Briefing on Lebanon and Other Middle East Issues
C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern
May 21, 2008
Briefing on Lebanon and Other Middle East Issues
(9:50 a.m. EDT)
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it’s nice to see some of our regular – all of our regular gaggle participants as well as some of those of you who don’t show up on a regular basis. But anyway, I can understand the attraction why.
The way I wanted to handle this was have David handle your questions about the obvious issues that are out there today, and then I’ll stay behind to answer any other non-David Welch, Middle East-related questions. So I’ll turn it over to David.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Thanks, Sean. Let me just preface my remarks by saying we expect, I hope not too long from now, that Sean will give you a statement in the name of the Secretary about the agreement in Doha on Lebanon. I can address any questions that you have about that.
Let me make a couple remarks at the outset. As you all know, Lebanon has been going through a significant political crisis which, very, very unfortunately, spilled over into the streets of Beirut beginning on the 5th of May. That this agreement has been reached in Doha is really a welcome development. It’s a necessary and positive step toward accomplishing what the Arab League’s initiative on Lebanon was designed to do, which was: first, to elect a president of Lebanon – as you know, there hasn’t been someone in that office, the highest Christian office in Lebanon, since November; second, the Arab League initiative called for forming a new government and that – the basis for that has also now been agreed in Doha; and third, the Arab initiative also asked that Lebanon’s electoral law be addressed. And the Lebanese politicians gathered in Doha also agreed on that.
As you know, throughout this crisis, before, during it, and today and afterwards, the United States supports the legitimate authorities in Lebanon, including the government and its security establishment. And we believe that the Government of Lebanon and the legitimate security forces of Lebanon should extend their authority over all the country.
We commend the efforts of the Arab League. In particular, I would like to single out the diplomatic effort led by Qatar under the leadership of the Amir, and in particular of the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim. They, together with the foreign ministers, six of them who comprised the Arab committee and the Secretary General of the Arab League, did a very good job under extremely difficult circumstances to forge this agreement.
Now, the next step is for it to be implemented. We would like to see that done in its entirety. As you know, this agreement has some – several provisions, including an important one related to security in addition to the political ones that I mentioned at the outset. We believe this should be done in accordance with what the Arab League set out at the outset and in conformity with the Security Council resolutions for Lebanon.
Okay. Those are the introductory comments I have to make, and I’m happy to address any of your questions about this. We’re on the record, just to repeat.
QUESTION: So then we shouldn’t expect much in the way of answers? (Laughter.)
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, it depends. You know, maybe you’ll get something. If you look at it carefully, it might even surprise you.
QUESTION: David, is this the – sort of the best face you can put on it? I mean, you’ve got an agreement that Iran and Syria immediately praised. It nearly doubles the number of seats in parliament that the opposition will have and gives them effective veto power. How can that be a necessary –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Doubles the number of seats in parliament?
QUESTION: From --
QUESTION: In the cabinet.
QUESTION: In the cabinet, I mean.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: In the government. Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: From six to eleven. I mean, how can this be necessary and positive from – for U.S. goals in the Mideast?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, look, let’s step back from this for a second. First of all, there are a number of governments who’ve acclaimed this, and that Lebanon should move forward to resolve some of these political issues I think is really important. And if Syria and Iran have supported that, then perhaps they will continue to exercise a more constructive role in Lebanon. We would like to see that. It would come as a bit of a surprise to us, but the results are what counts.
As you know, Lebanon had a cabinet that included members of the opposition until November of ’06. They left because of political disagreements, and that escalated the difficulties that have arisen. You know, we support the majority in this. The majority agreed with this decision, and they comprise a majority of the seats in the new cabinet that will be formed.
You know, it’s not for us to decide how Lebanon does this, how Lebanon’s political leadership addresses it. And the people of Lebanon will – when they do have a new parliamentary election in ’09, will have a chance to record their own views about this and other aspects of what their political leadership has done.
When there were members of the opposition in the cabinet, if they were members of Hezbollah, the United States did not have a relationship with them. If there’s a new cabinet formed and it includes members of the opposition who are Hezbollahis, that’ll be the case in the future, too. You know our views on Hezbollah.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? I mean, doesn't this set up a scenario where we’re bound to be at the same place in a few months if the Lebanese Government – if the opposition continues to veto some of the policies of the Lebanese Government, you’re just going to lead to a similar place again?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, I don’t think so. But of course, I can’t predict everything in the future. Again, let’s look at what happened here. I mean, there hasn’t been a president. Now there will be one. Second, the cabinet had been divided, as I said, since the walkout of members of the opposition. Now there’s to be a new cabinet, which will comprise members of the opposition as well.
