Wednesday, July 19, 2006

State Department briefing on the situation in Lebanon

US Department of State

Daily Press Briefing
Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC
July 12, 2006

"We would urge the Government of Lebanon to speak out about this challenge to their credibility, their sovereignty. This is a challenge from Hezbollah to the Lebanese people and to the Lebanese Government's sovereignty, so we would urge them to speak out about that. We would urge them also to do everything that they can to see that these two soldiers are released immediately and unharmed".

QUESTION: On Hezbollah, we saw the statement by the Secretary earlier today. The Israeli Government is saying that it holds the Lebanese Government responsible for Hezbollah's actions and that the Lebanese Government will bear the consequences. What's the U.S. take on this? And if you could expand a little bit more on the Secretary's conversation with Prime Minister Siniora, what was the message this morning?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, a couple things. Let me back up a little bit. You have the Secretary's statement in which she condemned the kidnapping of these two Israeli soldiers and the unprovoked attack on the Israeli soldiers. I would also note the fact that as part of this attack the Hezbollah militia launched missiles and fired on innocent civilians and civilian populations.

So we of course condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms and think it is a cynical attempt to provoke a reaction, it's a cynical attempt to try to escalate tensions in a region where tensions are already high as a result of the acts of Hamas, another terrorist group.

So we would call upon all interested countries to do everything that they can to help secure the release not only of the soldier held by Hamas but the two soldiers now held by Hezbollah.

Very clearly the Hezbollah, which is a terrorist organization and a militia that is operating outside the control of the Lebanese Government, is trying to drag the Lebanese people into a situation that is very clearly not in their interest. So as the Secretary said, we are united in our determination to achieve the release of the Israeli soldiers. Syria has a special responsibility to use its influence to support a positive outcome and all sides must act with restraint to resolve this incident peacefully and to protect innocent life and civilian infrastructure.

And that really is her message to leaders in the region, the people with whom she has talked this morning. She's talked to Secretary General Annan. She's also spoken with Foreign Minister Livni. She's spoken with Prime Minister Siniora. She's spoken with Prime Minister Olmert as well. So parties are -- interested parties, including the UN, are going to do everything that they can, we will do everything that we can, to see that this incident is resolved peacefully and without harm to innocent civilians. I think that's in everybody's interest.

But we also very clearly recognize Israel's right to defend itself. This was an unprovoked attack. This was an attack on soldiers who were on Israeli territory, Israeli soil, by a terrorist organization. So clearly it's a serious situation. We would urge the Government of Lebanon to speak out about this challenge to their credibility, their sovereignty. This is a challenge from Hezbollah to the Lebanese people and to the Lebanese Government's sovereignty, so we would urge them to speak out about that. We would urge them also to do everything that they can to see that these two soldiers are released immediately and unharmed.

QUESTION: Can I -- just a couple of follow-ups. When you say that this is a threat to the Lebanese Government's sovereignty, but --

MR. MCCORMACK: It's a challenge. A challenge.

QUESTION: Challenge. Sorry. But Israel has the right to defend itself. Do you see Israel as defending itself from the Lebanese Government or from Hezbollah specifically? And then also, when the Secretary asks Syria to use its influence, what specifically are you looking for Syria to do and how does Iran fit in? What would you like Iran to do in this particular instance?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, the historical ties between Iran and Hezbollah are well known and Syria also has very close ties to Hezbollah. Again, there's a long history there and it's well known.

I would just point out in terms of mentioning Syria having a particular responsibility, there is that linkage between Damascus and Hezbollah. There's also a linkage between Damascus and Hamas. Khaled Meshal, the, I guess, head of Hamas who resides -- resides in Damascus. So very clearly these are attempts by those in the region who want to derail any possibility of reconciliation between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian people, any attempt to further the cause of peace in the region, further the cause of stability in the region and further the cause of greater prosperity for the people of the region. So Syria has a very particular responsibility in both of these cases to try to bring about a positive outcome; that would be the release of those soldiers unharmed and returned to their families.

I know that states in the region are very concerned about the situation. The Government of Egypt is going to do everything that it can on this case today in trying to urge Damascus as well as others to release those two soldiers, and that is the focus of our efforts.

Yeah, Nicholas.

QUESTION: Sean, back to the challenge that you say Hezbollah poses to the government. Well, the government is clearly siding with Hezbollah today. The Lebanese Ambassador was on CNN within the last hour and he said that the only way to release the Israeli hostages would be for Israel to release Lebanese prisoners. So it seems to me that there is no daylight between the two --

MR. MCCORMACK: I haven't -- I haven't seen those statements, Nicholas.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, what --

MR. MCCORMACK: And we would look for --

QUESTION: -- was the message that the Prime Minister gave to the Secretary this morning?

