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Briefing on Middle East Situation

C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs
En route Rome, Italy
July 25, 2006

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Let me start with our day in Israel from last night. The Secretary met with the Foreign Minister, as you all know, and we had some meetings with her team, alongside that. Then this morning, a lengthy session with Prime Minister Olmert, followed by a meeting with the Defense Minister and some of his team and there's a private session as part of that as well. And then we went to Ramallah, as you know, and met with President Abu Mazen, discussed mostly just the Palestinian issues, although Lebanon did come up as well as other regional issues.

In Israel, the Secretary pressed the case on humanitarian needs of Lebanon, observing to the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and her colleagues that there were serious issues that needed to be handled because of the fighting that happened. We did talk to the Israelis about the need to open up these humanitarian corridors to Lebanon and within Lebanon. Work has been underway on that for some days now. Happily today, the Israeli Government was able to announce that they are prepared to open these up and facilitate some that were not previously operating. In particular, Beirut International Airport will be available for humanitarian flights. Obviously that would change the situation at the airport considerably once that starts happening.

Three ports will also be available for humanitarian shipments and there will be -- there's work underway to get corridors started so there can be a safe movement of people and things to the places where there are needs. This is -- that last one is a challenge to arrange in a situation where there is conflict because obviously everybody wants to avoid a mistake and be careful.

We also went into a number of the other issues involving Lebanon. And here we had the benefit of hearing from the Lebanese Government beforehand on sort of their view of how to come out of this with Lebanon stronger. One common thing that we heard from both Israelis and Lebanese is that the sovereignty of Lebanon needs to be better secured. The sovereignty of Lebanon needs to be better secured. And were the Government of Lebanon sovereign over all its territories it is hard to see how we would be in this situation. The provocation that occurred some 13 days ago initiated this round of violence and now the challenge is how to make sure that that opportunity is not available again.

Another consistent view -- now there are different interpretations perhaps of why -- is that what was available to protect Lebanon's sovereignty, the existing UNIFIL force, was not up to the task. The Lebanese believe that and so do the Israelis. And I might point out that several days ago when the Secretary General was speaking to the Security Council -- briefing the Security Council on the report of his mission, he also observed that something would need to be done with respect to UNIFIL.

Now to take you to where we are going next, just a couple of words to initiate that -- in Rome, there is going to be quite a variety of countries and attendees. The way I would characterize this is it has grown a little bit beyond the Lebanon Core Group that we had last September. These are responsible voices who want to come together to help Lebanon. I think you can already see that there are initiatives underway by some, led initially by the United States with our announcement of the humanitarian assistance, to support that in very immediate and real and practical ways. I understand that while we were working in Israel there was an announcement from the Saudi Government about additional financial humanitarian support to Lebanon. And I would expect that there will be other such pledges forthcoming.

It is important that these voices be there and be gathered for this purpose, because if you look at what the outcome of this crisis, what we hope it will be, it is going to be a stronger Lebanon where its freedoms are preserved and strengthened so that those who are its enemies haven't gotten the advantage out of this recent violence that they provoked.

I hope also that in Rome we will be able to address, because everybody will be there and we can all talk amongst each other, about this issue of the cease-fire. Everybody would like to have a cease-fire; there's no doubt about that. We feel some urgency about it. The object here, though, is to create the conditions for a sustainable cease-fire, conditions that will leave Lebanon stronger, that will leave the adversaries of peace in this area weaker, and that will provide for stability, particularly along this frontier. We know what didn't work as well as we had hoped in the past, and now the object is to find something better to build for the future. I wouldn't say this is going to be easy work. I mean, if it were easy work we would have done it already. But it is necessary work.

Why don't I stop there and take some questions.

QUESTION: If I could just say so there's something slightly Orwellian about this whole thing because it seems what you are laying the groundwork for sort of a sustainable condition for continued war. I mean, the Israelis are bombing one side; the Lebanese are shooting missiles into Israel and you're bringing -- opening humanitarian corridors there and the Saudis are giving money. But I don't -- there doesn't seem to be any movement at all towards this sustainable cease-fire. Is that right? I mean is there anything that you can point to that shows that any progress has been made in the last few days towards a sustainable cease-fire as opposed to providing food for people that are being bombed?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, Neil, there isn't cease-fire right now. The Hezbollahis are attacking Israel and Israel's trying to defend itself. That objectively is true. That doesn't mean that we don't seek one and that we aren't trying to build one, but the question is how. What's the best way to bring a halt to the violence and put in place conditions so that it doesn't recur and that can't be done overnight. I mean this is a -- it's not a question of delaying it. I mean, we would like it to happen tomorrow if all the pieces were in place. We have got to do further work here to figure out how the Government of Lebanon is going to be in a position to exert its sovereignty over all its territory. How they can take some of the decisions that they weren't able to take before. How you can put in there sufficient international support and assistance, and not simply to enable that but to also, you know, protect both sides of the border. I think everybody has an understanding that broadly speaking this is a way in which we should go.

