02 August 2006

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Lebanese suffering, European inertia

Despite calling for an immediate cease-fire, the Maltese government’s reaction to the crisis in Lebanon can be best described as mute and bland according to Shadow Foreign Minister LEO BRINCAT.
The Labour MP also promises that a future Labour government would stand up to be counted.
While straying away from the anti-western rhetoric, typical of the old Labour times, Brincat does not mince his words in condemning Israeli air strikes, US complicity and European inertia.

Do you regard the Maltese government’s reaction to events in the Middle East as satisfactory? How would a Labour government react to a similar crisis?
Malta needs to be more vocal at this delicate juncture. While various governments both within and outside the EU have been making their positions known throughout the past weeks there have only been two muted and overtly politically correct statements by the Foreign Minister on this issue. A Labour government would be more vocal both publicly and within diplomatic circles while also mobilising its resources – limited as they may be - in all international fora in which we are represented.
If we did not get anywhere yet on illegal immigration through our intensive lobbying within EU circles how can we expect to be given any attention if we set out to try and please everybody or even worse toe the official EU line?

The European Union has so far failed from taking an active role on this issue. How can the EU’s role be strengthened to ensure a more meaningful presence in the Middle East?
The EU has to realise that it cannot continue to operate in the shadow of bigger powers. I felt embarrassed by the statement that Javier Solana made when he recently addressed the press alongside the Israeli Foreign
Minister in Israel. I am still unaware at this stage of the position that the EU Foreign Ministers will be taking today (Tuesday) but I strongly feel that the French position that a cease-fire and the framework for a political agreement between Israel and Lebanon must precede deployment of the international peace keeping force makes far more sense, rather than opting for the US backed Israeli position that the multinational force must be put in place before Israel halts its operations.
This apart, we feel that any international peace keeping force should win the support of both Israel and Hizbollah. I disagree with all those who are lobbying for a NATO-led force as this would be merely in Israel’s interests but not Lebanon’s. Were this to be the case Hizbollah would have every valid reason to consider its arrival as a proxy Israeli army. While Israel deserves all the protection that it needs, we cannot afford to have a buffer force that merely protects Israel without protecting Lebanon.

The reaction of the Lebanese in Beirut following the Qana massacre was a violent attack on a building of the United Nations. Despite strong statements by the UN Secretary General, the UN security council has failed to condemn the Qana massacre and refrained from calling for an immediate cease-fire. How does this reflect on the credibility of this institution?
Very badly. It shows a sense of political impotency that undermines such credibility. This is why I recently described Kofi Annan in an article of mine as the only beaming light in this whole quagmire.

Israel is blatantly refusing calls for an immediate cease-fire. On Monday Israeli PM Olmert made it clear that Israel will not stop. The US and the UK are not backing a call for a cease-fire. Is Israel justified in interpreting the US and UK refusal to call for an immediate cease-fire as a green light for its actions?
Yes, I agree with Israel’s interpretation particularly when Tony Blair has followed the US line so rigidly to the embarrassment of his own present and former cabinet ministers. Condoleeza Rice has not only publicly supported the Israeli position but she even accepted Israel’s explanation for resuming air strikes barely 12 hours after it announced a suspension of actions for a 48 hour period. This also happened in the recent Rome conference where one had the impression that the US was far more interested in giving Israel more time to finish the fighting before a cease-fire is declared.

Many were expecting Tony Blair to use the trust he enjoys in US circles to press George Bush to stop the Israeli attacks. Even senior members of the UK cabinet like Jack Straw have been critical of the Israeli bombardments. Why has Tony Blair once again towed the US line?
Well, the best person to answer that question is Tony Blair, particularly when he unilaterally chose to go against the grain of some of his closest aides and parliamentarians. To be fair to Margaret Thatcher although in her own time she had a very close relationship with Ronald Reagan she did not think twice about adopting a different policy line over the Falklands and the US Grenada invasion.

The US is arguing that a cease-fire will only be possible if it is sustainable. It has also said that it would not accept the status quo. How does this fit with neo-conservative designs to re-shape the Middle East?
I think it is all part of one big game plan. I hold no brief for Hezbollah whom I met in Beirut at the suggestion of Nabil Berri, the Parliament’s Speaker. While condemning their callous behaviour without any reservations when civilians are attacked in Israel one has to admit that as in the case of Hamas, they are a deeply-rooted popular movement that have developed as a response to occupation. Both have won impressive victories in fair elections and have provided social services and protection to their people. Unfortunately, although Clinton often towed the pro-Israeli line he was more pragmatic in his approach while the neo-conservatives have by default led to a situation where the US has effectively experienced a decline in its power and influence in the region unparalleled in the post World War II era. Take Iraq. The massive use of force in Iraq has merely produced a massive weakening of the US position throughout the Middle East.
The US seems to have abandoned the idea of a new democratic Middle East because wherever free elections are held militant fundamentalists are securing the biggest victories.

