The president of the Council of Ministers Saad Hariri participated today in the annual conference of the Carnegie Middle East Center, organized at the Phoenicia Hotel and entitled World on edge: What to expect in 2018.

In a dialogue on Lebanon in a turbulent region, Hariri answered the questions of the Center’s director Maha Yehia and then of the audience, on Lebanese, regional and international issues.

He started by saying: I want to thank you all for being here and I hope we will have a frank discussion about Lebanon and about what is happening around us. I will try to be as frank as I can be. I will not spill the beans today. Thank you all and I look forward to having a good debate.

Question: You recently rescinded on your resignation after a politically turbulent month, to say the least. In the short government statement last week you emphasized the Taef Agreement, particularly the power sharing aspect of it, but also the policy of disassociation from regional conflicts. The question is how do you plan on monitoring this disassociation and making sure it gets implemented? How will the government go about this?

Hariri: It is obvious to me that we look for Lebanon’s interest and I think that any political party that wants Lebanon’s stability and Lebanon’s interest vis-A�-vis the Arb world, vis-A�-vis our economic interests with the gulf states and the Arab world is bound to follow the disassociation policy. The good thing is that for the first time we have a government decision on the disassociation with all political parties agreeing to this policy. And I believe that everybody realizes the danger we are in, whether economic or political or stability wise. I believe that all political parties are willing to act on this policy positively. I understand the difficulties that some Gulf States have of accepting Lebanon’s political contradictions that we live in, but this is a fact that we have in Lebanon and I believe that pushing all the political parties towards the disassociation policy is extremely important. And if people or political parties do not follow this policy they will be the ones to blame. In the end Lebanon or the people of Lebanon should not pay the price of certain ventures that some political parties would do, and I don’t only mean certain political parties like Hezbollah but also we have, as political parties and as Future Movement, also to abide by this disassociation policy because we have political differences with Hezbollah regionally. We will not agree on their policy vis-A�-vis what they want in the region and they will not agree with what we want in the region. So the best thing is to put aside these differences and make sure that we all serve the interest of Lebanon.

Question: Are there concrete steps you are expecting from Hezbollah?

Hariri: From the day we started this policy, you can see the rhetoric in the media has calmed down a little bit. We will follow through on these issues. Any break of this disassociation policy, I will follow diligently. I think there were some issues that happened in the South of Lebanon. We had a statement and I made myself very clear and the President took steps on this issue, where we had the Iraqi militia on the borders. So we are taking steps and we are making sure that this policy is going to be followed through to the end.

Question: You just came back from the international Support Group for Lebanon meeting that was hosted by President Emmanuel Macron. There are also a series of upcoming conferences intended to support Lebanon. There is Paris 4, there is the Rome conference in support of the Lebanese army and then in April 2018 there is the Brussels conference for refugees. Can you outline Lebanon’s expectations from these conferences and its responsibilities towards the international community?

Hariri: The goals we have in these conferences are the following: We want to make sure that we have political stability. You have to understand that Lebanon is passing through a very hard time in every single sector, whether it is economy, environment, stability, security or any sector you think of.

First of all we need to have political support for the stability of Lebanon and I think we did that in the ISG in Paris, and the road map that we drew for these conferences is: one, to support Lebanon for this stability that we have today. Second, to ensure that security wise we have the means to fight any security breach in the country. That is why we want a Rome II conference where we have commitments from different countries to help the LAF and the ISF and all security services. If you want economic stability, you have to have the first two to start with. I think we started with the political and will go to the Rome II and we will go to the Paris conference for economic support for Lebanon. This is a project that we have been working on for the last six to eight months in the government. We will finalize hopefully very soon and this will give the confidence for people to come to Lebanon to invest. If we have the support of most of the countries that they will come to Paris conference, we will have a story to tell. We have 1.5 million Syrian refugees and this is a fact and these refugees need to go back to Syria. But by the time they leave we have to deal with their presence here. We are doing a public service for the whole international community and I believe the international community has a responsibility towards Lebanon, in helping it get either grants, soft loans or concessional loans in order to move our economy, because no matter how much we pay today to the refugees, this is not going to create jobs. We need to create jobs for the Lebanese and for the Syrians, and in order to create jobs, we have to start by investing in big infrastructure jobs: electricity, roads, dams and all these infrastructure projects. We have almost finalized all these projects and it is going to be between twelve to fifteen billion over six � seven years. This is what we want to see the international community commit to. But you have to understand that thirty to forty percent of this project is also done by the private sector. So we are not only looking for grants or concessional loans but also we are looking for big private companies to come from the international community to invest in the power generation, in toll roads, in Rafic Hariri airport. I remember when my father built it at the time, everybody criticized him because he was building an airport for six million people, and today we have ten million people who travel through this airport and we need to expand this airport to sixteen million travelers.