The second thing that's of benefit here is, you know, some of the legal architecture that you would need to take some of these decisions is already out there. You have UN Security Council resolutions; they point the way. We know which parties have made an effort to stop that and those irresponsible voices will not be in Rome. We have a good consensus among the international community for helping Lebanon. And after all, if that takes hold and people demonstrate that in a real way, including some of the things that you speak about -- I mean I wouldn't trivialize this provision of humanitarian assistance -- because if we're arguing that it's hard to get the cease-fire, in the interim we've got to be doing some things to address the consequences of conflict. That's what we're trying to do.

And I would say that in a matter of days we put a few things in place that leave that situation a little bit better than it was just several days ago. I mean I think it is a fairly significant outcome than when we were in Israel we were able to lock down the opening up of these corridors.

Now would we like to have them operate quickly, absolutely right. Tomorrow we're going to go to work to make sure they are operating and the day after to try and improve that. So this is being put together piece by piece, but it has to be done methodically in that way. As I said, if this were easy work, we'd have done it yesterday.

QUESTION: Would you mind talking a little bit about some of these pieces you are putting in place? As you know, Lebanese officials on the ground were talking extensively about what they heard in their meetings, including disarming Hezbollah 18 miles into Lebanon and other details like that, the international force and what that would look like. Can you give us a sense of what Secretary Rice said to leaders and what perhaps even a layer down what other U.S. officials said in their meetings with their peers?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, you're going to get the Secretary here to speak to you in a little while.

QUESTION: (Off-Mike.)

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Pardon me? I know. But look, the way we approach this -- and first of all, I'm not going to answer your question, I'll be perfectly honest with you, because we go out there and we take -- we have some ideas about how we're trying to work this. In some cases, we want to push those ideas forward. In some cases, we want to test them. In some cases, we're trying other's ideas and vice versa. So we don't -- I'm not going to describe to you the elements because this is -- this package is not put together yet. But our purpose here is to work methodically to get it there. I'm giving you some idea of the elements. What worked in the past hasn't worked. It's got to be improved. There's some ideas out there about how to do it. Obviously, there has to be a political element to sustain the principle goal of the previous resolutions -- that is Lebanon should be sovereign over all its territories. So that's one part. The second part are the security arrangements. The previous force did not work, as everybody had hoped it would. There has to be something done to bolster that and make it stronger. The question is how.

QUESTION: (Off-Mike.) There are people writing this history for you, what happened on the ground there.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: I'm happy they should write it. You know, once we have what we're going to do together we will write our history.

QUESTION: David, the basic problem gets back to the issue of Hezbollah's arms and it's not clear to any of us how you have any hope of making anything work if you can't get them to disarm and that seems almost impossible.

Secondly, we're all hearing very negative things about the prospects for a multinational force, countries unwilling to deploy or commit unless Hezbollah is already disarmed.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: A couple of points, first I think you will hear about the impossibility of deploying an international force almost until the day that it is deployed. But there will, in the end, be an international force because all of the key players want one. Lebanon needs one. There is one there now and it's obvious that they need a stronger one, stronger than UNIFIL.

Right now Hezbollah is not disarmed, and to hold off as the precondition for deployment of a force that the Government of Lebanon may seek and that the United Nations may seek and bless, to hold up as the precondition the absolute and complete and total disarmament of Hezbollah is to create a precondition that cannot be met and to make it impossible to deploy a force. UNIFIL was put in before such precondition was met and so will the next force that is put in. So let's be realistic about this. Being realistic, if a force is requested, the international community will in the end we think be willing to step up to the plate and supply one.

One of the advantages of this trip is that the Secretary was able to get a much better understanding from the key leaders of Lebanon of how they see exactly those questions honestly, in private, and in Israel how those leaders see that question, honestly and in private. She takes that with her to Rome where she can have a good number of private conversations with key European leaders about how would the force look, what might be done next. So going from here to Rome is actually greatly advantageous. And the large number of people who'll be in Rome, the large number of leaders is greatly advantageous because she will be able to move that discussion forward in an important way.

QUESTION: The basic problem gets down to Hezbollah's willingness to disarm. The Israelis have also said they will not try to disarm them completely. But when we get down to the core problem, are you relying only on the Israelis to disarm them or -- well, then how are you trying to get them to disarm?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: In Resolution 1559, it says that there should be no armed militias. It is an obligation of the Government of Lebanon to have a monopoly on the use of force in its country. What we would like to do is assure that Lebanon is able to carry that out. That will be a challenge under current circumstances for the Government of Lebanon. But we intend to bolster them to be able to do it. We have an opportunity here, including in Rome, to gather that kind of support.

