London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Washington has expressed resentment at Britain’s decision to start low-level talks with Hezbollah’s political officials in Lebanon, announced last week; although initially it refrained from criticizing the decision. One US official told journalists in Washington that the US is “puzzled” by Britain’s decision and is uncomfortable with it. He added that Britain had informed the previous US administration of its intention, but has not informed the present US administration.
The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed astonishment at the distinction Britain is making between the military and political wings of Hezbollah, saying “we do not see the distinctions they see in the unified leadership of Hezbollah.” One US Department of State official told Asharq Al-Awsat by telephone that Britain and the US “both know the problems caused by Hezbollah in Lebanon and the region, but Britain has decided to pursue a different approach.”
The US official insisted that the US still considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, saying that “we are not going to have any contacts with any member of any wing, until Hezbollah surrenders its weapons and renounces violence.”
He added: “The US does not distinguish between military, cultural and political wings of Hezbollah, and our decision to avoid making such a distinction is premised on accurate available information indicating that all Hezbollah wings and branches share finances, personnel and unified leadership and they all support violence.”
British officials admit they and US officials have different views on how to deal with Hezbollah. Barry Marston, official spokesman for the British FCO, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “it is normal to have different views,” but added: “We are autonomous as far as decision-making is concerned.” Marston stressed that the British decision did not come out of the blue and was not in response to Washington’s rapprochement with Syria, and that Washington was informed of the British decision when it was first made.
Marston went on to say: “We discussed our decision with the Americans earlier when the decision was made and we also discussed it in the past few weeks.” He seemed confident that these differences in dealing with the Lebanese issue will not cause a crisis in the relations between Britain and the United States. “The US officials have told us they understand our reasons for what we are doing,” he said.
Marston denied that the Bush administration was closer to the British government. “We have made a very good start with Obama; Prime Minister Gordon Brown was one of the first leaders to visit Washington and he spent a considerable time discussing common points of view regarding these issues with President Obama,” he said.
Marston stressed more than once that the step Britain has taken does not mean a radical change of British policy towards Hezbollah, because it is done at “the level of parliamentary members connected to the political and cultural wing of Hezbollah, and who have no known connection with military activities.”
Although he did not clarify the distinction between military, political and cultural wings of Hezbollah, demanded by the US official, Marston insisted that Britain is committed to “no talks” with the Hezbollah military and that it will start the discussions to see if they would be fruitful. He explained that the British decision, taken several months ago to ban Hezbollah’s military wing, was basically based on activities carried out by Hezbollah outside the Lebanese borders and in southern Iraq in particular, in support of Iraqi militias involved in carrying out military operations against British and Iraqi forces. We have banned contacts with the military wing of Hezbollah, but contacts with the political wing were not clearly banned and this has enabled us to have talks with them.”
He pointed out that the Americans have their own view, adding that “the important thing is to make sure that what we do is clearly understood and would not be taken out of context.”
Marston noted that until 2005 “the British government had official contacts with Hezbollah but these contacts were stopped because we did not see them producing any positive results.” He went on to state that “the situation has positively and therefore we are looking once again into the matter.” He went on to explain that the decision to resume talks with Hezbollah was taken in the light of positive changes that have taken place in Lebanon; in the light of the Doha accord and the formation of a Lebanese national unity government, and in the light of the progress made in relation to the Special International Tribunal for Lebanon.” He pointed out that “Britain’s priority is to make sure that these changes continue and to use our relations with the main parties to ensure that.”
Marston said that contacts with Hezbollah will be made through the British embassy in Beirut and denied that Britain has already appointed a special envoy for the talks with Hezbollah. “The talks are held through our embassy in Beirut, and we do not have a special envoy for the talks. These are not big changes; they are merely talks of the kind that normally take place through embassies,” he said.
Marston revealed that “one or two contacts have been made with Hezbollah officials, but they were not high level contacts.”
In reply to a question whether Britain is planning for a meeting with Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah or his deputy, or any of its religious leaders, Marston said: “No definite steps have been made in this direction; there is no program or timetable for these meetings. More than anything else, the issue will depend on what appears appropriate at the time.”
Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Musawi told Asharq Al-Awsat that talks with Britain have been entrusted to Nawaf Musawi, who is in charge of Hezbollah’s foreign relations; however, Musawi could not be reached for comment.
According to the British FCO spokesman Barry Marston, “what Britain aims to achieve through this rapprochement is to send a clear message to Hezbollah regarding what we hope to see in Lebanon, as far as the integration of the political process is concerned, away from the resort to arms to solve internal or external problems, and to support the [Lebanese] government by working through the state institutions.” He pointed out that the issue is concerned with a process that is already under way, and to avoid the kind of political divisions that that we saw in the past with regard to national reconciliation and constructive dialogue regarding issues of common interest.”
Marston regarded Washington’s rapprochement with Syria as a positive step, pointing out that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband had visited Damascus six months ago “as part of a process to strengthen our relations with the Syrian government, because we felt that there is more room for reaching a common understanding regarding our outlook for the Middle East, especially through the indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel, Syria’s adoption of a positive stance towards peace and stability in Iraq, and the importance of Syrian support for democracy in Lebanon.”
Although Britain is insisting that the changes that took place in Lebanon were behind the change of its policy towards Hezbollah, Washington is refusing to make any distinction between the political and military wings of Hezbollah and has made it a condition a few days ago that Hezbollah and Hamas should recognize Israel before any dialogue can begin to take place.”
Commenting on this issue, Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Musawi told Asharq Al-Awsat: “It is up to them to agree or not agree to a dialogue; we are not demanding they talk to us. As far as we are concerned, recognition of Israel is not the issue in whether we have dialogue with Washington or not; the issue is that they should recognize first that there is a Palestinian people whose rights have been usurped and their land occupied, that they have the right to liberate it and the refugees to return. There are many issues in the region that should be discussed before talking about recognizing Israel.”
Musawi also did not appear welcoming to one of Britain’s objectives of the talks with Hezbollah – which is ensuring that Hezbollah does not use weapons externally or internally, outside the [Lebanese] state authority. “The issue of the defence of Lebanon is an internal issue that the Lebanese are studying and discussing at the table of national dialogue,” he said.
Although Hezbollah regards Britain’s decision “a step in the right direction”, and says that it would welcome any step in this direction, it views such moves with suspicion. And while Britain says that it is trying to test the water to see whether the talks would be fruitful; Hezbollah is saying: “Let us wait and see how that will be translated in practice.”