MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: Day 19 of the fighting in Israel and Lebanon. Is anyone winning? Is there any end in sight? With us: exclusive Sunday morning interviews with the Israeli representative to the U.N., Ambassador Dan Gillerman; and the Lebanese special envoy, Ambassador Nouhad Mahmoud.
Then, 16 years ago he wrote a definitive work on the Middle East, “From Beirut to Jerusalem.” He has just returned from the region, and this morning he shares his insights and analysis: Tom Friedman of The New York Times.
But first, dramatic developments overnight in the continuing crisis in the Middle East. Several hours ago, during the course of her meeting with Israeli officials in Jerusalem, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was informed of an Israeli missile attack that hit several homes in the southern Lebanese village of Qana. Lebanese officials say at least 50 are dead, including many children. Secretary Rice has now postponed her afternoon trip to Beirut. An emotional Lebanese prime minister responded and spoke out this morning.
(Videotape, This Morning):
MR. FUAD SINIORA: We scream out to our fellow Lebanese and to other Arab brothers and to the whole world to stand united in the face of the Israeli war criminals. The persistence of Israel in its heinous crimes against our civilians will not break the will of the Lebanese people. There is no place on this sad morning for any discussion other than an immediate and unconditional cease-fire, as well as the international investigation into the Israeli massacres in Lebanon now.
MR. RUSSERT: Let’s go live to Jerusalem where NBC’s Andrea Mitchell is traveling with Secretary of State Rice.
Andrea, you just heard the Lebanese prime minister say there’s no need to talk. He wants an immediate and unconditional cease-fire. What does this do to the negotiations, to the shuttle diplomacy of Secretary Rice?
MS. ANDREA MITCHELL: Well, potentially it scuttles her shuttle diplomacy. It means now she will meet again with Prime Minister Olmert here in Israel and clearly express her distress. I’m told that they are very angry with the Israelis for having launched this rocket attack after last night Secretary Rice told the prime minister that she wanted him to show maximum restraint. They thought that they were closing, closing on a deal. She was scheduled to go to Beirut today. Now, Tim, it may be impossible for her to return to Beirut. She may have to come home empty-handed. Tim:
MR. RUSSERT: Andrea, let me show you the scene in downtown Beirut today when thousands of Lebanese citizens took to the street and forcefully entered the United Nations headquarters, kicking and smashing and, and inflicting damage on that building. Is there any sense with the U.S. delegation that perhaps it may have been a mistake to give the green light to Israel to continue their incursion into Lebanon for days and weeks? And how concerned are American officials about public opinion in Lebanon, particularly with Sunni Muslims and Christian Lebanese, who are not disposed to support Hezbollah?
MS. MITCHELL: Well, they are very concerned. In fact, this really does weaken Prime Minister Siniora, and they were trying to strengthen him. This strengthens Hezbollah, and indirectly its sponsor, Iran. It undercuts the prime minister—the Lebanese prime minister’s ability to cut a deal. They would argue that they didn’t give a total green light to Israel, that they were urging restraint, and they now believe that they have to impress Israel with the fact that Israel has to give something up. So she’s going to try to win some concessions—some further political concessions from Israel, before returning home. But this really does weaken the U.S. hand and make it likely that now everything will move to the United Nations, where the U.S. is not playing from strength. There will be increasing pressure for an immediate cease-fire, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Andrea Mitchell, thanks very much for the report, and please be safe.
Let’s go to NBC’s Richard Engel, who’s in the town of Tyre in southern Lebanon. He has just returned from Qana, the site of the missile attack.
Richard, what did you see, what did you witness?
MR. RICHARD ENGEL: When we arrived, we saw this destroyed building, it was a three-story home under construction. There’d been dozens of people in the basement of this house, mostly women and children it, appears. I counted 11 bodies of small boys, perhaps aged eight to 10. They were being carried out, some on stretchers, some were being carried out just in blankets, one body on top of the other. It—the most of the, the children looked like they died from blast injuries. The bodies were intact, but they were bleeding from their ears and from their noses. Then we went to the morgue and saw about 22 bodies lined up on the floor. They were wrapped in plastic, tied shut in packaging tape.
Remarkably, several people did survive, and we went to the hospital, and we spoke with one woman who was in this shelter at the time. She dug herself out of it. She was buried up to the waist in rubble. She also dug one of her children out who was below her, totally covered in rubble, but her daughter she was not able to find, and she was among the victims today.
MR. RUSSERT: Richard, the Israelis have made a point that they leafletted that area, they have asked people to leave there, that in fact it was a target zone. Why didn’t the people in that particular area leave?
