“For me, what we need to do now is help comprehensively strengthen...

“For me, what we need to do now is help comprehensively strengthen Lebanon” – Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier in an interview in Der Spiegel

SPIEGEL: Minister, do you see the thwarting of the planned aircraft attacks in London as a success or a defeat in the fight against terrorism?

Steinmeier: It was a success that the security authorities prevented the attacks. Yet at the same time the initial findings about the perpetrator’s plans show that the terrorists haven’t given up the fight. We Germans should also see the planned attacks as a warning and continue to work closely with security authorities in other countries.

In connection with the planned attacks, US President Bush has spoken of “Islamic fascism”. Do you share his view?

I don’t think such generalizations are helpful, the same holds true for the “axis of evil”. Such terms can cause misunderstandings. We must fight all kinds of terrorism but not every terrorist, not even if he comes from the Arab-Islamic world, has the same background and motives.

Are these misunderstandings dangerous?

Terrorist groups like al Qaida are after all trying to use all conflicts from Somalia and the Middle East, Iraq to Afghanistan as a general justification for the use of modern forms of terrorism. Here we should give them no encouragement.

So you believe there is no ultimate link between these crisis regions, no so-called arcs of crisis?

That’s not what we’re talking about. Of course there are arcs of crisis. But we have to look carefully and analyze the differences if we want to react politically. Take Iraq. Shiite and Sunni extremists are currently fighting each other – causing many deaths and injuries. Arcs of crisis and fascism theories don’t help us understand that.

The German UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, Tom Koenigs, said in Der Spiegel that militant fundamentalism seemed not to be on the losing side at the minute. Do you agree?

It’s certainly not easy for us at the minute. Our success depends very much on whether we manage to find a smart solution to the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah allowing a return to the Middle East peace process as a whole.

But with all due respect, we are light years away.

I don’t want to resort to platitudes and declare the crisis to be a wonderful opportunity. But beyond the horrors of the escalating conflict over the last four weeks, we have to get back to a process which opens the way for a resolution of the Middle East conflict. That is at the end of the day the conflict around which all others are centred.

But why should this be the time for it to work when it wasn’t possible when things were more peaceful?

Over four weeks, the current conflict has probably cost more than a thousand civilian lives and resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons in both countries. All those involved are shocked by the brutal dynamism of this conflict and have seen for themselves how dangerous the situation in the region really is. I am sure it will not just be a German ambition to come back to dealing with the central conflict as quickly as possible.

But to do that we need to solve the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The question is whether the Hezbollah terrorist militia can be contained by a political agreement.

That really is a key question. To my mind, success depends on three prerequisites: The authority and sovereignty of the Lebanese state have to be strengthened, secondly: the difficult experiment of a multi-confessional state has to work and thirdly the Shiite population has to get due political representation. Then Beirut can build enough influence in the south.

That doesn’t sound all that realistic because then the powerful neighbour Syria would have to play ball.

We want to convince Syria to play a constructive role in the attempt to stabilize the region in the medium and long term. Damascus has to accept Lebanon as a sovereign state and prevent arms supplies reaching Hezbollah.

And why should Syria bother?

Because it wants to escape from its current isolation. Because Damascus must also have an interest in paving the way for its own positive development. The more Syria proves its worth as a constructive partner in bringing peace to the region, the greater its cooperation opportunities will be, with Germany but also with the EU.

Does Syria have to forego the Shebaa Farms on the border to Lebanon which above all Hezbollah is claiming for Lebanon?

Part of the process of recognizing Lebanon’s sovereignty is agreeing the border to Syria. Of course, Damascus would have to state its position on this disputed piece of land.

And what do you expect from Lebanon?

The decision by Fouad Siniora’s Government to send 15,000 soldiers to the south is a huge step. Some people are only starting to realize slowly how huge. I hope very much that the Government can thereby extend the authority of the state to its entire territory. For me, what we need to do now is help comprehensively strengthen Lebanon. Here, Prime Minister Siniora is a tremendous partner.

But what would Hezbollah get out of it?

Let me say first of all that the recent decision to deploy troops was supported by the entire Lebanese cabinet, including the Hezbollah ministers. Various motives are possible, some less palatable. I think the most credible is that: Hezbollah doesn’t want to be made responsible for the collapse of the Lebanese state.

