President Bush called for approval Monday of a proposed cease-fire to halt the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah -- but Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon rejected the plan, which would permit Israeli forces to remain in southern Lebanon until an international force could be deployed. In an interview, Siniora, 63, discussed his view of the necessary steps toward peace, as well as his relationship with Hezbollah leaders amid Israel's military campaign against the Islamic extremist group based inside his country.
Do you expect to see a cease-fire soon?
We are working intensively to bring it about, but it will take a while longer, possibly until the middle of the week. Perhaps even longer. I don't want to encourage any false hopes.
The cease-fire is the first of seven items you have called for in your peace initiative. Do you continue to stand behind this program?
Yes, we want a lasting solution, especially now that Israel has attacked our country for the seventh time in three decades. The current offensive is the worst of them all in terms of civilian casualties and economic damage. Lebanon has now been torn to pieces.
Who should pay for the damage -- fellow Arab countries?
Israel must pay, because it is currently depriving Lebanon of its ability to survive. Israel continues to occupy part of our country and has even held onto the maps that show where the minefields are located. I have held Israel responsible for this from the very beginning.
What are the other main items in your plan?
First of all, our territory and our prisoners must be returned to us. Then the government should patrol our borders, to which no one but our own army is entitled. In addition, the United Nations should provide us with an international peacekeeping force.
Would you also accept NATO members?
Absolutely not. We have had bad experiences with the troops of former colonial and mandate powers in this part of the world. We Lebanese insist on the unrestricted reestablishment of our sovereignty, and under no circumstances do we want a return to the situation that prevailed before the crisis erupted. We would most prefer to see a revival of the cease-fire agreement that was put in place in 1949. All parliamentary groups have signed this plan.
Certainly. The two Hezbollah cabinet ministers in my government have agreed.
What would you have to provide in return?
Hezbollah is satisfied with the core elements of the seven-point plan, such the return of the Shabaa Farms and the release of the prisoners. If Israel is truly interested in peace, it should take our plan seriously. After all, what has been the ultimate result of almost 60 years of Israel's readiness for war?
But Hezbollah has been a threat to Israel for years.
Hezbollah is a product of the 1982 Israeli invasion. The occupation and constant degradation allowed a feeling of humiliation and helplessness to develop in the Arab world, which turned into despair and made terrorism possible in the first place.
In order to settle the crisis, some argue, the captured Israeli soldiers and the Lebanese imprisoned in Israel would have to be exchanged. How are the negotiations going?
I'll tell you quite frankly: Neither I nor my colleagues in the cabinet knew anything about Hezbollah's kidnapping plans. This is why we take no responsibility.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah claims to have notified your government.
That isn't true.
Hasn't Hezbollah at least told you where the prisoners are being held?
We know absolutely nothing. We remain completely in the dark. We also have no idea where Hezbollah's fighters and its weapons are located. Within the framework of a national dialogue, Nasrallah merely informed us that military operations were underway. That's all.
Hasn't Germany offered to help negotiate the prisoner exchange?
No, no one has contacted us.
Will Lebanon sign a peace treaty with Israel?
We can only do that once Syria and the other Arab countries have signed peace treaties with Israel on the basis of mutual respect and within the framework of the terms agreed to at the 2002 Arab summit in Beirut.
You are referring to the demand that Israel withdraw to the 1967 borders ...
Until then, however, we can certainly live with a credible peace agreement.
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