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Secretary Rice Visits Beirut as Hezbollah-Israeli Shelling Continues

July 24, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Now, the American diplomatic push to end the violence between Hezbollah and Israel. It began today with Secretary of State Rice’s visit to Lebanon, a country once again caught up in the fighting and the maneuvering of outside powers and once again a focus of American interests in the Middle East.

To assess the Rice visit to Beirut, we’re joined by Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar and host of a weekly program on Al-Arabiya. He was born and raised in Lebanon, but is now an American citizen.

And Theodore Kattouf, a former State Department official who spent 31 years covering Middle Eastern affairs, his final posting was to Syria as U.S. ambassador from 2001 to 2003.

Welcome to you, both.

THEODORE KATTOUF, President, AMIDEAST: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Kattouf, what would Secretary Rice like to achieve on a trip like this and what can she achieve?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, I think the administration goals are rather clear. They want to see Hezbollah become merely a social movement, a political party in Lebanon, but certainly not an armed militia, not a state within a state.

And for that reason, she’s coming with the hope that she can fashion some kind of an agreement with the Lebanese government and various Lebanese factions to achieve that goal.

GWEN IFILL: Is it a realistic hope?

THEODORE KATTOUF: It’s hard to say right now. If I were a betting man, I would perhaps bet against it because it’s very, very hard to imagine Hezbollah willingly giving up its weapons. Israel will have to almost certainly send in a lot more ground forces if it truly wants to disarm Hezbollah.

GWEN IFILL: Hisham, are you a betting man?

HISHAM MELHEM, Washington Bureau Chief, An-Nahar: No, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet my farm on it. I think the secretary went to Beirut because of the outcry from the Arab allies of the United States, chiefly the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the Jordanians and others, who look at the public opinion in their own countries getting angrier towards not only Israel, but also the United States.

The United States clearly now is providing a political diplomatic cover for Israel’s military onslaught against Lebanon, and they don’t want a quick cease-fire.

She went to Beirut. The secretary said to Lebanese essentially, “Release the two soldiers, then we will talk about a cease-fire later.” The Lebanese essentially said, particularly Nabih Berri, who represent essentially for all purposes now, intents and purposes, he’s negotiating on behalf of Hezbollah, “Let’s talk about cease-fire. Cease-fire first, and then we will talk about other things.”

What is happening right now is an incredibly scary humanitarian disaster. We have more than 700,000 displaced Lebanese. This is the equivalent to 60 million Americans. And my fear is that, in the next few days, unless we have a quick fix about the cease-fire issue, the whole Lebanese governmental structure could collapse, and then all bets are off then.

U.S. Talks with Lebanon

Theodore Kattouf
Former State Department Official
I do worry: 35 percent of Lebanon's population is Shia Muslim. And as we were discussing, Hezbollah is much more than a terrorist organization, or a militia, or as they put it a resistance organization.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about who was at the table today. You mentioned Nabih Berri, the speaker of the parliament. Is he the closest that U.S. officials will get to talking to someone who talks to Hezbollah?

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. He's there now, designated by Hezbollah, to be the interlocutor with the government, the Lebanese government, vis-a-vis the prisoners and other issues. Secretary Rice met with him before.

The American government is very aware of his past history, his relationship with the Syrians. He used to compete with Hezbollah at one time, but in last few years he lost a great deal of his influence when the Syrians left Lebanon. And now he's under Hezbollah's tent.

But he's someone, because he is the speaker of the house, that the Americans can talk to. And by the way, the embassy in Lebanon and other Lebanese officials, like the prime minister, and the Americans are trying to find a Shia interlocutor, trying to wean Nabih Berri away a little bit from Hezbollah.

GWEN IFILL: So, Ambassador Kattouf, is this something -- do you worry, as Hisham Melhem does, about the future for the fragile Lebanese democracy if something doesn't happen very quickly?

THEODORE KATTOUF: I do worry: 35 percent of Lebanon's population is Shia Muslim. And as we were discussing, Hezbollah is much more than a terrorist organization, or a militia, or as they put it a resistance organization.

They are a social movement; they are a political movement; they are a religious movement; they are a movement of empowerment. And the Shias really respect Sayid Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, and they will follow him. They will follow him, in some cases, fanatically.

And as I said, he does not want to give up Hezbollah's weapons, and he has convinced much of the Shia community that their well-being depends upon their keeping their arms.

GWEN IFILL: Are there diplomatic traps that -- Secretary Rice hesitated to take this trip, and she said she wanted to see a cease-fire in place. Now that she's there, or at least somewhere nearby, are there diplomatic traps she has to avoid?

THEODORE KATTOUF: There are. And we can go back to the 1982-84 period, when Israel did invade Lebanon, went the whole way up north of Beirut, encircled the city, drove the PLO out. And, by the way, at that time there was no Hezbollah, so there is a certain irony here.

But one of the traps at that time was the United States was so closely aligned with Israel's position that we essentially imposed or helped impose a treaty on Lebanon that most Lebanese didn't really want, most Lebanese saw as an imposition on Lebanese sovereignty.

And we also did not bring the Syrians into it. We assumed that they would have to acquiesce. And the agreement, the so-called May 17 agreement, fell apart, and Syria picked up the pieces and has been a force in Lebanon ever since.

