Cairo Asharq Al-Awsat- With rival Lebanese leaders from across the political and religious spectrum expected to resume the National Dialogue conference in Beirut, to discuss a number of thorny issues that have split the country in the last few months, Asharq al Awsat spoke to Ahmad Fatfat, Lebanon ’s Youth and Sports Minister and acting Interior Minister, earlier this week, and asked him about the dialogue’s progress.
In an interview with Asharq al Awsat, Fatfat said, “I will be very frank. The Lebanese people are proud that for the first time in Lebanon’s history, an inter-Lebanese dialogue is taking place without any mediators. I believe this explains why the dialogue is difficult. The Lebanese got used to in the past to the presence of a sponsor or arbitrator but today, Lebanon’s interests are the sponsors and moderators.” This is why, the Lebanese “prefer that the dialogue continues without any intervention from any Arab party. We are confident the Arab role, especially from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has always been positive, in interest of inter-Lebanese relations and Lebanese-Arab relations.”
After 29 years, Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April 2005, after mass protests erupted following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2005. Regarding Damascus’ role, the acting Interior Minister said, “There is near unanimity across Lebanon not to disavow history or geography. We insist on the best relations with Syria. What joins us with Syria is mote than history and geography. Families are divided between Lebanon and Syria and economic relations are very close. There is, above all else, the [common] Israeli enemy. But this does not mean Lebanon should abandon its freedom, sovereignty or independence. The Lebanese people are ready to establish excellent relations with Syria but there are simple conditions [that ought to be fulfilled first]. The first in the ongoing international investigation into Hariri’s murder. Responsibilities should be determined and those involved must be punished, no matter who they are. The second condition, which is very important, is the respect of Lebanon ’s independence, freedom, sovereignty and free decisions. Apart from this, the Lebanese are fully ready to reach an understanding with Syria on anything that serves Arab interests, particularly with regard to our strategic option, because the main enemy in the region is Israel.”
Earlier this month, days before the Dialogue for National Reconciliation was set to begin in downtown Beirut , Beirut MP Saad Hariri and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah met for marathon talks on national issues and regional developments. Commenting on the significance of this historic get-together, Fatfat said, “There have been many meetings recently among participants in the national dialogue. They indicate that consultations are taking place and confidence is gradually being built… I am optimistic. These latest meetings will pave the way for the success of the national dialogue, although this will take some time.”
Asked about Druze MP Walid Jumblatt’s recent U.S visit where he called for regime change in Syria , the acting Interior Minister and member of the 14 March coalition said, “I do not want to defend Walid Jumblatt. But, for the sake of clarification, his visit was scheduled in advance. It was decided before the date of the national dialogue was set. Jumblatt insisted on attending the first and second sessions, in which he said what he later repeated in Washington. Let me say that his statements were not made without reason. About 24 hours earlier, Syrian President Bashar Assad delivered a speech in Damascus in which he directly interfered in the dialogue. We felt President Assad was sitting with us on the dialogue table… his interference is not acceptable. We hope everyone in the Arab world will talk with President Assad to make him realize things have chanced and history cannot move backwards. Interfering in domestic Lebanese affairs is not the ideal way to restore good relations between Lebanon and Syria.”
Participants in the National Dialogue reached an agreement earlier this week over the disputed Shebaa Farms, unanimously saying they are Lebanese. However, the thorny issue of whether to disarm Hezbollah remains to be decided when the Dialogue reconvenes later this month.
“I believe all the Lebanese people support the resistance as long as Lebanese land remains under occupation. The problem lies in the term. The Shebaa Frams consist of a number of small farms whose inhabitants left in various stages, especially after the 1967 war. The last farm to be deserted was Bastarah in 1989. The problem is that most of the farms where included in an agreement between Syria and the United Nations in 1974 to disengage [military] forces in the Golan Heights. This means that Syria , when it presented maps to the U.N in 1974, considered the farms to be Syrian territory. The U.N approved these maps. Herein lies the problem,” Ftafat said.
The Interior Minister acknowledged the farms were part of Lebanon. “Real estate records are available in Sidon . The farms are Lebanese in the legal sense but fall under Syrian sovereignty, according to U.N records. We are now preparing a file of two parts. The first part proves the Lebanese identity of the Shebaa Farms. But the U.N needs Syria to acknowledge this. So far, regrettably, Syria has not cooperated in this regard.”
Asked whether Beirut was in need of a serious Arab initiative to repair bilateral relations with Syria, Fatfat told Asharq al Awsat, “We are ready for an Arab initiative in this respect. But we have Lebanese laws. First of all, everyone must acknowledge Lebanon’s independence, freedom and sovereignty and recognize it’s free political, economic, educational system. Based on this, everything is possible. If there is an Arab initiative to correct relations, we are not against it in any way, but it must be based on the facts I just mentioned.”