MR. ENGEL: Many towns like Qana, there are still people living there who can’t go. They are very poor, they have no way out, they don’t have cars, there’s no taxi service. Some people have just walked. But even if these poor people left towns like Qana, where are they going to go? If they came to this city, for example, there might not be any place for them to stay. So these are really the poorest of the poor. They have been—they have fled their homes. This woman I spoke to who lived through the attack had fled her home—fled her home about 11 days ago because all of the surrounding homes had been destroyed, and they felt they were safe in this shelter. It was on the outskirts of town, an area that, as they said, had not been hit before.
MR. RUSSERT: Richard, did you see any indication, any evidence of the Hezbollah militia? In fact, is that area of Qana a Hezbollah stronghold?
MR. ENGEL: It certainly is. There were no Hezbollah militiamen or gunmen on the scene, but people I spoke to clearly were sympathetic to Hezbollah. I spoke with one man who was there helping to evacuate some of the people from the area, to make room for heavy bulldozers that were still looking for bodies. He had Hezbollah tattoos on his arms. So there is—there were Hezbollah flags all around the, the town. So it clearly is an area with tremendous Hezbollah support.
MR. RUSSERT: Richard Engel, we thank you very much.
Now let’s go to New York. We are joined by the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations; Dan Gillerman is joining us.
Mr. Ambassador, good morning. You have just...
MR. DAN GILLERMAN: Good morning, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: You’ve just heard these reports. The prime minister of Lebanon has called for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire. Will Israel agree to that?
MR. GILLERMAN: First of all, Tim, this is a horrible, devastating, bloody Sunday, and it’s a horrible morning, and we grieve the deaths of those civilians and children. But it is very, very important to stress that they may have been hit by an Israeli bomb, but they are victims of the Hezbollah. If Hezbollah wasn’t there, this would never have happened.
And I wouldn’t put it beyond that vicious, brutal, cynical terrorist organization to have held those people there against their will after we’d repeatedly asked them to leave, so that they would actually be used as human shields, and maybe even, as farfetched as this may sound, for this to happen, because this serves nobody’s purpose, except Hezbollah and Iran.
And the demonstrations today in Lebanon should not have been targeted at the U.N. They should have been targeted at the Hezbollah, because the Hezbollah that have infested and invaded and held the Lebanon hostage is responsible, directly responsible for what has happened today. And this is why Israel will not agree to a cease-fire, because we cannot allow this horrible terror organization to continue to fester in this cesspool of terror. And if we do allow it to remain the way it is, armed with this great arsenal of weapons which they have amassed, this kind of thing could happen again tomorrow or the week after. We must put an end to the Hezbollah, make sure that it’s disarmed, exactly in order to prevent horrible tragedies like the one that happened this morning in Qana.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Ambassador, you heard Richard Engel say that in his view, many of the people there in Qana could not leave because they had no automobiles, they did not have any money, they were forced to stay there. And what has happened around the world, as you know, you heard the Lebanese prime minister say this is Israeli massacre, Israeli are war criminals. The European Union said today nothing can justify this attack. The Arab League said this is Israeli aggression. King Abdullah of Jordan said it’s an ugly crime. Mubarak of Egypt said it’s irresponsible; the French said unjustified; the British said dreadful and appalling. Are you losing world opinion against Israel in a rather dramatic fashion this morning?
MR. GILLERMAN: There may be a very serious blow to Israeli—to the Israeli public opinion and to world opinion towards Israel this morning, but this is exactly what the Hezbollah wanted. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was scheduled and targeted exactly to happen while Secretary Rice is there. Every time, Tim, every time we get that near to a settlement, there are extremists who will snatch it away from us, who will snatch hope away from us. We have to create a reality of hope rather than a reality of violence. We have to create a reality where those Lebanese children would have been at school today instead of being sheltered and held hostage in that building, and where Israeli children in Qiryat Shemona could go to school without fear of Katyusha rockets.
I must remind you that today alone 115 Katyusha rockets were fired at Israel. The difference is that they fire them specifically to target civilians. We fire in order to destroy Hezbollah strongholds. That is the difference between us. For us, every dead Lebanese child is a horrible mistake and a tragedy. For them, every dead Israeli child is a victory and a cause for celebration. This cycle must stop; this horrible reality must stop. And therefore, public opinion and world opinion is very important. But what has happened today and those reactions which you’ve just spoken about are exactly what the Hezbollah wants, are exactly what Iran wants. Also, in order to divert attention from itself, because tomorrow the Security Council is going to vote on a resolution against Iran on its nuclear quest.
This is part of the war against terror. We are fighting this, not just for ourselves, but for the rest of the world. And when we have brutal and cynical enemies who use children and women as human shields, who use homes in order to fire missiles from, there will not be peace. There will not be peace until the terrorists learn to love their children more than they hate us.
MR. RUSSERT: You said on--12 days ago, “The Hezbollah needs to be totally eliminated.” Is that still the policy of Israel, the total elimination of Hezbollah?
