Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- As the fourth round of the national dialogue talks kicked off in Beirut, disagreements over Hezbollah’s arms and the fate of President Emile Lahoud were expected to continue to dominate the proceedings. Asharq al Awsat met with Saad Hariri, Beirut MP and head of the Future Bloc in the parliament, on Sunday and asked him his opinion about the ongoing talks, the investigation into the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and Syrian-Lebanese relations.
Below is the full text of the interview:
Q: How long will you remain engaged in the national dialogue?
A: The national dialogue talks will continue until Emile Lahoud leaves the presidency and a solution is reached on Hezbollah’s arms. If we examine the talks so far, we find that there are topics we did not dream of mentioning but were able to reach a solution for. I have full confidence that we will succeed, through dialogue, in solving the issue of the presidency and agree on a new president in the next few weeks.
Q: Have you sensed a response from the forces that are opposed to President Emile Lahoud’s departure from power?
A: Our discussions take place around a round a table and at the same time, aside meetings are being held, because of the sensitivity of the presidency issue, in order to reach consensus on a new name.
We all know there is a problem concerning the presidency. All we ask for is stability. Emile Lahoud does not represent any kind of stability. We have seen throughout his seven years in power, whether it be when prime minister Rafik Hariri was alive or under president Salim Hoss and Rashid Karameh. We are looking for stability. It cannot occur under President Emile Lahoud. I believe that all those attending the national dialogue know this. The main issue we are discussing is the replacement, not whether Lahoud will remain in power. We cannot keep the Lebanese people in this situation because someone wants to be president. The presidency is vacant. We need to consider how to fill it. The issue of the presidency matters to all Lebanese and not just to one category.
Q: We have noticed lately a sort of counterattack in the attitudes of Hezbollah and General Michel Aoun concerning the presidency. The party of God indicated it would not strike a deal between the resistance’s arms and President Lahoud.
A: No one wants to barter on the two issues. Both points are very important. We have to solve them through dialogue. If we as Lebanese are able to sit around one table and examine the country’s problems, we can also solve all these issues. However, if we allow foreign interferences on this subject or our personal wishes, it becomes a different story. But I see that all those sitting around the table have a nationalist outlook to solve these crises. Those who do not want the Lebanese to achieve stability have to be held responsible.
Q: What if all sides did not cooperate?
A: I believe that everyone is cooperating. When we first instigated a discussion about the presidency, there was a total rejection on even speaking about the issue. But, at present, we are currently discussing alternatives [to president Lahoud] and the means to reach our goal, and what is the appropriate name for the position. On this respect, we are always behind the Patriarch. Whomever he blesses, we will accept.
Q: Will you start discussing names on Monday?
A: We hope so and nothing prohibits us from doing so. We are open to everything and there are no taboos. If names will be discussed, then so be it. We have no problem with that.
Q: When talking of a replacement, will you be looking at an individual or several possible candidates?
A: No, not at all. There has to be several candidates. We either live in a democracy or not.
Q: What are the characteristics that you will accept in the forthcoming president?
A: He has to be a nationalist who defends what we have achieved so far. We have gained our victory and our will. We want to develop our democracy and our economy. We do not accept the presence of a man who is creating obstacles for our economic growth. Our historical problems with president Lahoud is that he obstructed the Paris-1 and Paris-2 conferences and took a number of steps that held back the country, in addition to his attempt to transform Lebanon into a police state.
The new president should not change his opinions every day. We cannot accept a president in this manner. There are a number of constants in Lebanon. We are a country that requires stability and economic development and fighting crime and corruption. These are not mere slogans. We hope that everyone who committed a crime or stole government funds be held accountable, but this is not political score settling. This has to be applied for everyone. We are against politicizing justice. The legislature should remain independent.
In addition, he has to be a democratic president who accepts divergent opinions and is not angered if someone criticized him or shut down a paper because it wrote an article against him. We are being insulted everyday and face campaigns against us, be we have no acted. This is democracy where we have to accept different opinions whatever they may be. The president has to be accepting of criticism and he has to be democratic.
Q: Are you ready to accept a settlement candidate?
A: Whatever the Patriarch says or blesses we will accept.
Q: Even if he isn’t a member of the March 14 coalition?
A: What he blesses we accept.
Q: What about the head of the Lebanese army or a former military officer?
A: If these characteristics apply to a certain person, we will accept him.
Q: What about General Michel Aoun?
A: We need to know his program.
Q: Has he put himself forward as a candidate?
A: There is more than one candidate. Personally, I have a number of pledges I am committed to and constants in our outlook to the country’s situation.
Q: Some people are saying that you seek a weak president who will follow your instructions?
A: No, on the contrary. The president has to be independent and strong because our problem with the current president is that he cannot address the Arab world or the west and not even the Lebanese. We need a strong president who can speak his mind and convince others. The president’s utmost duty should be to convince the Lebanese of the [country’s] main interests. Politics is persuasion.
Q: Are you optimistic about the possibility of putting into practice/achieving what you have reached so far in the national dialogue?