I don’t know whether – I mean, most of you probably don’t know this, but the political tradition in Lebanon, when it comes to government decisions, is for consensus. Most Lebanese politics are formed around that principle. And it’s very difficult for Lebanese to get to consensus, but they generally hold to it once they can. I think there were over 4,000 cabinet decisions for this cabinet when the opposition was in it, that were arrived at by consensus. When – if you look at what would have likely been the result under some of the earlier proposals, this still gives to the majority in the cabinet, under this or any of the previous configurations, the right to take simple decisions by majority vote. Traditionally, those have been accomplished by consensus. But, yes, because there is a blocking minority, the minority is able to block major decisions if they seek to do so.
QUESTION: Do you think this leaves Hezbollah in a stronger position now than it was previously?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, it’s – you know, some have argued that they are accomplishing political objectives by intimidation and violence. I have to say that what happened on the 5th of May and thereafter is deeply disturbing in that respect. I think most Lebanese people – I mean, average people reacted very badly to that. As you can see, their public protests are not limited to political parties in Lebanon. Many people in Lebanon are upset over the situation that has evolved, press and editorial commentary throughout the Arab world has been very critical of Hezbollah’s actions.
The veil of resistance was ripped off this organization on the 5th of May when it took up guns against innocent people, against press establishments, against other political parties. You know, I – we have to see that for what it is, and I think the reaction to it has been extremely negative from most Lebanese and certainly throughout the region. That’s why you saw this energized Arab diplomacy to address this.
Again, this is not the end of this crisis and Lebanon still has to go through implementing this agreement. These are very delicate and political subjects for them and – however, I think we can go – we can see now that there could be a respite that would be very useful to heal some of these problems. And at the end of the day, it’ll be up to Lebanese to judge whether they prefer politics as they saw it on the streets of Beirut on the days following the 5th of May, or whether they prefer a more consensual and traditional approach to it.
QUESTION: Israel and Syria have launched indirect talks with the mediation of Turkey. A couple of questions on that. Was the U.S. involved in facilitating those talks? Did you encourage Turkey to play the mediating role? And what is the U.S. role in this? And is this part of the Annapolis process and how do you see this going forward? Are you looking at changing how you view Syria because of the this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: It’s our understanding that they’ve agreed to conduct some indirect talks under the auspices of Turkey. There’s been a statement from the Prime Minister’s office in Israel. And I gather, but I haven’t seen it, that there’s a similar, almost identical statement from the Syrian foreign ministry. In those statements, the parties declared their intention to proceed in good faith in these conversations with an open mind, trying to achieve an agreement.
Israel and Turkey have apprised us in the past of these discussions and kept us informed since their inception. I think Turkey played a good and useful role in this regard. You know, we have – we think the expansion of the circle of peace would be a good thing. And, of course, it would be very, very helpful if that included an agreement with Syria. That said, President Bush, during his – as recently as his trip to the region, declared that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians offer special promise, and we’re working to conclude an agreement by the end of the year on this. Those parties are in direct negotiation. So that’s what I have to say about that at this point.
QUESTION: How was the U.S. involved at all? Are you helping to facilitate these talks?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: No, Turkey played that role. We’re, as you know, not – we haven’t done that directly between the two. Turkey played a good role. We were kept informed. That’s where it is.
QUESTION: But Syria did not inform you. You said only Israel –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Israel and Turkey.
QUESTION: – and Turkey. You were not in consultations with Syria on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, the Syrians made some statements to the press that were suggestive, but not very specific as this last one was.
QUESTION: In the past –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Yes, please.
QUESTION: On the issue of Hezbollah arms, how would you like to see it going from here? And if a national unity government emerges, how would you like this issue to be handled by them? And there is real fear that with the blocking third, maybe some decisions on the tribunal might be reversed or, you know, the tribunal for Hariri will not take progress as it was supposed to be. I mean, how do you address these two issues?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, those are very good questions and thank you for asking them. First of all, let me be clear that there are – there’s an international standard in Security Council resolutions about what should happen with respect to weapons in the hands of militias or nongovernmental parties in Lebanon, and those are really explicit. There should be only one legal authority for security in Lebanon and that is the Government of Lebanon and its security establishment. Militias should be disarmed. That’s in 1559 and it’s reflected in 1701 as well.
In the Doha agreement there are provisions that relate to the authority of the state and to the use of – or enjoining against the use of weapons to achieve political gains. I don’t know if you all have seen the Doha agreement. It’s actually got quite a bit of language on this issue. And it says that the Lebanese have to address this. That’s – that was the case with – in the past as well. I think this is a really serious problem for Lebanon because it’s clear from the events of early May that the possession in the hands of one party of considerable military authority and power is deeply corrosive to open, transparent and fair politics.