What role are the Germans playing in diplomatic efforts?

Germany is not a member of the Security Council at present. Yet we do have something to feed in that not everyone has: good relations with both sides.

Is Germany accepted as an honest broker despite its special historic relationship to Israel?

Above all due to our special historic relationship, we have a particular understanding of the existential threat faced by Israel. Our Arab interlocutors understand and accept this.

When it comes to solving the conflict, how important are the military components and how important the diplomatic ones?

The military presence would be included in a political solution so the contrast is somewhat contrived. But it is plain that the conflicts in the neighbourhood between Israel in the south and Hezbollah in the north must end. That can only happen by deploying Lebanese troops and supporting these troops with an international presence.

Is it enough simply to be a buffer between the fronts?

By sending its own army units in, the Lebanese Government is aiming to impose its monopoly on the use of force. The Hezbollah private militia must recognize this monopoly. The international force would have to help the Lebanese to ensure Israel’s northern border is not just legally recognized rather also politically respected and to prevent the recurrence of provocations at the border which triggered the conflict. So what we are ultimately talking about is helping consolidate the Lebanese state.

Creating a monopoly on the use of force would also mean disarming Hezbollah.

At the end of the day: yes, as laid down in Resolution 1559. As a first step, the Hezbollah militia would have to withdraw as the Lebanese units and the international force move in and the Israeli soldiers also withdraw.

Is that crucial?

Yes, that is also part of the agreement within Lebanon. But it does not mean the immediate complete disarmament of Hezbollah. That’s why two more elements are needed. At the border with Syria, possible deliveries of arms must be halted, at the same time Lebanon has to politically integrate the Shiite population including Hezbollah sympathizers.

So that means Hezbollah withdraws taking its rockets with it and then fires them at Israel from behind the buffer zone.

The basis of any political agreement is the cessation of hostilities, and what is more over the entire territory.

Can the Germans really get around participation in the international force?

The Israeli government and large sections of the Israeli public seem to have no problem with German participation. That is something we need to bear in mind when it comes to decisions in the cabinet and the Bundestag. But there are also many other questions such as those regarding our capabilities, the details of the mandate and the considerable risk of such a mission. I hope we will have an open and public discussion on this truly difficult decision and hope all those involved will tackle the discussion with the necessary sensitivity to our responsibility.

Does the historic responsibility for Israel prescribe a particular direction for the Germans?

Our historic responsibility means we have to help ensure that this conflict ends, that the people in Israel don’t have to live in fear of border conflicts and rocket fire and that an independent Lebanon is strengthened.

Can you imagine a situation where German troops fire at Israeli soldiers?

A difficult but hypothetical question and one that to my mind many Israeli public and political figures do not think about in that way.

As a close partner of Israel, Germans could become a target for Hezbollah.

I don’t think that we would play a different role than other countries. What is more important is whether the Hezbollah as a whole accepts the international presence.

You have pointed to the risks of such a mission. The UNIFIL observer mission has lost more than 250 soldiers in southern Lebanon.

Everyone knows this is a region where an international mission cannot be without risk.

Alongside Israel are France and the United States also pushing for German involvement?

No-one has yet voiced concrete expectations. But the members of the United Nations Security Council do expect there to be broad European involvement in this international mission …

… Germany included?

I can’t say any more at this stage.

So where is the Chancellor in this difficult situation. Have you assumed sole responsibility for foreign policy for now?

Nonsense! The questions on the table are of such weight that we don’t just discuss them in the cabinet rather speak on the phone or meet almost every day.

Looking from the outside, it seems you are the Government’s only foreign policy player at the minute.

Well, I am the Foreign Minister after all.

Your party comrade Sigmar Gabriel has brought up the question of the SPD’s next chancellor candidate and proposed the leader of the party, Kurt Beck. According to the polls, you are the most popular German politician. Would you be up for being chancellor?

And there I was thinking you were actually interested in foreign policy. I don’t see this is a timely debate. Apart from anything else, Sigmar Gabriel was right.

Why do you think he was right?

He said Kurt Beck was the right man for the job.

Minister, thank you for your time.

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