Despite resolution 1559 Hizbollah has remained on Israel’s northern border. Israel argues that its attacks are legitimate because Hizbollah has ignored this resolution. At the same time Israel is still in breach of resolution 242. Is this not a case of the pot calling the kettle black?
This is why in my statement of Monday last I made it clear that any pressure to implement Resolution 1559 should be accompanied by similar pressure to implement other UN Resolutions on the Middle East if we really believe in a comprehensive peace settlement in the region.

The success of a peace keeping force would depend on whether it is accepted by all parties involved in the conflict, including Hizbollah. Should the international community directly negotiate with Hizbollah?
Although eventually I am convinced that the West will have to sit at the same table with Hamas and Hizbollah what I consider a priority at this stage is what Richard N Haass President of the influential US Council on
Foreign Relations stated on 27 July that the US is making a mistake in not dealing directly with both Syria and Iran in trying to resolve the conflict between Hizbollah and Israel.

In a statement issued on Monday you criticised the US for not negotiating directly with Iran and Syria. Is it realistic to expect the US to negotiate with countries which it has criticised so strongly in the past?
Yes I consider it highly realistic. Henry Kissinger used to adopt such policies so why should Condy Rice refrain from doing so? Secondly particularly regarding Syria there is a history of limited US co-operation. One only has to recall Syrian co-operation with the US over Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. They even had troops there at the time.
As Haass also mentioned, the Syrians were the first to accept the first Bush administration’s invitation to the Madrid peace conference which brought Israelis and Arabs face to face for the first time to negotiate. Haass is surely no Trojan horse for Syria and yet he argued forcefully last week that the US may have to think about what economic or diplomatic inducements to give Syria. That to him is a legitimate question for American foreign policy. I could not but agree more.

If there is a UN mandate for a peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, should Malta participate in it?
Since our foreign policy document has not yet been discussed and approved by the parliamentary group and the national executive it is unethical to commit the MLP to what so far is my personal position.
I believe that Malta should in future consider participation in peacekeeping forces so long as they are mandated and run entirely by the UN and so long as participation in them is strictly voluntary by our armed forces’ members. I also feel that such participation should first be sanctioned by our House of Representatives. But my colleagues might disagree with this point of view and I will definitely at the end of the day go along with the majority view within the party.

The composition of any peacekeeping force in Lebanon is seen as a very complicated issue. Do you think it is realistic to expect the UN to send a peacekeeping force in the near future?
The composition must be one that neither tilts towards Israel or Hizbollah. If Israel discredits the force it will meet a still birth while on the other hand if Hizbollah opposes it we could easily lead to an Iraqi-styled insurgency against so perceived ‘occupiers.’
While I consider the proposal realistic one has to realize that this will take place against the backdrop of numerous failed international missions. To be fair to Olmert, if Hizbollah go along with his proposal, it could make sense for this force to be on the lines he suggested of a strong European-led peacekeeping force along with a contingent of soldiers from moderate Arab states. This runs counter to the decades of Israel opposition to the subject.
I would definitely not recommend US participation at this stage because of the tide of Arab opinion - even in moderate states - against the US and in support of Hizbollah.

Can one solve the conflict in Lebanon without solving the Palestinian problem?
While Gaza risks being emarginated by the Lebanese crisis I feel that the Gaza and Lebanon issues need to be dealt with separately even if I advocate a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East based on long-approved UN resolutions. All this makes an immediate lasting cease-fire more than necessary but pursuing a military knockout will be both unrealistic and counterproductive. The Lebanese problem needs to be tackled separately from the Gaza crisis because while the Palestinian one is relatively simpler to address the Lebanese problem is far more complex. The best way out of the Lebanese crisis in my opinion is to resume an urgent internal Lebanese dialogue to avoid them tipping once again into civil war while at the same time resolving all pending Israeli-Lebanese issues to be able to neutralise the complaints that feed Hizbollah’s militancy.

Lebanon is a mosaic of different religions and cultures. Lebanon had also experience a civil war. Is there a risk of Lebanon falling into chaos again?
This is a strong probability which would definitely turn the clock back by decades. The International Crisis Group which is headed by former EU Commissioner Chris Patten and which is funded by various institutions, including major American institutes and think tanks has warned since December 2005 against the gathering storm in Lebanon at a time when everyone was basking in the sun enjoying Lebanon’s building boom and expanding tourist sector. It’s
message was straightforward - international involvement was needed but if poorly managed, risked promoting instability and worse, bringing the country to breaking point.
The moment the political sector in Lebanon loses its balance the whole political edifice will collapse. The various religious sects and movements form part of a multi-dimensional political structure that is constantly juggling diverse constituencies, interests and outlooks. Let us hope that this worst case scenario will not materialise as I wish the Lebanese people well.

Leo Brincat was interviewed by James Debono

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