrian – Israeli mediation, while also denying that Damascus had requested that he undertake such a role. Burt told Asharq Al-Awsat “we are not looking for a role to play in this area. I do not think it is up to the British government to tell Israel and Syria that they need to begin talks with each other, I think that this is up to them.” However he also stressed that Westminster supports the rapprochement, saying “it is clear that we are interested in anything that moves the peace process…and our role is to maintain relations with all concerned parties, and observe the areas of progress.”
The British Minister also criticized the Israeli announcement of the restart of housing construction in East Jerusalem, 9 months after settlement building was suspended there. Burt told Asharq Al-Awsat that “this Israeli decision is not helpful; we said that the current policy of settlement-building represents an obstacle to the peace process and the negotiations. We believe that the settlement policy is wrong, and we support its suspension.”
Responding to a question about whether Syria plays a positive or negative role in the region, Burt told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Syria is certainly playing a much more positive role in Iraq. It is truly involved in the political process to help form a new government there.” He added “But, of course, we remain very concerned about Hezbollah. We are concerned about the reports on weapon stockpiles.”
Burt did not hesitate to accuse Hezbollah of playing a role in the tensions between the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon [UNIFIL] and the southern Lebanese population, telling Asharq Al-Awsat that “it appears unlikely that Hezbollah is not involved in the tensions between the locals and UNIFIL, given their strong presence in the region. However it is difficult to obtain confirmation of this, but their strong presence in the region suggests that they incited the tension.”
Alistair Burt visited southern Lebanon and met with UNIFIL officials during his recent visit to Lebanon, however he refused to comment on Israeli reports that Hezbollah have hidden weapons caches in 160 southern Lebanese villages. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that “it is not possible to comment on what Israeli suspects it has found in the region, but we received a clear commitment from the Lebanese government that the Lebanese army will work closely with UNIFIL in order to perform their duties.” He added that “[UN] Resolution 1701 is not just about land, but also about disarmament. Therefore if Resolution 1701 is to be applied…there must be good relations with UNIFIL.” UN Resolution 1701 ended the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, and it calls for the creation of a weapons-free zone under the authority of UNIFIL and the Lebanese army to be established south of the Litani River.
The British Minister did not meet with any Hezbollah officials during his visit to Lebanon, when Asharq Al-Awsat asked the reason for this, Burt answered “On this occasion time did not allow [this], the visit was only two days.” He added that “I know that the former government was in contact with Hezbollah within limitations” but he explained that the current British government considers that “communication with Hezbollah is always under review.” Burt told Asharq Al-Awsat that “there is a reason for this, we are wary of this communication for well-known reasons. We look at Hezbollah’s commitment to armed resistance as being something that we do not accept or support.” He added “it is still too early to say if we are going to adopt the approach of the previous government with regards to distinguishing between the political and military wings of Hezbollah. But we know that there has been limited communication with some members of Hezbollah in the past, and we will this possibility under review for the future.” However Burt did not close the door completely on Hezbollah, telling Asharq Al-Awsat that “there may be occasions where limited communication would be in everybody’s interests and the interests of the peace process in general. However we will place such communication under constant review, and on a case by case basis. On this occasion, there was no occasion to meet with representatives of Hezbollah.”