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Israeli, Syrian Ambassadors to the U.S. Speak Out on the Middle East Crisis

July 17, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, some official perspective on what is happening, beginning with the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome.

DANIEL AYALON, Israeli Ambassador to the United States: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Is Israel actively working or seeking a cease-fire as we speak?

DANIEL AYALON: Yes, we do. And a cease-fire means the end of hostility. The end of hostility means bringing back the two hostages, the two soldiers that were kidnapped over international borders in our land. Once they are returned, certainly we can talk positively about cease-fire.

JIM LEHRER: But that’s the first step, and that must be done, and it has not been done yet?

DANIEL AYALON: No. And as long as the two soldiers are being kept hostages, that means a continuation of fire, a continuation of violence and hostilities. So this is the first and foremost objective: to get them back.

JIM LEHRER: For the record, Mr. Ambassador, is your country certain that the two soldiers are still alive?

DANIEL AYALON: Yes, we are certain they’re still alive, and we hold those who keep them responsible for their well-being and also for their safe return home.

JIM LEHRER: How do you know they’re still alive?

DANIEL AYALON: Well, we know it from analysis of what happened in the theater of the battle where they were captured and also from intelligence sources.

JIM LEHRER: Is this movement toward a cease-fire — is it fast movement? I mean, do you believe that something could happen in the next 24 hours, the next 48 hours? Can you give us any feel for timing here?

DANIEL AYALON: Well, unfortunately, I do not see any rapid movement fast. We are dealing with a terror organization, Hezbollah, which is much stronger than the government of Lebanon.

And we see it now, that they have been amassing a huge arsenal. They’ve been building up for more than a decade. We have been warning against it; we said that they have thousands of Katyusha rockets and deadly missiles.

Some in the international community were quite skeptical about it. But now we are subject to the wrath of these missiles, which are manufactured in Syria and in Iran.

And I think, Jim, that the misfortune is not just of the Lebanese government or the people or the Israelis. It is the misfortune of the entire Middle East, because what’s at stake here is not just peace and security on our border, which is very, very important for us, for any country and any legitimate government.

But it’s a crucial moment for the Middle East, which way the Middle East will go. Will it go the Iran way, which is pushing very hard its agenda of radical Islamist terroristic ideas and conduct throughout the Middle East? Or will they stop here and things can become better?

And the crux here — and I think it’s a test for the entire region — if we deal them a real blow, to the Hezbollah, I think that will positively affect the insurgents in Iraq, that will positively affect the entire situation in the territories whereby Hamas, Hezbollah, the insurgents in Iraq will understand that there is a price to pay, that they are not at liberty to do whatever they can with the umbrella of Syria and Iran.

The Middle East at risk

Daniel Ayalon
Israeli Ambassador to the United States
If Damascus stops the supply of these armaments, stops the political support and the financial support, and also gives them a direct order, "You stop it or else," they will do it. Hezbollah is a proxy of Iran and of Syria.

JIM LEHRER: So there's much more at stake here for Israel than a return of two soldiers?

DANIEL AYALON: Oh, absolutely. And we have been actually looking -- people talk about disproportionate action. We have been disproportionate. We have been lenient and we have been too soft for the last six months.

As we pulled out of Lebanon completely, there was the U.N. commission which gave us a clean bill. We left Lebanon to the last inch. A blue line, which is the international border, which is recognized universally was established. We are on our side of the border, and that was the delivery of our part of the deal.

On the other hand, we didn't see -- we expected that the Lebanese government to exercise control and sovereignty over their territory. We expected the Lebanese army to be deployed on the border; this has not happened.

On the contrary, we had the Hezbollah deployed. Not only Hezbollah was deployed, they built a formidable line of fortification and positions. They have imported unimaginable arsenal of deadly weapons which are being used now. And they have been provoking us all along for the last six years.

JIM LEHRER: As you know, President Bush indicated very strongly today that he believes Syria could stop this if it wanted to. Do you agree with him?

DANIEL AYALON: Absolutely. You know, only today in Haifa and yesterday we had about 24 people killed. They were all killed from a Katyusha 122-millimeters, which are -- these Katyusha rockets are produced in Damascus.

If Damascus stops the supply of these armaments, stops the political support and the financial support, and also gives them a direct order, "You stop it or else," they will do it. Hezbollah is a proxy of Iran and of Syria. And, certainly, they have the clout over them.

JIM LEHRER: Is Israel willing to negotiate with Syria?

DANIEL AYALON: Well, we have been willing to negotiate with the Syrians all along, but unfortunately to no avail. Syria right now is also the host country of 11 terror organizations.

