Edited transcript of interview by Washington Post’s Janine Zacharia with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at his home office in Beirut, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010.
WP: What’s your general sense of the situation here at the moment?
Hariri: It’s a totally new country, and even just four years ago after the 2006 war (with Israel), between direct and indirect loss we had and the lives that we lost, the country picked up again.
The main problem that we have in Lebanon, and in the region, is we don’t have a real peace process and I think this is the main focal problem that we have in the region. A lot of people talk about arms and smuggling and Hezbollah and all of this. But if we have a comprehensive peace, would we be talking about this? Would we be talking about all of the problems that today we have? If we had resolved the issue in 1991 in Madrid when we went there when we didn’t have all these problems today, if we had achieved peace in the ’90s would we be today here?
In the ’90s there wasn’t al-Qaeda, there wasn’t Hamas, there wasn’t all these extremist groups. But today look where we are today 19 years later. My question is if we don’t move on the peace process, on a comprehensive peace in the Middle East based on the Madrid conference, based on the (2002) Arab initiative, where will be 10 years down the line? Is anybody comprehending how extremism is growing in this region?
WP: Is the West not understanding this?
Hariri: I think the international community needs to have a wake up call and they should wake up. It’s high time that this processâ¦and everybody knows what they need to do.
WP: What’s it like for you right now? How do you deal with the stresses that I imagine you are under?
Hariri: Actually everybody asks me this question. I don’t feel like it’s stress. I feel like it’s a challenging period. It’s a difficult period. What I try to focus on is how to keep the country in tact, how to keep the unity of the Lebanese, which is going to be very difficult and is very difficult. But you have to be very absorbent. You have to be like a sponge. You have to absorb all this, all what’s happening today. You have to see beyond the smoke that is around you. You have to stay steadfast and walking on the same road that you started walking on. And it’s not going to be easy. Nobody’s going to give you everything on a silver tray. It’s going to be difficult.
WP: Lebanon is always a fury of politics so sometimes it’s hard to see if it’s really at a unique crisis moment or there is a lot of hyperbole.
Hariri: What I think what one needs to do is see beyond what’s happening now and if you try to see beyond that then you’re fine. Sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes, the smoke is so heavy. But I think persisting and continuing in the same vision will get you there.
WP: You mean this moment of the tribunal, Hezbollah’s threat, this debate over trying false witnesses?
Hariri: Yes. See beyond that. For me what’s important today, of all of what you see today, is how to keep Lebanon united. People are afraid and everybody’s afraid sometimes because of that division that we have. But looking to how resolving that division, understanding the fears of some in Hezbollah or others, understanding that yes it is a problem for Lebanon and there should be real thoughts into how to keep uniting the country around not having a confessional problem but instead uniting the people around whatever the divisions that we have. Because I believe the Lebanese have much more in common than in difference. And I think this is sometimes where we fall into the mistakes and concentrate on the differences that we have instead of on what we share with each other. And I believe that we have a lot in common as Lebanese as long as we think as Lebanese. This is not an easy job to keep on pushing. Although sometimes I might sound sometimes idealist or too optimistic but I think my father used to say to me in everything bad there’s something good that is going to come out of it and there will always be a tomorrow. So as long as you believe in those two things I think Lebanon’s going to be in good hands.
WP: A lot of people talk about the contradiction of you being prime minister and continuing to seek justice for your father with a tribunal that is so divisive here. How can you do both?
Hariri: I’m seeking the justice for the country. Nothing’s going to return my father to me. I am seeking stopping the impunity of people committing what they commit and not being responsible for what they commit. In the end, yes, there is a division in the country. But I think if we have calmness in the country, if we can have some political maturity in the country and sit and talk and dialogue on the interests of the country then we can find a lot of common issues that we can see eye to eye.
WP: Even with Hezbollah?
Hariri: Even with everybody. In the end, Hezbollah is a political party that has, in its region in parts of Lebanon, won members of parliament so they were elected democratically. So either we want to respect that democracy or we don’t. So therefore we have to see eye to eye on that issue and with other political parties. We differ politically but it doesn’t mean we cannot dialogue or talk. I believe in the end we are all Lebanese and we have to sit down and talk. And we have to dialogue. We have to come to terms on certain issues.
I go back to the same problem. Most of our problems they come from outside Lebanon and, basically, especially when you talk confessionally, this problem of what we have today, if we had peace, we wouldn’t be here. Everybody talks about this political party or that political party. But come on guys you have to see that this is because there is not a comprehensive peace.
