Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qasim on the current dialogue between Chamber of Deputies Speaker Nabih Birri and Leader of Al-Mustaqbal Bloc Deputy Saad al-Hariri, and the latest Demands to Disarm Hezbollah.
The following is the full text of the interview:
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Does Hezbollah think that the Birri-al-Hariri meetings provide a real opportunity for a settlement or just a truce to ease the tensions?
(Qasim) Hezbollah wanted these meetings to be an additional opportunity for a solution. We never thought for a moment that their purpose would be to pass the time. Therefore, we wanted–and this is what happened–to have the three essential points discussed directly. These points are the government, the international tribunal, and the early parliamentary elections. We have understood from the meetings that there is no longer a problem about the court issue, because the natural thing to do is discuss this issue and place as a first point on the government’s agenda. The government should discuss the elections law and make a decision about it to end the problem of laws prepared before every election and tailored to the measurements of individuals. What remains is the vital issue that was the main problem from the beginning, which is the participation in the government. We think that participation should be a serious function and not a formality. It would not be serious except through a 19-11 (19 ministers for the authority and 11 for the opposition) formula to enable us to become partners in the fateful decisions. We have not heard from the other party about any fundamental reasons for rejecting the 19-11 formula. What we heard is that they are afraid that the government would stop functioning through resignations. They know very well that assurances were given not to empty the government of its substance or deprive it of its ability to survive. If they want specific guarantees for the survival of the government, we are prepared to give them, whether directly by us, or in writing, or in the presence of an Arab or Islamic side.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Can you give examples of these guarantees?
(Qasim) This depends on what they want, but we cannot accept ministers without color, taste, or smell. This is inconsistent with the Constitution. This is heresy. If they insist, as has become clear, on 19 (ministers), this means they do not want to control the two-thirds in the government. So, why do they not accept 11 (ministers) from the other side as long as it is willing to give the necessary guarantees for the survival of the government? We did not find an explanation, except that American pressures are preventing an agreement.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you mean that you are also ready to accept a different form of government if they consider your demands?
(Qasim) If the dialogue reaches agreement on another form ensuring a one-third share with veto power, we will accept it. The issue depends on the formula and its suitability for representing all the forces. The minister whom they described as the crown minister will not vote and will not resign. He only completes the number in the Council of Ministers. This is unacceptable and is inconsistent with the Constitution. We have not concealed our desire not to continue on this course, because we did not want to give an unrealistic picture to the public. We did not want to give the impression that such a dialogue with Hezbollah would achieve final agreements. We did not need long sessions as long as each side understood the other.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What is the reason for talking about the need for a declaration of intents on the main issues in the dialogue?
(Qasim) We were engaged in a large-scale dialogue involving all the leaders and then in consultation sessions with all leaders. Matters have become clear to everyone. We understand what the other side wants and the other side understands what we want. Continuing to hold meetings for a long time cannot fulfill the desired purpose of achieving a solution. We must have a declaration of intents, which means announcing the principles we agreed upon so that we can then begin to discuss the details. This was the natural result of an opinion that said let us first discuss the articles of the international tribunal bill and then we can discuss the government issue and see what we can do. We said since there is already agreement on the court issue, why should there not be another declaration, similar to the declaration about the agreement on the principle of the court–a declaration on an agreement in principle regarding the government and we can postpone the discussion of the details until later.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Which do you think is a bigger possibility: achieving a settlement or the efforts collapsing? Is it realistically possible to reach a positive result before the Riyadh Arab summit?
(Qasim) I do not want to anticipate the outcome of the dialogue. However, I think that we are facing a period in which there is no optimism and no pessimism. What we need is to decide whether to have a declaration of intents based on the principles we talked about or not.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You say that an agreement was reached about the tribunal issue, but there are reports about regional and particularly Arab complications that are preventing the achievement of a settlement.
(Qasim) What is meant by achieving results on the tribunal track is defining the practical steps that can lead to approving it, based on the Lebanese Constitution. This involves forming a committee representing both sides to discuss and approve the articles of the tribunal and then referring the issue to the first session of the national unity government to approve it and then submit it as a bill to the first session of the Chamber of Deputies for its approval. The track has become clear. The tribunal issue, in its present form, will not be approved, because there is suspicion of a political motive in the way it would deal with the facts and the individuals. We want to cleanse it and make it a criminal court that will try the real criminals based on un-politicized criminal and legal provisions. This matter has become clear to everyone. A tribunal without this mechanism cannot be approved.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What are Hezbollah’s reservations about the tribunal law?
(Qasim) Hezbollah held intensive meetings with legal experts. They looked at legal and political documents held by Hezbollah. They came out with specific observations. They wrote a report, which is ready for the other side to view. However, we did not want to submit it to the media so it would not serve as material for media and political wrangling. We will wait for the formation of the committee before publishing this report, because it contains several basic legal remarks that will restore the tribunal’s criminal role and remove its political goals. I think that when we sit with the other side, we can explain the substance, which is rejecting the political and accepting the criminal role.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Have you obtained the approval of the other side on the track you are talking about for the court?
(Qasim) We have not heard another idea. The other side says to us let us start discussing the issue and see where we can get. We say that we can do this after the declaration of intents.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What is the situation regarding the issue of early parliamentary elections, considering that the majority forces have rejected it?
(Qasim) There is agreement on resolving the issue of the elections law in the government. Then, there are constitutional mechanisms for approving early parliamentary elections. The idea is to discuss the parliamentary elections law and approve it as soon as possible. We have not agreed on the details yet.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) So, what actual progress has been made in these discussions?
(Qasim) What has changed is that we are now talking about a single basket: the government, the tribunal, and the elections law that could lead to early parliamentary elections. For the first time, specific matters have been raised in direct talks. We have also started talking about tracks.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The Saudi ambassador in Beirut has said that Riyadh was prepared to host the Lebanese parties after they reach an agreement between them. Are you ready to accept an invitation if it is sent to you?