It's not just the Hezbollah that they help. They also help the Hamas. They also help Islamic Jihad, the Democratic Front, and the Popular Front of the Palestinian movement. And they are constantly giving orders from Damascus to flare up the area.

It is not the interest, unfortunately, of this Syrian government, which aligns itself with the Islamist radical regime in Tehran, to have any political dialogue. Wherever we are coming forward to any kind of a political progress, we see Damascus acts up, with orders, like Khaled Mashaal ordering the kidnapping of our two soldiers two weeks ago. They have been ordering the Hamas to shell our southern towns with Kassam rockets.

So it's a big question to the Syrian ambassador: When will they stop and lay down the arms? When will they expel terror organizations? After 9/11, it's all too obvious that there's no distinction between terrorists and those who give them support, and shelter, and help.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mr. Ambassador, if the military action continues, is it possible that Israel might hit targets within Syria?

DANIEL AYALON: It's not our intention. We do not want to have the conflict spilled over to the entire Middle East, and I don't believe it will.

I think both Syria and Iran are very careful, because it's certainly not with their interest to expand and to enlarge the conflict. Both the Syrians and the Iranians will continue fighting until the last Lebanese soldier or civilian drops dead, so I don't think that they will be involved.

We certainly are not going to involve them, unless we are attacked by them. But so far they have been very careful to contain, and limit, and direct the hostilities to Lebanon. And it's too bad that the Lebanese country, and us, and the entire region is being held hostage by Iran and Damascus.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.

DANIEL AYALON: Thank you, Jim.

Syrian ambassador's reaction

Imad Moustapha
Syrian Ambassador to the United States
[T]he barbaric attacks on Lebanon should cease immediately. The Lebanese are being killed right now while we are talking.Israel has destroyed completely Lebanon for the third time within 20 years. Enough is enough. Israel has to be responsible.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now Gwen Ifill has the Syrian view.

GWEN IFILL: That comes from Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha.

Welcome, Mr. Ambassador.

IMAD MOUSTAPHA, Syrian Ambassador to the United States: Hi.

GWEN IFILL: I want to start with you with the same question that Jim asked Ambassador Ayalon, which is whether you think there is room or a potential for a cease-fire and prisoner swap to put an end to this crisis?

IMAD MOUSTAPHA: This is what we have immediately demanded the moment Israel started bombarding and massacring the Lebanese. We have said that there should be an immediate cease-fire and that the world community should help negotiate an exchange of prisoners.

Everybody knows that Israel has illegally imprisoned, abducted and imprisoned more than 9,000 Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians. Some of them, those abducted, were only abducted two weeks ago, are democratically elected representatives of the Palestinian people.

Some of them are civilian cabinet ministers. They were abducted by the Israeli occupation forces, and they are imprisoned in Israel now.

The moment Hezbollah took those two Israeli soldiers as prisoners, the very same moment, immediately Hezbollah invited Israel to engage through a third party, just like happened before when Germany mediated an exchange of prisoners, so that Israel would release our imprisoned hostages and the Palestinians and Hezbollah will release the three Israeli soldiers.

I think this is fair, particularly if you take into account that we are equal human beings to the Israelis. Although that Hezbollah has demanded -- demanded -- that we will exchange those three soldiers with only the women and the minors, children that are imprisoned by Israel.

GWEN IFILL: Let me just get something clear. You're saying that you think that the cease-fire should happen after the prisoner swap? And how many prisoners are you saying should be released on the other side?

IMAD MOUSTAPHA: We are not negotiating on behalf of Hezbollah or anybody else. We are just reminding the American public opinion of the facts on the ground, because these facts are being hidden from the American public opinion.

What we are saying is, first, of course attacks on Lebanon, the barbaric attacks on Lebanon should cease immediately. The Lebanese are being killed right now while we are talking.

Israel has destroyed completely Lebanon for the third time within 20 years. Enough is enough. Israel has to be responsible.

And the public opinion here in the United States should understand that, if you are talking about terrorism, then actually killing all of these civilians and continuously killing Arab civilians, Palestinians and Lebanese, and other Arabs for the past half-century is exactly, exactly what we call state terrorism.

Dispelling public opinion on Syria

GWEN IFILL: You said you are not negotiating on behalf of Hezbollah.

IMAD MOUSTAPHA: No, we are...

GWEN IFILL: Does that mean that you would reject President Bush's suggestion today that President Assad speak to Hezbollah?

IMAD MOUSTAPHA: That was such a simplistic approach. With due respect, President Bush thinks that it only suffices for Secretary Annan to call President Bashar Assad through a telephone conversation and, voila, everything is resolved.

We are talking -- you know, history did not start six days ago in the Middle East. We are talking about half a century of occupation, of humiliation, of despair.