MR. GILLERMAN: When I said eliminated, I really meant totally disarmed. I, I meant that it should not be able, ever again, to rise its ugly head and to terrorize not just us but Lebanon. And I do believe that we will not be able to reach any kind of solution, any kind of real, lasting solution, both for us and for the Lebanese people, until Hezbollah has been totally disarmed. And when I look at Lebanon today, believe me, my heart bleeds. I still remember Lebanon 30 years ago as a thriving, vibrant, fun-loving entrepreneurial country. It’s been taken hostage by the Syrians in the north and by Hezbollah in the south. It’s been strangled. And what we’re seeing today is a direct result of the horrors which Lebanon is experiencing because it has allowed the Hezbollah to fester within itself.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Ambassador, as you well know, there’s been a lot of criticism about Israel attacking the Beirut airport, a Lebanese Air Force base. The Lebanese government, not Hezbollah, the Lebanese government, has put out this map which indicates that they say where the Israelis have bombed throughout Lebanon, and all those red dots indicate there’s bombing been, not just in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah strongholds, but throughout the entire country. Do you dispute that?
MR. GILLERMAN: No, I don’t dispute that. But I believe that after me you will have as a guest my esteemed Lebanese colleague, the special envoy from Lebanon. He’s the one who went on American television only last week and said, and these are his words, “You cannot distinguish between Hezbollah and the rest of Lebanon, between Hezbollah fighters and Lebanese.” In his words, Hezbollah is everywhere in Lebanon. It has become part of Lebanese society. Hezbollah is not just in the south, Hezbollah is everywhere, including in Beirut, including in southern Beirut. It is controlling most of Lebanon. It has headquarters and logistics centers and arms caches all over Lebanon.
That is why it is so difficult to distinguish, and that is why we had to go for Hezbollah strongholds and headquarters in places far beyond southern Lebanon, because we had to try and cut off the arms supply. The arms come from the two main sponsors of terror in the world, from Iran and Syria, who, together with the Hezbollah, form the world’s most horrible, ominous, lethal axis of terror. And I think that even on this horrible, horrible difficult day, most of the world, including some of our neighbors, who have to say what they’re saying today, deep down inside realize that we are fighting this war not just for ourselves, but for them. We may be doing the dirty work and paying a very high price, but we’re doing it for the rest of the world, to rid it of this danger directed from Tehran and from Damascus, not just at the hearts of our children and our citizens, but at the heart of civilization as we know it.
MR. RUSSERT: Noah Feldman in today’s New York Times Magazine—he’s a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations—talked about what the catch for Israel is, and he writes this, “The catch for Israel is that, taken too far, the strategy of making all Palestinians and all Lebanese pay for the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah may well backfire. Destroying the economic prosperity that had begun to return to Lebanon is likely to generate fresh hatred of Israel, and Palestinians under the gun have in recent years tended to become more radicalized, not less. ... Hamas and Hezbollah may have sparked this round of fighting, but the bombs raining down on their cities and the soldiers in their bases still come from Israel, and no one likes to be bombed.”
Have, in fact, the actions of the Israelis, despite, as you would describe, your intentions to try to clean out Hezbollah, backfired and radicalized not only people who dispose for Hezbollah, but Christians and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon who now hate Israel more than they hate Hezbollah?
MR. GILLERMAN: I, I think that this may be the case in some cases because, obviously, the initial reaction would be against Israel. But the first question I must ask Mr. Feldman, who has written this very articulate article, is what would he want us to do when our soldiers are kidnapped, when our towns and cities are shelled, when our children and women are specifically targeted? What would he want us to do? What would any country do? What would the United States do if Miami was bombed from Cuba, or if Chicago, which is your third largest city, would be bombed the way Haifa, our third largest city is, from Canada? Would you send them postcards? Would you send them flowers? Or would you react as any democracy would in order to protect your people and in order to retrieve your soldiers and in order to try and put an end to that threat?
And, quite frankly, I’m not sure that the Palestinians or the Hezbollah need any incentive to hate us. When you look at their curriculum, when look—when you look at the books their children read at school, when you look at the horrible incitement which is in there, you realize that these people are taught and born and raised and educated to hate us. I believe that no child is born wanting to be a suicide bomber. No mother gives birth to a child dreaming that one day he’ll become a shahid, but when that’s the way you raise the children—your children, that’s the way you teach them, this is what happens. So they don’t need much incentive to hate us. I don’t think they loved us before.
We have nothing against them. We have no fight with the Palestinian people; we have no quarrel with the Lebanese people. We want a prosperous, vibrant, entrepreneurial, prosperous Lebanon next to us. But in order for that to happen, they have to rid themself of that horrible monster which has grown within them and which, at the end of the day, has caused them so much pain and suffering over the years. Once Hezbollah is removed, we will make every effort, together with other countries, to rebuild Lebanon, to see it renewed and restructured. And hopefully one day we can live together so that their children can go to school without the fear of rockets and our children can go to school without the fear of Katyusha rockets.