And I think that the agreement that’s been reached is, in a way, a reaction to that and a setback for the Hezbollahis because now it has been inscribed again on the national agenda with some prominence that something has got to be done about this. That doesn't mean it’s going to be resolved immediately. I understand how difficult that is. But let’s – the moral plane here has shifted back again. And I think the people are pretty disgusted with what happened in early May, too.
With respect to the tribunal, once the Security Council acted to establish the tribunal, it was game over with respect to any further decisions required. The international investigation is proceeding. The tribunal is available for action when the investigation is ripe to proceed to prosecution, and that is what I expect will happen. I don’t see any further decisions that the Government of Lebanon would have to take in that respect.
QUESTION: In the past, members of Mr. Olmert’s government have indicated that it was U.S. reservations about any talks with Syria, whether direct or indirect, which was one of their reasons for hesitating in going down that path. Can you tell us about how well-founded that perception was and whether those U.S. reservations have been appeased?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I think that that expression of our reservation conflates two issues in an unfair manner. It’s a question we get often. One is – one question is: Would we agree, or would we like to see, peace between Israel and any of its neighbors who do not have peace relations? The answer to that is yes. We have no objection to that. Indeed, we support that as a goal.
The second is, we do have reservations about the foreign policy behavior of Syria, and for that matter, its internal politics as well. We have expressed those many times, including directly to the Israelis. I have to say they share our concerns. That said, Israel lives in a difficult neighborhood; it’s in its national interest to find ways to expand the circle of peace if other people are serious about doing it, and I see that they’re undertaking that experiment now.
QUESTION: Is this – does this mean that the U.S. is not – is going to continue to play the role it has played in this process, which is nothing at all? I just –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, the role that we are playing is directly with respect to encouraging the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that are underway.
QUESTION: Does that mean that you don’t foresee a role for the U.S. or U.S. officials in –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: We haven’t been asked – we haven’t been asked to play one.
QUESTION: Well, are you willing to consider the idea? Is this something –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: We haven’t been asked. So if we’re asked, we’ll consider it.
QUESTION: What role have you been playing with the Hamas truce effort with the Egyptians in the past few days?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: None.
QUESTION: None at all?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: No. The Egyptians are working that problem themselves to try and convince the Hamas militants in Gaza that a ceasefire is in the interests of the people of Gaza. And so far, unfortunately for the people of Gaza, they have not yet succeeded in doing that.
QUESTION: David, it’s hard to – not to conclude that you are not enthusiastic, perhaps, about –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I would describe myself as dispassionate at this point. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Dispassionate. Interesting. Well, I was going to say –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I’m a dispassionate kind of guy, Arshad.
QUESTION: But you’re (inaudible) on the Israel-Syria?
QUESTION: But you’re spending a huge amount of time on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Yes.
QUESTION: And it sounds like you’re not spending a speck of time on the Israeli-Syrian matter. And consistently since Annapolis and even before that, you have – U.S. officials have emphasized that they saw their focus as being on Israeli-Palestinian, that that was the track that was moving. Again, very hard to conclude that you didn’t think other tracks were likely to be fruitful and your emphasis was elsewhere.
Two questions. One, is that not a fair assessment that even though you would like to see Israel secure a peace agreement with Syria, or indeed any of its neighbors, that you don’t think this is perhaps the best track to pursue at this moment? And secondly, do you think that there is sufficient bandwidth in the system for Israel to be negotiating on two tracks, given the extreme difficulty of both?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, on the latter, that’s more of a judgment for Israel and Israelis to make.
On the former, objectively, when we looked at where we would like to put our foreign policy emphasis here, I think we saw the Palestinian track as most promising, we – in particular after the change of government on the Palestinian side last summer, about a year ago. When that happened, it seemed to suggest to us that there was a promise, really, to reorient the equation here. And yes we did, Arshad, as you point out, invest a great deal in trying to change the circumstances to build international support, to reopen a political track. We invested a lot of effort by the Secretary of State and the President personally in doing that. The Annapolis conference served as a launching pad for real, direct negotiations, which is where we are now. And we’re heavily involved in trying to encourage progress in those negotiations. And we would like to have real achievements on that track by the end of the year.
This does not mean that we would not favor the expansion of such efforts between Israel and Lebanon and between Israel and Syria. That said, I mean, Lebanon had its own problems and, frankly, we had our concerns about Syrian behavior in any number of dimensions that suggested to us it would be rather more difficult to pursue that track. That Israel has been able to open some sort of indirect conversation about these matters with the Syrian Government with the good offices of Turkey is a good thing. I mean, I’m not saying it’s not. And we hope it prospers. But where we’re making the major investment right now is on the Palestinian track.