A: Of course. What we have achieved in the national dialogue is very important. Some sides are tying to give the impression that what has taken place was mere talk. The national consensus that was reached on these issues is crucial. If political leaders do not bear responsibility for the agreements we have reached, then there is a problem, because it shows bad intentions. But I can safely say that until now all those sitting around the table have very good intentions.
Q: In your view, how will the constitutional amendment be achieved?
A: If we agree, everything becomes easy. The mechanisms can be easily discussed and executed. The important thing is the decision.
Q: What about the issue of armed Palestinian groups?
A: We are not seeking to confiscate Palestinian arms to oppress people. We are seeking security. We want to be able to guarantee to our Palestinian brothers their pressing social needs. The Palestinians paid a heavy price for Israeli aggression. We were with them and will continue to defend them and put ourselves in frontline if anyone tried to attack them. We have to provide them with an acceptable standard of living while maintaining their right of return. We will also strive, through all diplomatic and non-diplomatic means, to return them to Palestine. This is the dream of every Arab. The Palestinian question is our first and last issue on an Arab level.
Q: We have noticed a difference in opinion between yourself and your ally MP Walid Jumblatt, especially regarding the Shebaa Farms and the resistance.
A: We, the March 14 powers consider ourselves one parliamentary bloc. There are differences in style. Walid Jumblatt is saying the Shebaa Farms are not Lebanese according to international maps. Let us be realistic, this is true. But we are saying they are Lebanese. We want this to be internationally recognized. But, as Lebanese leaders, we must put our people first. It is the right of everyone who owns land in the Shebaa Farms to know his land will return to him after it is liberated from Israeli occupation. We cannot tell him after liberation to go and obtain your right from Syria. No one should ask us about the reason we are seeking to demarcate the border. This is a right for the Lebanese.
Achieving an international proof [of the status of the Shebaa Farms] legitimizes the resistance. The United Nations’ charter gives the right to any people whose land has been occupied to resist. We are resisting until our land if free. But, in the eyes of international law, our resistance is illegitimate. We have to win over the international community by proving the legality of our resistance. Our resistance humiliates Syria, we the only country who has liberated its land through resistance.
Q: What opinion will you present at the national dialogue regarding armed resistance?
A: This is a matter for me to say at the talks. But it is clear the priority is to obtain international recognition for the legitimacy of the resistance by recognizing the Shebaa Farms as Lebanese.
Q: What about relations with Syria?
A: A consensus has emerged in the national dialogue on relations with Syria and the distinction between bilateral relations and uncovering the truth [in the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri]. This is a great sacrifice on our part as Lebanese, members of the March 14 coalition and the family of the martyr. We put the national interest and Lebanon’s interests first and indicated that bilateral relations with Syria should be exceptional and built on opening embassies and friendship. We are extending our hands to our Syrian brothers.
Q: But what if it was proven that Syrian officials were involved in [Hariri’s murder]? Will you continue to hold your opinion n distinguish between the relationship with Syria and the murder investigation?
A: This is a matter of concern for the Lebanese government. Rafik Hariri is the property of the Lebanese state not solely his family. My personal feelings are different. He was my father and his death has a different effect on me. I cannot impose on the government and the Lebanese people something they do not want. There is a Lebanese consensus about discovering the truth. This honors me. In the end, any criminal should be punished. We emerged from a civil war with a unanimous agreement to forgive what had happened in the past. We said we whoever commits a crime in the future should be punished. We are seeking punishment because [otherwise] it would signal that the Lebanese scene was open and that whoever wanted to kill a Lebanese could do so. Punishment is to be found in all religions and laws. It is a deterrent against more crimes.
Q: Did the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri move his family and followers away form his principles?
A: Rafik Hariri’s attitude was to always work for the interest of Lebanon and with the Palestinian cause and other Arab issues. This is what we are doing and we will never go back on. We have never said that we will be against the Palestinian issue or the resistance.
We are committed to President Hariri’s principles. Following his death, it is not required of us to support decisions that are against Lebanon’s interest.
Q: What is your view of the Arab role in the Lebanese crisis?
A: The Arab role is essential. I consider what happened against the former Arab initiative a great mistake that we and the March 14 powers committed. We need to understand that the Arabs are always looking for our best interest. All Arab initiatives have been in Lebanon’s interest and in order to achieve stability and end the war, as what happened at the Taif conference. This is why we support every Arab initiative and every action that seeks to bring about Lebanon’s stability. We are Arabs and we aspire for Lebanon to have a position in the Arab world.
Q: Is there fear of an Arab initiative to normalize the situation with Syria, which will lead to mitigating the truth?
A: No, not at all. The truth is the property of the international community, including of course the Arab world. Some of the unanimous decisions that were taken during the national dialogue in relation to Syria need Arab [assistance] to put it on the right track.
Q: Where does Lebanon feature on the Arab summit’s agenda?
A: Lebanon is a very important topic because of the [ongoing international] investigation and the relationship with Syria and the continuing Israeli aggression.
Q: Will the topics you have reached require an Arab initiative, especially when it comes to Syria ?
A: We have reached a consensus amongst Lebanese to establish exceptional diplomatic relations. No one can deny there is a problem with Syria. If Arabs find a way to draw viewpoints closer, they are welcome. If there is no dialogue between us, who better than the Arabs to calm the atmosphere?