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CNN Interview: Situation in the Middle East

Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Interview by Fionnula Sweeney of CNN's Your World Today
Washington, DC
August 4, 2006

(12:20 p.m. EDT)

QUESTION: To discuss the ongoing diplomacy as well as those long-term ramifications, we are joined by Nicholas Burns. Mr. Burns is the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and he joins us from Washington.

Thank you very much for joining us. Can I ask you first of all, what is the latest status on efforts to reach a ceasefire?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We are working very, very hard at the United Nations as we speak, Fionnula, to try to achieve a resolution at the Security Council that would bring an end to the fighting. We expect and hope very much that can be done by early next week. We're working very closely with France and with Britain and with our other allies to see if there's a basis to do this. It's obviously very complicated. It's complicated by the violence on both sides. You saw the 12 Israelis who were killed yesterday. You saw further civilian deaths in Lebanon today. The United States wants to put an end to this fighting. We want it to happen as soon as that is humanly possible and we're putting a lot of effort into that at the United Nations right now.

QUESTION: And of course the protagonists here, Israel and Hezbollah, are very much at the forefront, one would think, of any attempts to reach a ceasefire. I want to play a sound bite from Larry King when Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State of the United States, was talking to him in an interview about her thoughts on Hezbollah:

"The United States wants terrorism to stop and Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. Hezbollah has a political wing. One of the unfortunate circumstances is that that political wing, which is a part of the Lebanese Government didn't somehow prevent this military or militant wing of Hezbollah from launching attacks even though Hezbollah sits as a part of the Lebanese Government.

So this just shows the problem when you have one foot in politics and one foot in terror. Eventually, Hezbollah has got to reconcile this. But what we want is we want terrorism to stop, and we want the Lebanese Government to have full authority over the territory of Lebanon."

Hearing Condoleezza Rice there, Nicholas Burns, talk about Hezbollah, the political organization, that is actually a departure of sorts from what we've been hearing from Washington in the past few weeks of this conflict. Is there a possibility of bringing Hezbollah into the diplomatic fold in terms of trying to get a ceasefire and what you want to see as a sustainable solution?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Oh, I don't think there's a possibility of doing that directly and that's certainly not what Secretary Rice was suggesting. The reality is that Hezbollah is many things: it's a political and social organization; it's also a terrorist organization. And we have to remember, Fionnula, it was Hezbollah that started this conflict back on July 12th by crossing the international border illegally, by killing Israelis and abducting the soldiers. So our view is that we really do want to strengthen the Lebanese Government of Prime Minister Siniora and any kind of halt to the fighting is going to have to be worked out between two governments, between the Government of Israel and the Government of Lebanon. And obviously Hezbollah in some ways is a part of that government, but you can't --

QUESTION: Yeah, but let me jump in there if I may. How can you bring a ceasefire agreement about without Hezbollah being part of it?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: You have to understand that Hezbollah being part of the government, obviously we'll rely on Prime Minister Siniora and his associates to work out the Lebanese end of any agreement. But you can't expect the state of Israel to have direct negotiations with an organization that has vowed to destroy the state of Israel. It doesn't make any sense.

QUESTION: Is it possible to destroy Hezbollah as an entity given that it was born in the 1980s and emerged as an umbrella of various social groups, that it's more of a movement than anything else?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, what's important is that all of us understand what's happening here, and that is Iran created Hezbollah in 1982, Iran has funded Hezbollah and Iran has provided the long-range rockets that are raining down on the northern part of Israel now. And so we have to see this conflict not just as one between Hezbollah and Israel, as a border conflict; it is a wider conflict because Iran is acting in a way that is fundamentally contrary to the hopes of all of us for stability and for peace in the Middle East, and so Iran does bear some of this responsibility as well.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about a comment that David Gergen, a former advisor to the U.S. President, said in an interview on CNN about an hour ago. And when he was asked about the U.S. being an honest broker in the region, he said this current administration was no longer an honest broker in the region and that that ultimately went against not just Israel's interest but also the United States. How do you react to that?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, all I can say to that is that the United States is probably the one country that has relations in the Arab world and relations with Israel that will allow us to play the role to bring this -- to try to bring this conflict to the end. That remains true and the United States is fundamentally supportive of many, many countries in the Arab world and we have the closest possible relationships with them. So I think it's a bit histrionic to exaggerate what's happening now and to say that somehow things have changed unalterably when, in fact, the United States has many, many vital interests in the Arab world and we have very solid relationships with Arab countries and we'll continue doing that. And it's been our country that has led the way, led the effort to provide humanitarian assistance into Lebanon over the last two weeks. So I think that -- I think that our bona fides in that respect are intact.

QUESTION: Let me ask you, as we look at the pictures coming to us from around the region of protest against Washington, London and also Israel, are you concerned that this conflict is bringing Sunni and Shiite together in a new kind of alliance against the West, but particularly the United States and Israel?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Oh, I don't think you'll see the emergence of that kind of alliance. I think what you're seeing obviously, and it's understandable in human terms, there are high emotions on both sides. Certainly in Lebanon there's been so much destruction and so many deaths and it's tragic to see that and we do want to see if we can provide humanitarian aid to the people of Lebanon and to stop this fighting as soon as possible. That is what we are trying to do on an urgent basis over the next few days as we work at the United Nations.

But you also have to know that emotions are running high in Israel. That Israel was attacked. That more than a million Israelis have been living in bomb shelters and cellars for three weeks now because of the Hezbollah attacks and 12 Israelis were killed yesterday. So the toll on both sides has been too high and that's why the fighting should come to an end and that's what our Government is trying to do.

QUESTION: Very briefly, Jordan's King has warned that what is taking place here, this prolonged battle, is Lebanon is "weakening moderates all across the Middle East." Is that something with which you concur?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think we've got to hope that as a result -- when this conflict does end, and may it end as soon as possible, that when it ends that people will see that it was Iran and Syria that led Hezbollah to make this attack and who funneled the money and arms in there to spike the attack. And that the way forward is through moderation and reform and through countries accepting the state of Israel, and that Israel working on to develop its relations with the moderate Arab regimes. The way forward is not through terror on Damascus and the kind of radical destabilization of the region that both of those countries are now responsible for.

QUESTION: All right. We have to leave it there. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. Under Secretary of State, thank you very much indeed for joining us from Washington.



Released on August 4, 2006

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