MR. RUSSERT: The issue of restraint by Israel in light of what happened overnight, in light of what happened on Tuesday with the United Nations outposts, an Irish Army officer said that he warned Israel six times about the presence of U.N. observers at that outpost, and he suggested and so did the secretary-general of the United Nations, that Israel hitting that and killing the foreign U.N. observers was apparently deliberate. Was Israel warned six times by the Irish Army officer? And why did Israel proceed to still fire on that U.N. outpost?
MR. GILLERMAN: Next to that evidence or testimony by the Irish Army officer, there’s also an evidence by a Canadian officer who was sadly killed. But before he, he was killed, he sent an e-mail in which he said that there was bombing near them, but they were not being targeted, and the bombing was because there was Hezbollah activity right there, just as there was Hezbollah activity in Qana today.
We have a film which we will release very shortly which actually shows a missile which is being, being launched right from behind a three-story building there, very similar to the one that was hit. Israel never deliberately targets civilians, and Israel certainly did not deliberately target the U.N., the U.N. personnel.
I think that Kofi Annan’s—and I’ve said it before—Kofi Annan’s statement was unfortunate, hasty, irresponsible and appalling. I think he retracted it. I spoke to him only two days ago. He told me about his talk with the Israeli prime minister, and I think that after that, he realized that he made a mistake and he took it back. No. The answer is no.
MR. RUSSERT: He has, he has not publicly taken anything back so far.
MR. GILLERMAN: He, in a stakeout which he did two days ago at the U.N. and answered questions, he, he did not repeat that, and he actually said that he accepted the prime minister’s explanation and was waiting for the results of the investigation. We do not target U.N. personnel. We do not target civilians. It is our enemies who specifically target women and children, and when we do it, we apologize. I did not hear Hassan Nasrallah apologize for any dead Israeli, except for two Israeli/Arab children who were killed in Nazareth.
MR. RUSSERT: This...
MR. GILLERMAN: So it’s OK to kill Jews/it’s not OK to kill Muslims. We don’t accept that distinction.
MR. RUSSERT: This, as you know, this is day 19. Has this been a much more difficult, tougher military exercise than you had expected?
MR. GILLERMAN: It has been very difficult, and it has been very tough, but not tougher than we expected. (Clears throat) I’m sorry. We knew, and we’ve been warning the world over the last six years, that the Hezbollah was amassing a lethal arsenal of weapons supplied to them by Iran through Damascus. We warned that they were preparing and building bunkers and tunnels for the next, for the next fight. We knew this was happening. This is why we were insisting that the United Nations implement resolution 1559, which calls not only for the withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon, but also for the total disarming of Hezbollah.
And the reason that it’s taking so long, Tim—and that has to be very made, made very clear—is because we’re being very cautious. We’re being very careful. We do not want to hurt civilians, and exactly because of that—you know, we could have sent in our air power. We’ve used maybe 5 percent of our power. We could’ve sent in and totally erased those villages. We’re paying the price of our soldiers for the sensitivity, for the caution, and for the care which we are showing in order not to hurt civilians. And even in Qana, we’ve asked those people to leave. And we are very, very careful. And it is because we are careful, because we care, because we are sensitive that this is taking longer than it would under different circumstances.
MR. RUSSERT: Israeli ambassador Dan Gillerman, we thank you very much for the views of your government.
Now let’s get...
MR. GILLERMAN: Thank you very much.
MR. RUSSERT: Let’s get the view of Lebanon. Their special envoy, Ambassador Nouhad Mahmoud, is with us.
Mr. Ambassador, will Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, be welcomed to Beirut anytime soon to resume negotiations?
MR. NOUHAD MAHMOUD: Well, we were expecting Condoleezza Rice today in Beirut, but, unfortunately, that happened. Sure, we are calling always for political solution and intervention and negotiation with, through the American is very important for us, because they are the, the main superpower who can have connection with both sides.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you expect her to come to Beirut? How soon?
MR. MAHMOUD: Maybe not today, but sure. Any cease-fire or any solution will need direct American intervention. And we were waiting for that today, and unfortunately you see what happened.
MR. RUSSERT: Maybe tomorrow or the next day?
MR. MAHMOUD: We hope so.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you what the American/Israel public affairs committee put out. This statement—while they acknowledge they are bombing southern Lebanon, they say when it comes to Beirut, the “Lebanese spokesmen have characterized Israel’s air campaign as a systematic destruction of Beirut, while news reports have shown images of what appears to be widespread devastation. In reality, an overwhelming majority of the city remains untouched.” “ And they show this map, which indicates that it’s very selected attacks on Beirut. Would you agree with that?
MR. MAHMOUD: Well, sure, there aren’t too many standing, standing buildings in Beirut yet. But the first Israeli attack were Lebanon, Lebanon’s infrastructure, Lebanon’s civilians. From the first day the airport was hit, from the first day the seaports were hit, the bridges were destroyed, 600 Lebanese civilians. There cannot be called all collateral damage and bad mistakes, and whatever you hear. Fortunately, yes, we still have part of Beirut spared, but we don’t know when the Israeli will, will react against us. It can happen any time.