QUESTION: Could you explain better how you see the international force bolstering the Lebanese Army in controlling the south and how you see the sequencing? We've heard the Secretary say we're not in favor -- we know that a cease-fire is urgent but not an immediate cease-fire. You could take a step back and help us better understand the nuance, if you will, of immediacy or when a force is deployed, when there is a cessation of hostilities, as far as your best understanding of the Israeli side.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, we had said that we want a cease-fire that's built on a sustainable basis. Perhaps you misconstrued that as putting off the cease-fire. We desire a cease-fire tomorrow if it can be sustained and built in the proper way. Objectively, this is going to be hard to do. At least one side, the Hezbollahis, would like to continue this fight. They started it and would like to continue it. So, you know, when the question of immediacy comes up, certainly we feel urgently about it. Everything we're doing is dedicated to that. After all, we're on this mission and we intend to stick with it, too. Now, I think the pieces are being recognized by the players, the parties themselves and on the outside. And as one of my colleagues just said, part of that recognition is also a sense of responsibility that people have about doing something about it. And that will require some difficult decisions for countries as they -- how they intend to participate in addressing this difficulty.

QUESTION: Can I get one more.

MR. ERELI: One follow-up.

QUESTION: If the Hezbollah -- if Hezbollah won't voluntarily disarm and if the Lebanese Government is not able to disarm it and if the Israelis cannot realistically disarm it through the use of force, at some point, do you or your intermediaries have to deal with Iran and Syria?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, it's a good question. I mean, perhaps as I look back now on 1559, its strictures on outside interference were not as imposing as they should have been. In a sense, you can protect Lebanon in two ways: from the inside by strengthening it and enabling it to extend its sovereignty around its territory, but also from the outside by the kind of international support that would be afforded by the presence of peacekeepers like UNIFIL or supplementary arrangements. But there are other measures that also might be taken which would deal with those, you know, those countries who don't have the same sense of responsibility about the future of Lebanon. And you know, we're going to look at some of those possibilities.

MR. ERELI: All right. Just a couple more questions. We'll go one (inaudible.)

QUESTION: David, just as we were leaving Israel, there was sort of a flash report quoting the Defense Minister perhaps as saying that Israeli troops will remain in southern Lebanon until the robust international force is deployed. Did he tell you that or is that your understanding of the Israeli position? I mean, in way, it's sort of implicit in what they're doing, but is that what he told you?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: You know, I was only in the larger meeting and the Secretary had a one-on-one with him. But I don't believe that came up.

QUESTION: You guys keep saying that you're looking to build up Lebanon's ability to enforce its own sovereignty and to build up Lebanese forces, security forces. The problem is right now all we have is the example of how well that's gone in Iraq. Can you point to any sort of successful recent example in the Mideast where you've been able to build up any sort of other -- not necessarily just in the Mideast where this has actually worked and how long do you expect to see an international force having to stay in Lebanon before the Lebanese army is able to take over?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Those comparisons aren't at all apposite. You know, Lebanon -- we haven't had a very extensive security relationship with Lebanon. We have an extensive one with Iraq. And there are plenty of examples around the region where we have relationships with countries that are specific to building up their security authorities that work just fine. I mean, Jordan went through a civil war and the United States is an important backer of Jordan's security services and Jordan is in good shape today. So I don't think I see these things as exactly parallel.

Lebanon in a way is a success story when it comes to how security forces operate in that country in the following sense: the army's never been really dominant in Lebanon; the internal security forces have never been very large. Probably historically the Lebanese now say, well, maybe we should have done more to centralize and have these kinds of effective security organs. You know, we are going to look at upping our own security assistance to Lebanon probably -- we're in the budget process right now to address that. And coming out of this situation, that might be one of the decisions that'll be taken, you know, by the Secretary and the White House.

It's obvious that the Lebanese security forces, that is, the internal security forces and the Lebanese army, were artificially suppressed by the Syrians through their decades of Syrian occupation and domination. The last thing they wanted was a strong Lebanese national army or police. So this is something that Lebanon is really just beginning to address seriously since the Syrian occupation ended. And they're going to need, and they're going to get, a good deal of international help now to fill, what is in a certain sense, a great national need. It is -- the problem in the region has too often been that security forces have been overly strong. In this case, they were artificially weakened by a foreign power. So now they will find the right balance.

MR. ERELI: Last question.

QUESTION: The Secretary keeps talking about this new Middle East that'd you'd like to emerge from the conflict in Lebanon. How are you explaining this to the Arab leaders you're speaking to and what's their response been to this new Middle East? And secondly, are you optimistic that you may get some sort of cease-fire framework, so to speak, out of these discussions in Rome? Is that one of your objectives or are you just looking at a humanitarian sort of commitment -- a commitment to your humanitarian goals?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Sue, we've -- the Secretary in Ramallah said that we were in favor of an urgent cease-fire. So I mean that -- she answered your question there.


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