Israel is a country that continuously occupies our territories, including the Syrian Golan, the Shaba Farms in Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, imprisoning our people. Enough is enough. Occupation is the mother of our evils, and that should come to an end.

GWEN IFILL: But the Israeli ambassador argued just now in his conversation with Jim that, in fact, Syria is behind a lot of what's happening, and that Iran is behind it, and that Syria is being used to funnel money, funnel missiles, no?

IMAD MOUSTAPHA: While Israel is actually killing the Lebanese, this (inaudible) story airs. "You know, it's Damascus. It's Tehran."

While their hands are emerged in blood, they think it's Damascus. They tell the people it's Damascus, it's Tehran. "It's not us. We are the lambs of the Middle East," as if the public opinion is totally, totally stupid about what Israel has been doing to us for the past half-century.

Another important thing, he said something that the whole world knows that this is totally untrue. In the past five years, Syria time and again invited Israel to reengage in peace talks, to revive the peace process that used to be once. And Israel has categorically, categorically, flatly rejected this. And look what he says.

GWEN IFILL: So Syria has no pull, no influence over Sheik Nasrallah and Hezbollah?

IMAD MOUSTAPHA: Well, the myth that Hezbollah is a puppet of Syria or of Iran is a very silly Israeli story. Hezbollah is part and parcel of the Lebanese social fabric. These are Lebanese guys; they are Lebanese people.

They are actually not a militia, a professional militia. They are the everyday worker, farmer, employer here, medical student there, who also defends their country against the Israel aggressions.

In the past two years, Israel has violated the Lebanese air space more than 23 times. But nobody cares. Israel abducts Arabs non-stop, imprisons them. The world opinion doesn't care.

Only when two Israeli soldiers are imprisoned by Hezbollah and Hezbollah immediately demands an exchange of prisoners, suddenly the United States is offended and everybody is talking about international legitimacy.

They even talk about Hezbollah crossing the borders of Israel. I can't believe this; this is preposterous. Israel has been violating our borders throughout the past 50 years, and nobody cares about it.

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask you something about what some other Arab nations have had to say about this? The Saudi foreign minister, particularly, who said that the Hezbollah attacks will, quote, "pull the whole region back to years ago, and we cannot simply accept them." Do you disagree with that?

IMAD MOUSTAPHA: I'm not going to discuss what other states and countries are saying. What I'm trying to say right now is the following.

The United States has been claiming the past year that they are the friends of Lebanon. The Lebanese government, Prime Minister Siniora, went to the United Nations Security Council the day before yesterday and demanded that the world interfere. Lebanon is being massacred right now by Israel, and the United States objected to this.

Today you heard President Bush. He refuses the fact that a cease-fire should take place. While Beirut is being burned down, while the Lebanese are being killed, while innocent civilians are being massacred, the United States is refusing to interfere.

Finding peace in the Middle East

GWEN IFILL: Do you feel, as Ambassador Ayalon just said, that the future of the Middle East hinges on this particular -- this conflict this week?

IMAD MOUSTAPHA: I think the whole future of the Middle East hinges on one thing: ending the occupation. As long as the occupation continues, as long as the Palestinians and also a part of Syria and a part of Lebanon are under occupation, peace will not prevail.

The United States should come to this realization. If the United States really wants to help Israel, if they really care for the future of Israel and the future of, you know, the Arabs -- they are also human beings -- they should convince Israel that they should stop their intransigent policies in the Middle East. They should allow the Palestinians to have their free, independent, sovereign state, just like every nation in the world.

Enough is enough. They should give us back our Golan. We have offered Israel complete peace, comprehensive peace, complete normalization of relations in return for our occupied territories and for allowing the Palestinians to have an independent, free, sovereign state.

I think this is very fair. Americans love fairness, and I think this is very American, also.

GWEN IFILL: If Secretary Rice does, as the president suggested today, head for the Middle East to try to broker this conflict, what does she have to bring to the table?

IMAD MOUSTAPHA: This depends on what she's going to the Middle East for. If she's just going to repeat her -- I mean, the U.S. administration's dictates that are flagrantly biased and single-sided, then this is a public relations exercise.

If she's going to do what previous administrations used to do -- please remember this. In the past, whenever there was a crisis in the Middle East, the U.S. administration will immediately dispatch an envoy to the Middle East that will actually work with all parties, reaching a settlement, a compromise, calming down with the situation, most importantly saving human lives that are being shed today in Lebanon and, of course, in the occupied Palestinian territories.

So it's up to the United States. If they really want to fulfill their role as the world's unique superpower, they have a moral obligation, or they just want to engage in a P.R. exercise.

GWEN IFILL: Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha, thank you very much for joining us.

IMAD MOUSTAPHA: You are welcome.