Lebanese Special Envoy Tarek Mitri Calls for Immediate Cease-fire
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GWEN IFILL: And now for the official Lebanese perspective. We get it from Tarek Mitri. He is a special envoy of Lebanon’s Council of Ministers, or cabinet. He spoke to the United Nations Security Council yesterday about the conflict, and he joins us now.
Mr. Minister, thank you for joining us.
TAREK MITRI, Special Envoy of Lebanon’s Council of Ministers: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: We just heard Secretary Rice give the most optimistic view of this, which is that there would be a cease-fire at the very least within a week, and yet we heard Shimon Peres talk in terms of weeks before that happens or before this conflict is over.
Even tonight, we hear of a new firefight breaking out north of the Litani River. Of the optimistic viewpoint that we heard from Secretary Rice and the less optimistic viewpoint that we heard from Shimon Peres, based on what you know, where do you come down?
TAREK MITRI: Well, I would like to believe the words that indicate that we’re moving diplomatically. I’ve heard this now, but I’ve heard it before from a number of member states of the United Nations Security Council.
Be that as it may, our country continues to be the victim of a collective punishment. The country is being destroyed. I don’t know what military strategy, I don’t know what the time frame that is in the minds of the Israelis, but I know that they have been destroying my country, harming the civilian population everywhere.
I just heard news from Baalbek, which is northeastern part of the country, has been severely bombarded. And this is the case in many villages in the south that have been flattened — literally flattened — and this must stop.
I’ve come here to call for an immediate cease-fire.
GWEN IFILL: And what is the chance, do you think, of that happening? What kind of response have you been getting at the U.N.? Based on Secretary Rice’s optimism, do you think she knows something that we ought to know? Or do you believe that, based on the events which are going on tonight, that that is increasingly out of reach?
TAREK MITRI: I mean, in the Security Council, you can hear more and more people, especially after Qana, who are convinced that this cannot go on and that Israel shouldn’t be given as much time as it wants to continue destroying Lebanon. We’ve been told that the message is heard, if I may, I mean, I we have every reason to be impatient, and we would like to have a cease-fire yesterday.
Dealing with Hezbollah
GWEN IFILL: Well, Secretary Rice and Shimon Peres both seem to agree that this is about Hezbollah more than it is about the government of Lebanon. Is there any discussion within your government about how to control Hezbollah?
TAREK MITRI: Look, we always hear from many, many countries, the U.S. and others, that the democratically elected moderate government needs to be supported and has been, to a great extent, supported by the international community.
But you cannot support a government while you're allowing its country to be ruined. No government democratically elected can survive on the ruins of its country. Those who affirmed that they support our government need to stop Israel from continuing to destroy our country.
Now, of course, we are aware of the many problems that should be dealt with politically in order to reach a sustainable, durable cease-fire. Our government did not condone -- it disavowed what has happened on July 12th, that is the abduction of the Israeli soldiers, but called that we look at the root causes and examine also all that this event has entailed.
We have made a proposal, a seven-point framework, political framework, that we have discussed in the Council of Ministers, where there are two members of Hezbollah. As you know, Hezbollah is not just a group of fighters in southern Lebanon, a military organization; it's also a political movement that is represented in parliament and has a significant following. And they are represented in parliament, in Council of Ministers by two members of our cabinet.
We are in dialogue with each other. Dialogue is not very easy, but we got an unequivocal statement which says that the Lebanese legitimate government should be the sole authority over its national territory.
The issue for us is how to get this implemented. I think we need international support. We are aware of the need for international support, but we need also to be able to sort it out politically within our own country...
GWEN IFILL: So what you're asking...
TAREK MITRI: ... political process in that direction...
GWEN IFILL: Pardon me, Mr. Minister. So what you're asking is that the cease-fire, that the shooting stop, that the conflict stop first, and then you will work out the political part with Hezbollah on your own, with international support?