(Qasim) This invitation depends on the achievement of an agreement, and when we achieve one, we have no objection to visiting Riyadh if we receive an invitation. We have welcomed all the Arab, Saudi, and Saudi-Iranian initiatives. No one can say we rejected any of these initiatives. The other side impeded and circumvented these initiatives.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some people believe that the sit-in in the center of Beirut has harmed the image of Hezbollah. How do you see the image of Hezbollah before and after the sit-in?
(Qasim) The center of Beirut does not belong to any community. It is the center of all Lebanon. People in all countries of the world express themselves by coming to the capital. We have learned from the authority’s forces to stage sit-ins in the center of Beirut, because the forces of 14 February set up the first tent there, and we followed them to this place. The difference, however, is that their number demanded one or two tents, but our numbers demanded many more tents.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) This situation has led to the occupation of a large public area in the center of Beirut.
(Qasim) This is a political sit-in, and a political sit-in often prompts the authority to find a solution. We are facing an illegitimate authority, which does not care about what is happening in the center of Beirut and about the sit-in. The prime minister of the illegitimate government has often stated that he will not listen, not see, and not respond. This means that the crisis is due to the absence of officials that can shoulder the responsibility. There is political vacuum in the country today, and this is reflecting on everything taking place, including the existence of a sit-in. As for the effect of the sit-in on how others view us, we believe that we have much more in common with the Sunni community than all the distortions taking place at this time. The Sunni community is historically the resistance community, which still embraces this idea. If some problems occurred because of misleading sectarian incitement, we think they will soon disappear. This is a summer cloud.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Sectarian tension reached its climax with the sit-in. Is this not a sufficient indicator about the existence of a change in the Sunni community’s view of Hezbollah as the resistance party after the sit-in?
(Qasim) The sectarian strife is not the product of the sit-in, but the product of incitement day and night by some forces of the authority. Militias tried to use weapons and carry out attacks on 23 and 25 January in various areas or at the Arab University (where sectarian clashes took place). We are convinced that the Sunni-Shiite strife in Lebanon was not locally inspired. It was inspired by foreign forces and by some local parties that benefit from creating problems between us and not because of the sit-in. I think that the problems will be solved easily when we achieve a political agreement, and the proof is that the sectarian tension has declined very much in recent days and the conditions have become better, because neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites with their political leaders want sectarian strife.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Is the idea of civil disobedience on the table?
(Qasim) The idea exists as an option, but when will it be used and what will be its limits? This is not under consideration at this time when meetings and dialogues are taking place.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Are you not afraid of the serious repercussions of such a step?
(Qasim) I am not discussing the matter now. When the opposition forces meet and make a decision, they will prepare themselves for all the consequences of their decision and would explain these consequences to the public.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The issue of Hezbollah’s weapons is no longer on the dialogue table, although some voices are calling for the removal of these weapons. How do you view the future of these weapons?
(Qasim) Some of the voices we heard recently talking about the weapons of Hezbollah are dreaming and want to exploit the opportunity. The issue of Hezbollah’s weapons is not on the table for discussion now. The removal of the weapons is not demanded by resolution 1701 or by the special situation in Lebanon in view of the repeated Israeli threats. We must be prepared for any possible danger and think how to strengthen the resistance and not think about giving up the basis of our strength, which defeated Israel.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Does this mean that Hezbollah will not disarm at any time?
(Qasim) The issue of the weapons is not on the table for discussion now. The time will be appropriate for an internal discussion after resolving the outstanding issues about participation, cooperation, and drawing up Lebanon’s defense strategy.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But, there is no consensus in Lebanon today about Hezbollah continuing to hold on to its weapons.
(Qasim) Not everything in Lebanon is the subject of consensus, but there are common rules that apply to everyone. There is a consensus in Lebanon that the issue of the weapons cannot be resolved through media and political wrangling, but according to a specific mechanism that places a defense strategy in the hands of the Lebanese. I can say that unless we reach the stage of discussion and reach the stage of a defense strategy, the consensus is that we cannot demand the removal of the weapons and give Israel gains at the expense of the resistance. I am not saying that there is consensus about continuing to have the weapons without a discussion, but there is consensus on the need to discuss the issue later within a defense strategy framework.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some people are warning that Hezbollah’s weapons might become a pretext for a new civil war in Lebanon.
(Qasim) Any internal strife or civil war must be the result of a political decision and not a reaction to a specific thing. We all know that the resistance weapons existed before the liberation, after the liberation, during the Syrian presence, and after it. When we met at the table of dialogue, everyone agreed that Hezbollah should keep its weapons and to hold a discussion about their future. The problem does not lie in the existence of the resistance weapons. We believe that the Lebanese army and the Lebanese security forces are the guarantors of political life for all, and Hezbollah’s weapons are only used for resistance. The authority’s forces and not others are acquiring weapons today. The problem is in the political decision of the authority’s forces: have they made a decision to acquire weapons in preparation for the strife? Whoever makes a political decision will not need excuses.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You have talked about security islands, but Hezbollah is in control of entire areas and some people in the border villages told me that the Lebanese army has a symbolic presence in the area. Two Hezbollah security elements in civilian clothes have searched me personally.
(Qasim) The army is in control in the south, and there is no other authority and we do not accept to have another authority. Searches, however, are a natural measure with journalists, particularly as some of them have the Israeli nationality in addition to other nationalities and they take photographs of the villages for the benefit of Israel. This is a precautionary measure. Hezbollah is present in every village, but not as a security force. It is present as residents and youths of the villages. If they take measures inside the villages, they do that in coordination with the Lebanese army, which is in charge in this area.