MR. MCCORMACK: We would look to -- for Prime Minister Siniora to very clearly address what I think the rest of the world views as a challenge, a challenge to the Lebanese people and a challenge to the sovereignty of the Lebanese Government, as well as trying to drag the Lebanese people into the situation. And look, this situation existed before. We all know about UN Security Council Resolution 1559 in which it calls upon the Lebanese Government to exercise certain authorities and certain control over its territory. We again reiterate that 1559 is important. The Lebanese Government has certain responsibilities in that regard.

So we would urge Prime Minister Siniora to speak out. And I don’t believe we have heard from him yet at this point. And I hadn't seen the remarks of this Ambassador.

QUESTION: Oh, the Prime Minister spoke with the Secretary this morning, right?

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. They did speak. But speak out in public.

QUESTION: That's right. And do you -- so are you saying that what happened today is perhaps an indication about the weakness of the Government in Beirut?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, that's not -- that's not what I'm saying. There is a pre-existing condition where you had Hezbollah as a militia operating outside the control of the Government of Lebanon. We all know that. That is a preexisting condition and UN Security Council 1559 was meant to -- is meant to address that situation. And the United States, as well as other countries around the world, have been very supportive of the Government of Lebanon as they go through a political evolution. Let’s remember that they only within the past couple of years emerged from Syrian occupation of Lebanon. And certainly nobody wants to see a return to a situation where the people of Lebanon aren't able to determine their own future.

At this point right now, you have a terrorist organization, a militia, operating outside the control of the government, that is now seeking to influence the direction of Lebanon and the direction of the Lebanese people. We would urge Prime Minister Siniora to address that situation.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) you've made the link between Damascus, Hamas and Hezbollah.


QUESTION: Do you see the hostages -- the Israeli hostage that Hamas took and now what's happened today -- as a sort of broader attempt to destabilize the region even further than it already is destabilized?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think it is very clear, Nicholas, that if you look at these actions, these are deliberate attempts to try to escalate tensions in the region. And you look at the timing of it with the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier just outside of Gaza and the killing of two soldiers in that attack, you look at the -- just days later you have this action, this unprovoked action by Hezbollah. Very clearly there are individuals here that are seeking to provoke a negative reaction in the region, that are seeking to forestall any possibility of moving forward towards goals that most peace-loving people share in the region: a better way of life for the people of the region; more peace, more stability in the region. Clearly these are actions by some individuals who have no interest in that. And we have, in our discussions with governments and individuals in the region, sought to encourage them to try to address these immediate issues so we can get back and focus on the objectives that peace-loving people in the region share: the expansion of freedom, the expansion of democracy, the expansion of greater prosperity for the people of the region.


QUESTION: Why don't you be more frank and say Syria and Iran behind this Hezbollah thing today? I mean, you had a pretty low focus on Syria than Iran. Don't you think the timing of this today serves Iran's --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I can't connect all the dots here, Samir, but clearly there are those historical links, clearly there are those countries in the region that have an interest in cutting off any sort of peaceable reconciliation. They have an interest in taking the region back to the status quo. They have an interest in trying to stop the advance of freedom and democracy in the region. So while I can't draw -- connect any particular dots for you in this case, I think that there are some pretty clear indicators that there are governments in the region who don't have an interest in seeing the spread of democracy. You have Hamas headquartered in Damascus. You have Hezbollah with very clear links, historical links, with Damascus as well as Tehran.

Yeah, Samir, go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you consider the situation need more pressure on Syria or to send back the U.S. Ambassador to Damascus?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't think our sending back our Ambassador to Damascus is going to influence the Syrian Government. That action, removal of the Ambassador, was taken for good reason.

Look, the spotlight needs to be on the behavior of the Syrian Government in this regard. You have their hosting terrorist organizations in their capital. You have them -- organizations that are resident in their capital seeking to cut off any positive movement forward in terms of peace and security and stability in the region, trying to determine for people living in the Palestinian Authority areas and the people of Lebanon what kind of future they're going to have. I don't think that's what the people living in those areas really want. They don't want their future dictated by people living in other capitals. That's not -- that's certainly not in their interest.


QUESTION: The specific question that Elise Labott raised before had to do with Israel's determination to hold the Lebanese Government to account for this terrorist kidnapping activity. You, just a few moments ago, explicitly stated that Hezbollah acts outside the control of the Lebanese Government. Therefore, is it logical and safe for me to assume that you don't believe that the Lebanese Government should be held accountable for these specific actions by Hezbollah?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, James, let's focus on who actually committed these acts, and that's Hezbollah. And it is a statement of fact that they do operate outside -- this terrorist organization with its militias operates outside of the control of the Government of Lebanon. That's been one of the focuses of 1559 and the efforts of the international community is to have the Government of Lebanon over time address the situation where you have armed groups operating outside the control of the government. Clearly in any -- in a democracy, in any strong, functioning democracy, you can't have armed militias operating outside of the control of the government, so it's a situation that we've talked to them about. I can't speak to what exactly the motivations of Hezbollah were in this regard, but I think one can certainly assume from their actions and the timing of their actions that they're seeking to provoke a reaction, that they are trying to drag the people of Lebanon into a situation that clearly is not in their interest.