TAREK MITRI: That's absolutely what is needed, and the elements of a political settlement are there. They're not only ours; they're echoed in the international community by all of those who truly want to support our country, recover its full sovereignty.
Partners in the war
GWEN IFILL: Do you believe that the United States and Israel have been complicit in this conflict?
TAREK MITRI: Well, I see that the United States didn't put much pressure on Israel to stop its onslaught, and that's the thing that worries me most. While they hear the United States affirm that they support our government, the Israelis said that they've come to break Hezbollah, and it's Lebanon that they are destroying, and the Americans have not been able so far or are not willing so far to stop this.
GWEN IFILL: Do you expect -- Secretary Rice was kind of warned not to come back to Beirut, as had been her plan when she was there on this last trip. Could you anticipate a time in the next few days or weeks when she will be welcome to return to Beirut for talks?
TAREK MITRI: I don't know what's in her plans, but I think, for her to come back to Beirut, she would probably -- would have to propose to the Lebanese a political framework. And, in our view, such a political framework, the elements of it are here, building blocks are known to all of us.
There is much to do by way of rallying support from all members of Security Council, but prior to that, prior to that, Lebanon, the population of Lebanon, the civilian population of Lebanon needs a clear signal that the world doesn't want this to go on.
We don't want to have additional Qana massacres. We've had many. This is the seventh time Israel launches a war against Lebanon, no matter what the justification is. And in every war that we have had, a so-called mistake where civilians have been killed, such as in Qana I, and now Qana II. Qana I was in '96.
GWEN IFILL: You called it a "so-called mistake." You don't believe it was a mistake?
TAREK MITRI: You know, if a mistake after mistake after mistake, it's a recurrent pattern. And you know, there is, in the logic of humanitarian law, international humanitarian law, there are two principles that are sacrosanct, the principle of distinction and the principle of proportionality. And none of these two principles have been respected by Israel in its war against Lebanon; that is why you get so many civilians. Actually, you don't get but civilians killed in this war.
A country caught in the middle?
GWEN IFILL: When you talk about the international pressure that has to be brought to bear, do you include Syria and Iran at the table there?
TAREK MITRI: Well, I know that there are indirect contacts with both Syria and Iran. I think Lebanon deserves that it is not be perceived nor treated as a battleground for the wars of others, Iran and Syria included.
GWEN IFILL: So does that mean that Iran and Syria are part of this process, when you say contacts are being made between Lebanon and these organizations or between the United States, the U.N.?
TAREK MITRI: No, between -- Lebanon is not directly involved, except that we received this morning the minister of foreign affairs from Iran to whom we have presented the seven points that we've been presenting to everybody, to the Security Council. We've said that this is the national consensus and we would like you to support what the Lebanese government has agreed upon. We would like to hear from Iran a clear statement in support of what our government has agreed upon.
GWEN IFILL: And, finally, I want to ask you to respond to something else that Shimon Peres had to say a few moments ago. He said that the whole goal of this enterprise is to attack Israel, to de-Lebanize Lebanon, and also to convert the Middle East to Iranian control. That was his view, and that that all of this was somehow wrapped up with Iraq, as well. What is your response to that reasoning?
TAREK MITRI: Well, it is precisely this kind of logic that I was trying to contest on all sides. You know, I don't want to see my country -- a country which is a country of plurality, diversity, tolerance, in spite of everything that has happened -- be caught in the crossfire of some planetary wars, some regional conflicts that have motivations other than those of independence for my country and full sovereignty of its central government, of its national territory.
We have said this in so many words. Lebanon, we are told by the international community, is significant, is important, in itself and for itself. And if this is so, it should not become, never, never become the battleground for other wars.
We hear sometimes political statements of different sides that seem to suggest that what is happening in Lebanon is part of another war, and this is the most dangerous thing for our country, taking our country hostage in a war that is not ours.
GWEN IFILL: Lebanese Minister Tarek Mitri, thank you so much for joining us.
TAREK MITRI: Thank you.