I think the United States and Washington and the international community needs to understand when we had a global problem in the financial crisis everybody met and we dealt with it. When you had the climate change, everybody met. Also when you have terrorism and extremism you cannot define the problems as you wish politically and then you see the main people who live in the Middle East are telling you the main problem we have is the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It is not that the Arabs didn’t come to terms at one point by putting their peace initiative on the table and say look this is what we have for you what do you have for us? Instead, we are faced with a total blockade of trying to swarm the peace process in details. And this is not what’s supposed to happen. What’s supposed to happen is you need leadership on this. There is no leadership in Israel. At one point you had (Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin who wanted peace. He’s the one who believed in the peace in the region but (Prime Minister Binyamin) Netanyahu doesn’t believe in peace. He is somebody who destroyed the Oslo agreement. He’s somebody who is not willing to talk about real peace in the region. He takes the issue of security as the basis of his whole political platform but you will only have security if you have peace, if you have peace based on a comprehensive peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, between the Syrians and the Israelis and the Arab world and part of it is Lebanon, yes, then you will have peace.
WP: How did you feel during President Ahmadinejad’s visit here in October?
Hariri: Like any president. He came, he visited Lebanon, and he left. He said what he wanted to say and I said what I wanted to say, what I believe. I told him this axis of what you’re saying, that you mentioned, we don’t agree. I said to him very frankly we do not agree on being an axis.
WP: During a one-on-one meeting?
Hariri: Yeah. I said to him that we believe that we are part of the Arab League. The Arab peace initiative was made in Beirut. We believe in that.
WP: It didn’t bother you to see him received in the Hezbollah-strong neighborhoods of Dahiyeh with the enormous crowds? It seemed to worry the U.S.
Hariri: I’m Lebanese. I have a different look on things like this. I don’t look at it the way Americans look at it. He’s a president. He came to Lebanon. Some people received him in Dahiyeh. So what?
WP: Talk about what your visits to Syria have been like for you?
Hariri: I became prime minister of Lebanon. I have to have good relationships with all Arab countries, and one of them is Syria. We needed to open a new page with Syria so I did. On that basis I had went to Syria. We had very frank talks between me and President Bashar al-Assad. I said how I see the relationship between two states respecting each other, two states wanting to establish relationships between their institutions. There is a lot of potential economically between Lebanon and Syria. This is what I believe because Syria is a big market for Lebanon. We started that agreement between us, Syria, Turkey and Jordan. (Turkish) Prime Minister (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan is going to come to Lebanon on the 25th (of November) and we will sign finally our free trade agreement between us and then. Then we’re going to concentrate on trying to make these four countries a platform to get more countries into that free trade zone.
WP: You want to make it a normal relationship with Syria?
WP: How would you describe Syria’s role in Lebanon today compared to 2005?
Hariri: Totally different. I mean, five years ago there was a lot of tension between us and them. Today, there isn’t that tension. There is a relationship between the governments. Although sometimes some people think that today we have a lesser relationship, or I have a lesser relationship with Syria, but this is not the case. Institution-wise, the ministers are talking to each other, when I have something important I talk to President Assad and things are fine. These are the important things for us. We cannot say that the relationship in the past five years wasn’t difficult. It was a very difficult relationship. And today it’s 10 times better.
Hariri: What people tend to forget is the tribunal is investigating the assassination of Basil Fuleihan, George Hawi, Samir Kassir, Jubran Tweini, Pierre Gemayel and all the others. We had four members of the last parliament assassinated.
WP: How do you explain that the assassinations have stopped now?
Hariri: If you can explain it to me please let me know.
WP: Hezbollah wants you to say “I reject the results of this tribunal.”?
Hariri: Obviously. If you look at the past few months, there are a lot of things that have been said but exactly what they want me to say it’s not very clear. I think you know my understanding is a lot of people are concerned, Hezbollah one of them, that it would create a division in the country. That I do understand also. This needs to be dealt with. My differences between me and Hezbollah are that you cannot resolve this issue without having calm in the country. If you have escalation of speeches between us and them then the tension is going to become higher and the division is going to be stronger. Therefore, the way I think is that this is an international tribunal. This international tribunal is made by the United Nations under resolution 1757. Nothing I say or do will change anything. But what needs to be done is to calm the souls down. To calm the streets down and to calm the speeches down and to talk on the basis of how we do not make that a bigger issue than it is. With that dialogue then we can come out with whatever will unite the Lebanese rather than dividing them. This is my approach.