QUESTION: Has the United States Government discerned any progress on the part of the Lebanese Government in fulfilling that particular provision of 1559 that calls for the dismantling of terrorist groups and the disarming of terrorist groups like Hezbollah in its midst over the last year?

MR. MCCORMACK: James, I think there's still a lot of work to be done in that regard. I think today's events show that. But let's keep the focus on where it needs to be. We want to see the return of these two soldiers immediately and certainly we want to do everything that we can as part of the international community, working also with the United Nations, to help the Government of Lebanon move forward to fully implement Security Council Resolution 1559. So that certainly is going to be where our -- the focus of our efforts over the coming days and weeks.


QUESTION: Is Assistant Secretary Welch planning to go to Beirut?

MR. MCCORMACK: At this point he doesn't have any plans to go to Beirut. He was in Cairo earlier today. Currently he is in Amman for meetings -- he and Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams -- on a prescheduled trip to the region.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: One more thing about -- you've asked this question. Hassan Nasrallah has said today that there is no power in the world can release the Israeli soldiers, that indirect negotiations between Hezbollah and Israel and the swap of prisoners are the only solution.

MR. MCCORMACK: I think the solution here is their immediate and unconditional release. I think that's what the international community is looking for.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Did I hear you correctly to say that among the calls by the Secretary was to Prime Minister Olmert?


QUESTION: Could you expand in any way on that? And specifically what I would wonder about it is, as I understand the gist of what you just said, there are certain forces that would like to see escalation, conflagration and so forth, so is there any viewpoint that by Israel launching a couple of hot wars on its borders that, you know, this is playing into the hands of certain forces in the region? And is there any concern about, you know, the killing of civilians, the things spinning out of control and so forth? Is this strategy an appropriate response?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, the Secretary had a paper statement that went out. I don't have anything to add to that.

In terms of her call with Prime Minister Olmert, I think that certainly she wanted to talk to him about the current situation. She wanted to express our deep concern about the fact that these two -- that Israel has suffered from an unprovoked attack and that two of its citizens, its soldiers, have been kidnapped as a result of that attack. So that was the basic gist of the conversation. Beyond that, I'm not going to get really into any more details of it.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Israel is holding 9,000 Palestinians. Many of them are political prisoners. More than 300 are young boys. There have been no charges and no trials. What is your position on that?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, you know, look, there was a point when President Abbas and the Israeli Government were working together on the release of prisoners. There was a point when the Palestinian Authority, President Abbas and the Israeli Government were working together on the withdrawal from the Gaza. That happened. That was successful. You don't have that right now. Why don't you have that? You don't have that because you have a terrorist organization that is heading the Government of the Palestinian Authority that is not a partner for peace. So you don't have, at this point, because of the actions of Hamas, you do not have the ability to have that dialogue where you might -- you might be able to talk about the release of some of those prisoners.

So let's keep the focus on where it needs to be. The focus needs to be on Hamas taking actions: releasing the Israeli soldier and taking the steps that have been required of it, that have been laid out for it by the international community. This isn't just a requirement by the United States Government. This is a requirement of the international community.


QUESTION: Sean, surely you don't think that Israel should negotiate with Hezbollah on the release of these prisons, some of those prisoners, but do you think Israel should negotiate with the Lebanese Government on the release of some of the prisoners that are currently in Israel?

MR. MCCORMACK: We think that the two Israeli soldiers need to be released immediately, unconditionally and unharmed.

QUESTION: On what Israel said today that what happened is a declaration of war is -- you first said that you hope this will be resolved peacefully and then you said that Israel can, you know, has the right to defend itself. And I don't see how it can reconcile peaceful solution with Israel defending itself. I mean, isn't there a point when Israel will have to take military action that would not be peaceful?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, Israel is going to take its own decisions about what is in the interest of the Israeli people and its self-defense. Those are for the Israeli -- the Israeli Government to make.

Certainly every -- I think it's just a statement of fact that the international community -- we would like to see this situation resolved peacefully, despite the fact that Israel was provoked and it was attacked. And the way to go about that, the way to possibly arrive at that solution, is for these soldiers to be released. But we as always have said -- we repeat it -- that Israel has a right to defend itself. It was -- this was an unprovoked terrorist attack.

QUESTION: Should they regard this as a declaration of war? Do you agree with their assessment?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, again, we want to see -- we want to see the situation resolved. We hope that it can be resolved in a way that there's not further escalation of tensions in the region.