MR. RUSSERT: Two weeks ago, this was the scene at the United Nations, when Ambassador Gillerman, who we just spoke to, confronted you directly on the floor of the United Nations. Let’s watch and listen.
(Videotape, July 14, 2006):
MR. GILLERMAN: I would like to make a personal appeal to my esteemed Lebanese colleague. Your excellency, you know deep down that if you could, you would add your own brave voice to those voices of your brave compatriots and colleagues. You know deep in your heart that if you could, you would be sitting here right next to me right now, because you know that we are doing the right thing. And that if we succeed, Lebanon will be the beneficiary.
(End of videotape)
MR. RUSSERT: How do you respond? Is Israel doing the right thing in trying to eliminate the Hezbollah militia?
MR. MAHMOUD: Everyone can see that they are not doing the right thing. Now, in the third week of their bombardment and activities over Lebanon everywhere, they have not achieved much militarily. Actually, they achieved war crimes, unfortunately, and they achieved the destruction of the country, turning it to rubble in about few hours. And we Lebanese, we were trying to reach an agreement with Hezbollah on the national table, national dialogue, and were about to, to, to arrive to something substantial in this issue. So even they were blaming us that we are taking our time in doing that, but militarily it will take much longer, and it won’t be achieved, as we said from the first day.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe Israel is losing the war?
MR. MAHMOUD: If their aim is, is, is to destroy Hezbollah militarily, yes, they are.
MR. RUSSERT: And yet, you represent the Lebanese government.
MR. MAHMOUD: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: And you signed on to United Nations Resolution 1559, passed more than two years ago, and let me read that for you and our viewers: it “Reaffirms its call for the strict respect of the sovereignty ... of Lebanon under the sole and exclusive authority of the Government of Lebanon throughout Lebanon.” It “... Calls for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.” Your government has the obligation to disband the Hezbollah militia, and you have refused to do that. Why?
MR. MAHMOUD: We didn’t refuse at all. This government is in office for the last one year, and one of the main issue was the armament of Hezbollah, and that was discussed. It cannot be achieved militarily. They are part of the Lebanese society, and they have their, their legitimacy through their fighting, the, the occupation of Israeli for about 20 years of south Lebanon. So these things don’t have a quick fix. We’re taking our time, right, but we don’t want to go back to national strife and to national civil war.
MR. RUSSERT: But would you acknowledge the Lebanese Army is not strong enough to disband the Hezbollah militia?
MR. MAHMOUD: It’s not in our political agenda to disband of them militarily.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you something that your president said, the president of Lebanon, had to say about Hezbollah. “Hezbollah enjoys utmost prestige in Lebanon, because it freed our country. All over the Arab world you hear: Hezbollah maintains Arab honor, and even though it is very small, it stands up to Israel. And of course [Hezbollah’s leader] Nasrallah has my respect.” Does Mr. Nasrallah have your respect?
MR. MAHMOUD: Sure.
MR. RUSSERT: Sure? Let me show you what Mr. Nasrallah had to say, according to Reuters. “There is no solution to the conflict in this region except with the disappearance of Israel. ... Peace settlements will not change reality, which is that Israel is the enemy and that it will never be a neighbor or a nation.” Do you agree that Israel should disappear?
MR. MAHMOUD: No, we don’t agree on that, and we are not working on that. And this is not our agenda. We hope and we aim at living in peace all together in the Middle East. But unfortunately, the Israeli every day remind their neighbors of their might and of their way of dealing with things. They want everyone to submit to their dictation, and that’s not going to happen, not in Palestine, not in Lebanon. Let’s be reasonable. Let’s use our brain power instead of our fire power and that will get us somewhere. Not through bombardment, not through mistakes which are repeated on the Lebanese soil.
MR. RUSSERT: But Mr. Ambassador, if another militia snatched two Lebanese soldiers and began to bomb parts of your country, wouldn’t you respond the way Israel has?
MR. MAHMOUD: No, not this way. This way was disproportionate. It was collective punishment. It was targeting civilian in unprecedented way.
MR. RUSSERT: If there was a free election in Lebanon today, how well would Hezbollah do at the polls?
MR. MAHMOUD: They’ll do very well.
MR. RUSSERT: Would Christian Lebanese and Sunni Lebanese, not disposed to like Hezbollah, who are Shiite, would they vote for Hezbollah now? Have their minds been changed because of this war?
MR. MAHMOUD: Well, the Israeli aggression for all this time put all the Lebanese under heavy fire. So we don’t feel that there is any distinction. We are all subject to their aggression and that’s why the war is rallying people around Hezbollah. That’s very normal.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe there can be true peace without the Hezbollah militia being removed from the southern border with Israel?