QUESTION: Given that your close and longstanding ally, Israel, believes it is worth its effort to invest in the Syrian track, why isn’t the Administration willing to do more to support them in that, rather than dispassionate and focus elsewhere?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, look, direct negotiations are always the best way to proceed. In the past, peace has been built when the two parties, whoever they may be, are directly engaged with one another. And so, just looking at what’s happening right now, I think – again, I don’t want to speak for the Israeli Government, but I think they would argue that what they’re doing with the Palestinians is of an entirely different dimension and character.
QUESTION: Just one question then on Syria. Now that Syria and Israel are publicly talking about negotiations, indirect negotiations, how would that affect negotiations with Hamas? Could Hamas be involved in eventual negotiations? Could people eventually decide to start talking to Hamas because Syria is a backer of Hamas?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: It’s a completely different issue. Syria is a country. Hamas is a militant terrorist group. The Palestinian Authority and the PLO represent Palestinians in negotiations with Israel, and that’s who’s conducting the talks for them now.
QUESTION: Since Syria backs Hamas, could they push for Hamas to be involved in the negotiations on the Palestinian front?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I don’t see that and I don’t think it would work.
QUESTION: David --
MR. MCCORMACK: Last – last question.
QUESTION: Your answer to my question didn’t address the question of why you are not interested in –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: You had a chance.
QUESTION: I know, but you didn’t answer.
MR. MCCORMACK: Let’s get to Samir.
QUESTION: President Bush and Secretary Rice will meet with Cardinal Sfeir from Lebanon today.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Yes, very shortly.
QUESTION: What are you going to tell him? I mean, what --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, we haven’t told him yet, so how do I know? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: What’s the message that you will –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, we have a lot of respect for the Patriarch. As you know, he is the Patriarch of the Maronites and they are, of course, the most important Christian community in Lebanon. He has very substantial moral influence over his flock and beyond it, in fact. So out of respect for his role in Lebanon, the President would like to hear from him and talk to him about how we see the future of Lebanon. You know, he has some influence over how Maronites view their political circumstances in the country, and the trouble over electing a president has essentially been a difficulty for Maronites because that’s the highest Christian office in the land.
QUESTION: So it’s a good timing for his visit today?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Pardon me?
QUESTION: It’s good timing for his visit today.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, his visit was planned before, and so it’s – it is good timing, but it’s fortuitous.
QUESTION: And if you could, without going back to the line – the Administration line that, you know, everything is completely unrelated to anything else and that no matter how close they are or how similar they may appear to 99 percent of the population, they’re, in fact, completely unrelated, if you – without going back to that, could you explain why you’re not concerned at all that the agreement that’s been struck in Doha could end up something like the failed agreement between Hamas and Abbas’ people in the PA, this kind of power-sharing agreement that involves a group that you consider to be militant terrorists?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, you know, I don’t like to compare apples and oranges, really. I consider the Palestinian situation, just in its history, its political character, completely different from Lebanon. You know, in the case of Lebanon, there was not a solution about how to elect a president even though there was a consensus about who the president would be because there were a variety of different moving pieces about what the political future ought to be with respect to the distribution of seats within the national unity government, how you’re going to conduct a parliamentary election next time around, what is the proper role of the political parties in the political life of the country. You know, this – we commend Qatar for leading this effort. You know, it’s difficult. This is not, I would argue, not a perfect solution, but it is much better than the alternatives, especially the kind of violence and disturbance that we have seen inside of Lebanon.
No one wants to see a return to the violence of the past that had characterized the Lebanese civil war, most of all Lebanese. They’re fed up with that. I think you saw that in the spontaneous demonstrations of people after the violence had calmed down in the streets, when they had a chance to go back out. And you know, I think the people who run some of these militant operations have got to look at what is the public view of what they’re doing. You know, Hamas is hurting the people of Gaza far more than it’s helping them by this behavior, and Hezbollah was shooting Lebanese. They’re not using their weapons to defend against some mythical Israeli enemy –
QUESTION: Is that an acknowledgement of one similarity?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, in their behavior, absolutely.
QUESTION: And that they both begin with H?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: (Laughter.) No. In their behavior, absolutely. No, I mean if they’re prepared to use violence instead of peaceful means –
QUESTION: So I guess that means that’s why you’re concerned, on your part, that it could deteriorate like the – what happened in – in the PA?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I think it did deteriorate. Look, what happened in early May was deeply disturbing and presented enormous risk to Lebanon, and to the area for that matter. And we believe it was instigated not merely by one party in Lebanon but by some of their supporters outside. That that has been halted and now may even be reversed with some damage to Hezbollah in the public eye is really important. And again, you have to weigh it – it’s not perfect as a solution, but you have to weigh it against the alternative, which would be a further deterioration –
MR. MCCORMACK: Okay, that’s it, guys.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Thank you all. Thank you.
Released on May 21, 2008