March 13, 2000 Special Dispatch No. 75

Bashar Al-Assad and Lebanese PM, Emile Lahoud, on an Israeli Withdrawal from South Lebanon

March 13, 2000
Lebanon | Special Dispatch No. 75

British journalist, Patrick Seale, a confidant of Syrian president, Hafez Al-Assad, published two interviews in the Arabic daily Al-Hayat: one with the President's son, Bashar Al-Assad, and the other with Lebanese President, Emile Lahoud.[1] Following are excerpts from these interviews:

Bashar Al-Assad

"In the beginning there were indications of progress in the peace process, but in reality nothing happned. The assassination of Israeli President Rabin produced the impression that the Israelis do not want peace. Later on, the election of Barak made the opposite impression – at least in the beginning."

"Now we must ask if Barak wanted to move forward, and whether he could have made the decisions. He seems weaker and weaker every day. For example, when he mentioned Rabin's commitment to a full withdrawal, which is known as 'the deposit,' to his government, he hinted that President Clinton wanted him to endorse it. But he never clearly said that he [actually] did."

"Israel says it wants to leave Lebanon, but refuses to negotiate the issue of the Palestinian [refugees] in Lebanon. They constitute one eighth of the population in Lebanon. The Lebanese wonder: 'Why should we negotiate, when Israel rejects this issue, which is the most important for us?'"

"During the 70's, the Palestinians were the cause for the civil war. Should the Israelis withdraw from Lebanon without a just and comprehensive peace agreement, the Palestinians will fight back."

"A unilateral withdrawal is not a solution, especially since it derives from the first defeat Israel has suffered, since it was established. In 1973, Israel was defeated in the early stages, but American support and the Egyptian decision to stop the advance of its forces following the crossing of the Suez Canal, allowed Israel to concentrate its forces in the northern front and regain the territories it lost [to Syria]."

"But the main question in Lebanon is: Will Israel accept the heavy casualties it suffered in South Lebanon or will it try to take revenge?"

"The essential dispute between us and Israel is about the nature of the peace. We want an agreement that will lead to long-term stability in the region, while they [Israel] want a contract, without thinking what will happen after it is signed. The negotiations are not a goal in themselves. It is merely a path towards the goal. In order for the peace to last, it must be just and comprehensive. Does signing a peace contract mean a real peace? Peace is not a contract, but rather the situation that follows the signing of a contract."

Lebanese President, Emile Lahoud

"Unilateral Israeli withdrawal will not succeed. It will only lead to another war." [Here Seale quotes senior Lebanese sourcesPresident Lahoud himself on another occasion– saying, "The issue of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is directly connected to the issue of Israeli withdrawal. There are about 200,000 Palestinians in south Lebanon, most of them armed, especially in camps such as Ein Al-Hilweh. They represent not only a refugee issue but also a military presence. Concentrated near the Israeli border, they are bound to carry out operations across the border, should the Israelis withdraw unilaterally. How would Israel react then? Would it bomb the refugees camps? Would it re-occupy Lebanon? Lebanon cannot give Israel any security guarantees in the case of a unilateral withdrawal."]

"We do not want to go back to the pre-1978 situation. The next Palestinian generation might say: 'Yasser Arafat does not represent us. We want to go back to Palestine!' All peace efforts will then be wiped away, and we will face a new war. This is why the Palestinians cannot stay here."

"When we begin negotiating with Israel, the Refugee Problem will be the first issue we bring up. No peace will be achieved, before this issue is dealt with. The Israelis must solve this problem, because they pushed them here. Justice must be done."

"The Palestinians must leave, even though we do not say that it has to be now. The solution might take several years, but eventually they will leave. If they stay here, they will become a time-bomb that may explode at any time. It is not just about giving them passports and letting them stay, as some claim. If we let them stay, we betray our children."

"We want to end this problem. There will be no peace, especially in Israel, if there is no peace in the Lebanon…"

"When we [the Lebanese] unite on the strategic issues, we will be at the peak of our strength. We are united on strategic issues. Hafez Al-Assad is our protector and his son is now taking the same position. I know Dr. Bashar [Al-Assad] personally. He is very strong. We have very a good working relationship. I feel, maybe contrary to what some Lebanese think, that Bashar Assad sees Lebanon the way he sees Syria. I share the same feeling with him. What is best for Syria is best for Lebanon, and vice versa. For the first time in Arab history, two countries share a warm and real relationship."

[1] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), March 3, 2000.

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