MR. MAHMOUD: There will be peace because Hezbollah are committed to the national interest of Lebanon. And we believe that and they have shown that lately in the last few days, and that’s the way to do it.
MR. RUSSERT: But Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, says that his view is “the disappearance of Israel.”
MR. MAHMOUD: Well, there are many views here and there. If you hear the Israeli extremist also, they have very radical views about us.
MR. RUSSERT: Are you suggesting that Nasrallah is an extremist?
MR. MAHMOUD: Well, in the time of war, sure. Everyone may become, may be affected by, by the rhetoric of the war.
MR. RUSSERT: But how do you achieve a peace when the head of the Hezbollah militia has called publicly for the disappearance of Israel? How do you negotiate on that point?
MR. MAHMOUD: Well, the negotiation is inside Lebanon and inside the—between the Lebanese faction, between the Lebanese groups. And the national interest of Lebanon will prevail, I think, between all of us.
MR. RUSSERT: But you must insist, therefore, that Mr. Nasrallah back off of his call for the elimination and disappearance of Israel, correct?
MR. MAHMOUD: Well, we’ll try not to, to do that militarily. I mean, we’ll be all deciding about whatever. Taking the country to the war cannot be decided by one, one side, anyway.
MR. RUSSERT: Would you accept an international peace force in southern Lebanon, an exchange of prisoners between Hezbollah and Israel, and a cease-fire, in that order?
MR. MAHMOUD: Well, the Lebanese government called first for cease-fire, which is proof today that we were right—we were right about it, and the futility of all the military actions prove also that we were right about it. And sure, there will be an exchange of prisoners, there will be stabilization of the region and the Lebanese government will extend its authority all over its territories. That’s one of the points presented by Lebanon to core negotiations.
MR. RUSSERT: With an international peace force?
MR. MAHMOUD: Well, yes, sure.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Ambassador, how much longer is this going to go on?
MR. MAHMOUD: Ask the Israelis.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Ambassador, we thank you very much for sharing the views of the country of Lebanon.
MR. MAHMOUD: Thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, he has written extensively about Beirut and Jerusalem. He has now just returned from the region. New York Times columnist, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tom Friedman is next, only right here on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: Sixteen years ago, Tom Friedman wrote a book called “From Beirut to Jerusalem.” He just went to the region, talked to Israelis, Syrians, and others. He has now returned with some very strong opinions and views as to what must be done to achieve peace in the Middle East. Tom Friedman, right after this station break.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back, and so is Tom Friedman. Just back from Israel and Syria.
MR. THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN: Great to be here, Tim. Thanks.
MR. RUSSERT: Tom, let me read from your column on Wednesday and share it with our viewers as well.
“We need to get real on Lebanon. Hezbollah made a reckless mistake in provoking Israel. Shame on Hezbollah for bringing this disaster upon Lebanon by embedding its ‘heroic’ forces amid civilians. ... But Hezbollah’s militia ... can’t be wiped out at a price that Israel, or America’s Arab allies, can sustain - if at all. ... Despite Hezbollah’s bravado, Israel has hurt it and its supporters badly, in a way they will never forget. Point made. It is now time to wind down this war and pull together a deal - a cease-fire, a prisoner exchange, a resumption of the peace effort and an international force to help the Lebanese Army secure the border with Israel - before things spin out of control. Whoever goes for a knockout blow will knock themselves out instead.” That’s what you found.
MR. FRIEDMAN: That’s what I found and that’s what I believe, Tim. Israel didn’t court this war. It was brought on by Hezbollah, I believe partly inspired by Iran to draw attention away from the Security Council action, pending action, to curb Iran’s nuclear program. And partly, I think, by Hezbollah, trying to elevate its importance, a little power play within Lebanese politics.
That said, I think that the Israeli reaction at this point has demonstrated to Hezbollah the huge costs and the recklessness of this action. To press on now—you know, Tim, I think it was Bob Shrum or someone who said about the Iraq war, “It’s all over but the killing.” To go on now is just going to be more killing for no purpose whatsoever.
And I believe, from the Israeli point of view, from the Lebanese point of view, from the regional point of view, the time right now is to shut this thing down, let Hezbollah be able to say, “OK, we held the Israelis back,” let Israel be able to say, “We inflicted a terrible, punishing blow for this reckless action.” Precisely when you have people in that mode, that’s the best time for diplomacy.
MR. RUSSERT: We have noticed a change of opinion throughout the Arab nations. Initially, Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia criticizing Hezbollah. The Israelis thought, perhaps, even winking at them to go-go-go.
MR. FRIEDMAN: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: And now, because of what these leaders are hearing on the Arab street, Mubarak of Egypt and others, have been somewhat critical of the U.S.
