After years of campaigning against Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim party in Lebanon, as a terrorist pariah, the Bush administration is grudgingly going along with efforts by France and the United Nations to steer the party into the Lebanese political mainstream, administration officials say.
The administration's shift was described by American, European and United Nations officials as a reluctant recognition that Hezbollah, besides having a militia and sponsoring attacks on Israelis, is an enormous political force in Lebanon that could block Western efforts to get Syria to withdraw its troops.
square with the European parliament naming Hizbullah a terrorist organization (which is discussed by Praktike here) or with this with this State Department press briefing with Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli (who by the way is an Arabist and former journalist with Middle East experience):
(It's long so I'm putting it below the fold)
QUESTION: 1559 calls for a lot of things. Where is your main focus at the moment? Is it on getting Syria to withdraw its troops or is it on eliminating what you call a terrorist organization?
MR. ERELI: 1559 calls for the full and immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, the extension of Lebanese Government sovereignty throughout the territory of Lebanon and the disarming of militias. The first step in this the withdrawal of foreign forces and the standing up of a sovereign, empowered Lebanese Government.
In order to have that, you got to have elections, which is what is being planned for May. So those are where our focus are for now: getting foreign troops out, creating a climate where the Lebanese people can be free to vote, can vote free of intimidation and coercion, and helping support a government of Lebanon that represents, that fully represents, the people and can fully exercise its authority and sovereignty.
QUESTION: Okay, that makes it sound like the Hezbollah issue is being kicked down the street and the focus is Syria -- troops out, get to elections.
MR. ERELI: It's not a question of kicking anything down the street. It's a question of, I would say, fulfilling -- seeing that 1559 is fulfilled and creating --
QUESTION: In a certain --
MR. ERELI: Helping create the conditions for a political environment in Lebanon that is free of violence, that is free of intimidation and that is responsive to the desires of the Lebanese people. And I think that applies to outside as well as internal actors.
QUESTION: Under such a new environment, would you accept a political role for Hezbollah?
MR. ERELI: It's not for us to determine who has a political role in Lebanon from among the Lebanese. That's a decision for the Lebanese people to make.
QUESTION: But if Hezbollah takes part in the political process --
MR. ERELI: Well, they're in part of the political process now. They have members in parliament. They have members elected to parliament. So they're part of the political process.
Again, it's not for us to say who's part of the political process or who's not part of the political process. It's for us -- and when I say us, I mean the international community -- to say that process has to be a process that is governed by the Lebanese people and Lebanese institutions and that what form those institutions take, what form the processes take and how the results are dealt with are matters for the Lebanese people to decide without, again, intimidation, coercion, or outside pressure.
QUESTION: But U.S. would accept a terrorist organization in the political process of Lebanon?
MR. ERELI: As I said, our views about Hezbollah are well known. And I think our views are distinct from the internal Lebanese political dynamic.
QUESTION: Adam, in the last number of days there's been a pro-Syrian type rally in Beirut. You had upwards to 500,000 and you had a firebrand cleric. Now there, of course, may be a religious significance, maybe not, but 40 percent of that population are Shiite, maybe the rest both Druze and Christian.
Is Iran and Syria working together undermining the ability to have a fair election?
MR. ERELI: Clearly the presence of Syrian forces and Syrian intelligence agents is incompatible with a fully fair election, untainted by outside interference. And that's the basis of 1559. That's why we keep repeating the need for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, as well as Syrian intelligence apparatuses. Because you cannot -- the Lebanese people cannot go to the polls without having to worry about people pressuring them to vote one way or another, or the Lebanese political life cannot carry on freely as long as there is this huge outside presence that weighs on the political life and the social life of the country. So yeah, I would say that Syria is -- and the continued presence of Syria -- is incompatible with the Lebanese people exercising their full political and sovereign rights and civil rights.
QUESTION: So you do consider Hezbollah an outside presence if they've got a presence in the Lebanese parliament?
MR. ERELI: I didn't say -- I didn't -- I never characterized Hezbollah as an outside presence.
QUESTION: I heard you, a few minutes ago, say that the new and former Prime Minister is not the best person to be holding the job at this --
MR. ERELI: I didn't say that either. I said --
QUESTION: Well, you said he was inefficient.
MR. ERELI: I said that in resigning earlier, he said that he was resigning because he could not be effective. And I said that if ever there were a time or a need for effective government in Lebanon, now is the time. And then I called -- we called upon him to rise to the challenge and work to fulfill the aspirations of the Lebanese people.
QUESTION: On the -- just one more on Hezbollah. Clearly, the first question was here in reference to the New York Times story. Would you characterize that story as correct or incorrect?
MR. ERELI: I would simply say there's no change in our policy.
Hopefully it just means that they've realized that taking Hizbullah head on is just plain stupid.