A Safe Role for the U.S.

Hisham Melham
An-Nahar Newspaper
When the secretary talks about the birth-pangs of a new Middle East, I mean, you wonder whether we're talking about dying, last gasps of a political order or what.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you then, Hisham Melhem, is there a role, a safe role -- if there's anything that's safe in this -- for the United States to play diplomatically, in trying to get the sides to talk without one side wants first a cease-fire, and then we'll release the prisoners, and then the other sides want the other? Is there a way to thread that needle, I suppose?

HISHAM MELHEM: It's going to be tough. I mean, everybody knows that the United States is the only party that can convince the Israelis, can be influential with the Israelis, and can help the Lebanese government, because they have (inaudible) good relationship with the current Lebanese government.

The problem is, I mean, talking about avoiding pitfalls, the United States should avoid sending troops to Lebanon. I think the secretary made that very clear, which is very -- giving America's bitter experience in Lebanon, that's a very wise move.

The other thing is to avoid grandiose plans. I mean, when the secretary talks about the birth-pangs of a new Middle East, I mean, you wonder whether we're talking about dying, last gasps of a political order or what.

But the United States is indispensable, whether people like it in the region or not. And that's why there has to be an American-supported international package that would have security aspects, economic aspects, political aspects, that would deal with some of the outstanding issues that Hezbollah's using as an excuse to maintain that status of a state within a state.

And then you have to challenge Hezbollah politically. Then you will take it to the Lebanese and say, "Look, there is an international consensus that the army should be deployed in the south, that there should no state within a state."

But also address the other issues: the demarcation of the borders; the Lebanese prisoners in Israel; and a few other issues. But there has to be a comprehensive approach. That was lacking, is still lacking at this moment in the American approach.

GWEN IFILL: To what extent does the bitter experience that Hisham Melhem describes, the past relationship between the United States, and Lebanon, and Syria, affect what happens now?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, the United States actually had almost a decade of close diplomacy with Syria. So while there was distrust on both sides, there wasn't necessarily bitterness.

During the first George Bush administration and then the two Clinton terms in office, we had intense talks with the Syrians. The late president, Hafez Assad, trying to bring about a peace treaty between Syria and Israel. And we almost succeeded.

And virtually all of the things that we would want from Syria today would have been achieved under a peace treaty between Syria and Israel.

GWEN IFILL: But now?

THEODORE KATTOUF: But now we're basically telling the Syrians -- and I understand why -- we want virtually everything that was going to be granted by Hafez Assad under a peace treaty, we want that now as the price of admission, in order to talk with you, deal with you, give you the respect you seek, and maybe enter into negotiations, sponsor negotiations with Israel.

We need you to stop supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, become a more liberal regime, don't interfere in Iraq. And President Bashar Assad more than once has famously said, "I run a state, not a charity." In other words, he wants to know what he's going to get in return.

Returns on Diplomacy

Hisham Melhem
An-Nahar Newspaper
In the end, you have to engage them by an approach that would include carrots and sticks, whether you're dealing with the Iranians, or with Hezbollah, or with Hamas, or with the Syrians.

GWEN IFILL: And now everybody wants something in return. And given what has happened in the past between the United States and Syria, as well as the lingering concerns about Iran and its role, and what Israel has done in Lebanon, in southern Lebanon before, only recently having withdrawn, what is your sense of what has to happen next for there to be actual movements? He just talked about all the barriers to movement. Are there any -- do you see any daylight?

HISHAM MELHEM: Well, the problem for the United States now is they cannot affect the behavior of states and players, non-state actors like Hezbollah, because they don't talk to them. They don't talk to Iran. There is a small embassy in Damascus, no ambassador.

GWEN IFILL: Well, she kind of talked to Hezbollah today, through an intermediary.

HISHAM MELHEM: Well, indirectly, but they want due respect, OK, to put it that way, just as the Iranians want to be recognized as a major player in the region.

The problem with the Syrian now and the world that the ambassador was talking about is, in many ways, gone, because there was at that time a framework for a peace process, in which you could go and tell Hafez Assad, "Look, you have to help us in Lebanon, because you need us the peace process," and Assad will understand that.

This young Assad is not as smart and tactician as his father. The Americas dealt with him. They don't trust him. They see him as politically inexperienced...

GWEN IFILL: Bashar Assad.

HISHAM MELHEM: ... Bashar Assad, or even immature politically. And now actually the American see Syria as exposed, and Syria is exposed. So they're trying to scare the Syrians rather than engage them.

In the end, you have to engage them by an approach that would include carrots and sticks, whether you're dealing with the Iranians, or with Hezbollah, or with Hamas, or with the Syrians.

That aspect is lacking. You know, the Syrians know what they should do. I mean, I know that. But in the end, they are players on the ground, and they can still make life difficult for the new Lebanese republic government. And they can make life difficult for the United States and its allies.

The United States is relying on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to affect Syrian behavior, but the limits of influence of these states is very well-known.

GWEN IFILL: Hisham Melhem, Theodore Kattouf, thank you both very much.

THEODORE KATTOUF: Thank you.