MR. FRIEDMAN: Absolutely. You know, I, I was really in the Middle East when this shift happened. When I went out there, you had Saudi Arabia issuing a remarkable statement, first time ever, just blaming Hezbollah for a reckless action in initiating this war, without even the ritual condemnation of Israel. What was that about? That was the Sunni-Arab countries—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt—looking at this war in pure historical Shiite/Sunni terms. They see this war as the Shiite-Iranians, through Hezbollah, making a power play, basically, not only to dominate Lebanon but to take the Palestinian issue away from the Sunni-Arab world. So that was how they reacted.
But then, as I went around from Jordan to Damascus, one of the things you really feel when you’re in that part of the world, Tim, are all the Arab satellite TV stations—Al-Arabiya, Al Jazeera, they’re on everywhere. They’re the Muzak of the Arab world. And everywhere you turn, you see images of Israeli planes and bombs destroying Arab and Lebanese homes in Lebanon. The impact of that has “inflamed,” as always, the Arab street, and it’s made these regimes—our closest friends—these regimes—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt—enormously uncomfortable. And you’re now seeing the blowback from that.
MR. RUSSERT: Let’s talk about the Bush administration and a quote from your column on Friday. And here’s what Tom Friedman wrote: “America should be galvanizing the forces of order - Europe, Russia, China and India - into a coalition against these trends. But we can’t. Why? In part, it’s because our president and our secretary of state, although they speak with great moral clarity, have no moral authority. That’s been shattered by their performance in Iraq.
“The world hates George Bush more than any U.S. president in my lifetime. He is radioactive - and so caught up in his own ideological bubble that he is incapable of imagining or forging alternative strategies.” Pretty strong.
MR. FRIEDMAN: It was strong. It’s meant to be strong. Look at the situation we’re now in. You can’t go anywhere in the world right now—and I travel a lot—without getting that feeling from people thrown in your face. Why is that? You know, I’ve been asking myself that a lot. Some of it’s excessive, this dislike, this distaste, this hatred of George Bush. But what’s it about? Whenever you see something that excessive, you know?
And the way I explain it is this way: Foreigners love to make fun of Americans. Our naivete, our crazy thought that every problem has a solution, that silly American notion, that silly American optimism. But you know what, Tim? Deep down, the world really envies that American optimism and naivete. And the world needs that American optimism and naivete.
And so when we go from a country that, historically, has always exported hope to a country that always exports fear, what we do, and what this administration has done, is actually stolen something from people. Whether it’s an African or a European or an Arab or Israeli, it’s that idea of an optimistic America out there. People really need that idea, and the sort of dark nature of the Cheneys and the Bushes and the Rices, this, this sort of relentless pessimism about the world, this exporting of fear, not hope, has really left people feeling that the idea of America has been stolen from them. And I would argue that that is the animating force behind so much of the animus directed at George Bush.
MR. RUSSERT: There’s a debate within the administration, across our country, around the world, about who we should talk to. You feel very strongly that the U.S. should try to pry Syria away from Iran. One country, Syria, which is Sunni and secular, Iran being more Shiite. Is it possible to pry those countries apart? Or is it worth trying?
MR. FRIEDMAN: That’s why I went to Damascus, really to answer that question. Because look at the map. Tim, you’ve got Iran over here, you’ve got Hezbollah over here, and in between, the bridge, both ideological and physical and material, is Syria. Hezbollah can’t do what it does if that Syrian bridge is broken. And I basically went to Damascus to ask that question. What I found were, were, were several things. Number one—but the Syrians are feeling very confident right now because they know the street is with them and they—the regime there knows that the street with them and they’re looking at the Saudis and the Egyptians and the Jordanians and saying, “You guys are—you look awful uncomfortable over there. The street’s with us.” Number one, so they’re feeling confident.
Number two, though, what I really found, Syrian officials stressed to me over and over again, “Our marriage with Iran is a marriage of convenience.” This is a secular Sunni country. It’s got an Alawite regime, but it’s a secular Sunni country, Syria. And being in a car driven by two Shiite radicals—Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, and Nasrallah from, from Lebanon—that’s not so comfortable for the Syrians. Particularly because in this car, Tim, they’re in the back seat and the guys in the front got no brakes. So I think that there is a possibility—I wouldn’t exaggerate this, but I think there is a possibility if we—if we sat down with the Syrians and said, “What do you need? Here’s what we need. Let’s have a rational, long-term dialogue,” not one of these Condi Rice specials of, you know, 20 minutes in the Middle East, “I touched the base and went back,” but a serious, rational dialogue.
Do you know how many times I went with Jim Baker to Syria when he was preparing the Gulf War coalition and the Madrid Peace Conference? I believe it was 15 times. And you know what I remember most about those trips, Tim? That I think on 14 of them, the lead of my story was “Secretary of State James A. Baker III Failed Today.” Failed in his effort to, to draw Syria in. But guess what? On trip 15, he brought the Syrians into the Madrid Peace Conference. Those are the same Syrians, by the way, who were behind the attacks on the Americans in Beirut in 1982. They haven’t changed. This is a tough, brutal and mean regime, but they also can be done business with with the right, I think, administration approach.