I will not say anything if somebody sticks a gun to my head. I’m not like this. I don’t function like this. I don’t operate under threats. Full stop. I don’t. I don’t buckle to pressure. But I see what Lebanon needs. I see that the only way that Lebanon can come out of this is by having a calm period and that calm period will be the period where we will have a calm dialogue and we can come out with any approach that will unite the Lebanese, not divide them.
WP: So you think the tribunal is still a legitimate vehicle to try your father’s murder?
WP: Why did you reverse your opinion on Syria’s involvement?
Hariri: In 2005 there was a lot of tension and I think there is a lot of allegations that went left right and center not only from our side but from everbody’s side and I believe taking a courageous step to moving forward and clearing the relationship with a nation or country like Syria is important. I said what I had to, what I believe, and I still do. So therefore you cannot say that in 2005 tensions weren’t high. They were very high, extremely high. And therefore on both sides not only on our side. And we said what we had to say. I said what I believe and we have to see that Syria’s also playing a positive role in Lebanon.
WP: Have you ever say Hezbollah was involved?
Hariri: I had a couple of statements saying the contrary to that.
WP: You don’t believe Hezbollah was involved?
Hariri: For me all these indictments are going to come out. For me, the media is media. They will say a lot of things. But I don’t know really what’s going to come out with these indictments.
WP: And this push by Hezbollah to have those who allegedly gave false testimony, the so-called false witnesses, in Lebanon’s highest court. You stood very firm in the cabinet in blocking this.
Hariri: I’m against all false witnesses and I’m all for their trial. But I believe the way they should be tried is not by the High Council of Justice but through normal justice, through normal process in the courts, because I believe this is something that should not be as important as the assassination of Rafiq Hariri or Pierre Gemayel or others. Plus the law in Lebanon does not allow us (to take it to the High Council.) The law forbids us from doing so. Some people, they want to interpret the law as they wish. I don’t believe it. I believe we need to abide by the law and we need to abide by what’s been happening in the Lebanese courts. The Lebanese courts have indicted thousands of false witnesses.
WP: Is Washington suddenly waking up to what’s happening in Lebanon after a period of being absent?
Hariri: We were always in touch with Washington and Europe and everybody. I think part of it is the tension that’s been happening lately. But also part of it is the wall the peace process has hit and people are afraid that something is going to happen. The process has hit a brick wall. I think it’s important to talk to each other and see what can be done.
WP: Is there something the U.S. can be doing to shore up the pro-democracy March 14 movement or make your job any easier?
Hariri: I think Washington needs to help Lebanon, not a political party or part of Lebanon and this is what Washington has been doing. What I would like the relationship between Washington and Lebanon to be is if Washington wants to invest in this region it has to invest in the comprehensive peace. It should be their only focus.
WP: How do you live apart from your family?
Hariri: Difficult, very hard. They live in Riyadh. I want my children to have a normal life. To be here in Lebanon with all the threats that we get sometimes. I don’t want them to live with 100 security (personnel) around and all of that. It’s a hard decision but I go to see them quite often. I try to go once or twice a month to Riyadh. My wife and kids live there in our house. Her family’s there, her sister, her brothers and they’re happy.
WP: Who looks after your business interests? Do you miss it?
Hariri: I miss itâ¦I’ll continue doing what I need to do for my country. Now my brother is taking care of the business and he’s doing quite well. Actually he’s doing better than me. I’m proud of him. We discuss it once in a while.
WP: You enjoy Cuban cigars, I’m told.
WP: And motorcycles?
Hariri: Harleys. I have a few here. I never was able to ride them. There was a Harley festival the 1st of October. I was supposed to be on it but security told me (no.)
I collect Harleys. And most of my friends keep their Harleys at my house so when we go out we all go out together in Saudi, in Jeddah.
WP: Scuba diving and feeding sharks is another hobby?
Hariri: We do it in Jeddahâ¦I put the fish in my pocketâ¦It’s not risky because sharks are like any other animal.
WP: You like to cook and host people
Hariri: I cook everything. I cook Indian, I cook French, I cook Chinese, I cook Arabic.
WP: Where did you learn?
Hariri: From the booksâ¦Last week I had a big dinner for my favorite dish, which is kapsa, which is rice and meat. It’s a Saudi dish. I do it in my own way. WP