MR. RUSSERT: I remember 16 years ago reading “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” still a road map for understanding that area, and you talked extensively about what goes on in the Arab mind, in the Arab heart. And I was reminded of it in your column on Friday you had in The New York Times. You were on a rooftop in Syria talking to young writers, and Tom Friedman wrote this, “There will be no new Middle East - not as long as the New Middle Easterners, like Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, get gunned down; not as long as Old Middle Easterners, like Nasrallah, use all their wits and resources to start a new Arab-Israeli war rather than build a new Arab university; and not as long as Arab media and intellectuals refuse to speak out clearly against those who encourage their youth to embrace martyrdom with religious zeal rather than meld modernity with Arab culture.” Talk about that meeting on that rooftop.
MR. FRIEDMAN: Well, it was, it was a dinner with a group of Syrian writers arranged by some friends of mine. Say, you know, one woman was saying how she’s just really—believes Israel should be, you know, eliminated, and another Arab journalist was saying how much pride—how much pride he gets by seeing Hezbollah fight the Israelis to a standstill and inflict these casualties. And a third, very interesting, was saying, “This Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, he’s a disaster for us.”
But there are too many people, Tim, outside of Lebanon, in the Arab world, getting their buzz, frankly, off seeing Hezbollah stand up to Israel while Lebanon gets decimated. Lebanon, the first Arab democracy. And I, I real—I have a real problem with that because it’s time for the Arab world to stop getting their buzz, OK, off fighting Israel and to overcome their humiliation that way. It’s time to start building something.
You know, you ever ask yourself, Tim, what’s the second largest Muslim country in the world? It’s India. It’s not Pakistan or Iran. What do we see in India? Just a couple of weeks ago, 350 Indians killed in what is widely suspected an attack by Muslim extremists in Mumbai in a train station. But the Indian reaction was incredibly restrained. Why is that? You know, why don’t Indian Muslims, you know, get their buzz this way? Could it be because the richest man in India is a Muslim software entrepreneur? Could it be because the president of India is a Muslim? Could it be because there’s an Indian Muslim woman on the Indian Supreme Court? Could it be because the leading female movie star in India is a Muslim woman? You know, when people get their dignity from building things rather than confronting other people, it’s amazing what politics flows from that. And I think that’s something the Arab world also needs to be reflecting on now.
MR. RUSSERT: How to convince these young men and women that there’s more to life than trying to destroy Israel?
MR. FRIEDMAN: You know, these are people who, who hate others more than they love their own kids, more than they love their own future. And that’s crazy, and that’s part of the pathology of that part of the world. But one thing I know for sure, you know, what we’re doing right now, what Israel’s doing right now—smashing things in Gaza again, smashing things in Lebanon—I understand it. I understand the anger and the rage. You’re minding your own business, and one day these guys, you know, come across the border. But it’s not working. It’s just not working. You know, Israel destroyed the PLO, and it got Hamas. Now it’s destroying Hamas, and it’s going to get chaos. And you can’t repeat the same thing in Lebanon. And the role of America is to be the guiding light there, not to fly air cover so more of this violence can continue indefinitely. If I thought it was going to work, I, I’d feel different. It’s not going to work. It’s not going to work for them, and it’s not going to work for us, and it’s not going to work for Lebanon or the Palestinians. We’ve got to find another way.
And you know, part of just showing up, Tim, you know, why did I go to Syria? I haven’t been to Syria in a long time. But, you know, listening. If I found one thing as a reporter—worked in the Arab world for 25 years, as a Jewish-American reporter—here’s what I found. I found that listening is a sign of respect. You know, if you just go over and listen to people, and what they have to say, it’s amazing what they’ll allow you to say back. But when you just say, “We’re not going to go to Damascus, we’re not going to listen to the Syrians,” we—you’re never going to get anywhere that way. I’m not guaranteeing you you’re going to get somewhere the other way, but all I know, you sure increase the odds if you sit down and just listen.
MR. RUSSERT: Tom Friedman, we thank you for joining us, and your report on your trip. “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” and also “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century,” which is now out as well. Thank you for joining us.
MR. FRIEDMAN: Great pleasure, thanks, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: And we’ll be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: Here is NBC’s Brian Williams with a preview of what’s coming up on Monday’s “NBC Nightly News.”
MR. BRIAN WILLIAMS: Tim, it’s an emotional topic right now, politically dicey, but increasing talk in this country and elsewhere that Israel just might have made a big mistake. We’ll look at that; we’ll look at the man in charge. Some of the reporting we are preparing for tomorrow night’s “NBC Nightly News.” We’ll look for you then. Tim, for now, back to you.
MR. RUSSERT: Thank you, Brian Williams.
That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.