As a government we shouldn’t be paying for the expansion of this airport we should do it on the PPP basis, we should let the private sector strive in this country. We want the Lebanese businessmen who are all over the place to come back to Lebanon. I believe that Lebanon will come out of this crisis in a very positive way.

Question: So basically the economic vision that you are putting together despite the turbulence in the region

Hariri: Any economic vision has to have political and security stability. So the whole process of these conferences is to get the political support for political stability. Then we go to Rome II we have the commitment of countries to help the LAF and the ISF because we want to implement UNSCR 1701. But in order for us to implement the 1701, we have to have a LAF that is able to move fast, to do its job fast. Unfortunately security in the past wasn’t a real investment that we believed in in Lebanon.

For instance in 2005 after the assassination of my father, the number of ISF which is the police force in Lebanon was 9800 members for all Lebanon, today we have 28000 members. The LAF with all the problems we have in Lebanon, ie border control, 1701 and all the terrorist attacks, we only had forty thousand troops. Today we have 82000. So we increased our security forces, especially in the past four-five years, in order to face the challenges. I don’t think it is about numbers but about the right training, the right equipment and the right resources. My belief is that we should focus on the security forces where we invest in the kind of training that is good for Lebanon, to act against these terrorist attacks and protecting the borders. We had very good experiences with Great Britain, the United States, France and even Saudi Arabia. All these countries invested in our security forces. Iif we get these two, and stabilize ourselves, then economic stability or growth in the country is feasible.

Question: While you were in Paris, you had discussions including one with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Can you briefly discuss the outcomes, especially in view of increasing focus or actions by the United States on Hezbollah, recurring threats of an Israeli war, the apparent controversy in Paris over UN Resolution 1559 and even recent calls by Lebanon’s foreign minister for an economic boycott of the United States? How are you going to deal with these kinds of contradictions?

Hariri: I am sure the United States is very scared of us. (laughs)

The decision of the United States to consider Jerusalem the capital of Israel is a serious problem for the whole Arab and Islamic world and the whole world. I do not think that anyone else than the United States and Israel reacted positively to this decision. I believe the world reacted in the right way because it is breaking the international law, by this declaration. We believe that the two-state solution is the only solution for the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. We believe that Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine, but we are really concerned that this decision is giving a present to the extremists in the world.

I believe this is undoable and I think the decision by the United States is not wise and will not end the conflict. The Palestinians are there to stay and will not go anywhere. They will not leave. So if the world and if the United States want to be serious about this issue, they have to seriously look at solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

I believe that Netanyahu is not somebody who wants peace in the region because all he did along his tenure is to destroy the Oslo agreement or any agreement with the Palestinians. All of us should refuse this decision by the United States and I am sure that we will get somewhere. The decision of the Lebanese government is definitely to refuse the decision of the United States.

Question: Were there any discussions in view of actions by the United States on Hezbollah?

Hariri: The position of the United States vis-A�-vis Hezbollah is clear and I think the European Union and lot of countries are very clear about Hezbollah. But I also believe that all are calling for a national dialogue to start working on this issue among the Lebanese and I think we should consider it seriously. I also believe that the issue of Hezbollah is bigger than Lebanon. It is a regional issue and it is not only the problem of Lebanon but also the problem of the international community. So if one wants to be serious on these issues, do not blame Lebanon on the issue of Hezbollah but blame the region on these conflicts. Discussions that should happen in the region are the only way to solve these issues.

Question: Turning to the Gulf, Lebanon-GCC relations recently took a hit in 2017. So what brought this about and how do you see these relations unfolding in 2018?

Hariri: I cannot but understand the position of the Gulf as Prime Minister, as Saad Hariri and anyone in their right mind will understand it. There is a conflict, and some political parties in Lebanon are acting according to their own interests in the Gulf. I believe that this disassociation policy that we put on the table in the Council of Ministers is supposed to release that tension that we have between us and the Gulf. People want to see the results of this disassociation policy and they will see the results. I think the Gulf needs to understand also that we are friends, we want this relationship. Leaving Lebanon hanging like this is only going to serve others and a true relationship between us and the Gulf, and openness, will only strengthen our institutions in Lebanon, the LAF, the ISF, the economy and all the institutions. A real investment in Lebanon will only strengthen all institutions and weaken all political parties. If we have electricity, a strong army, all the services that we should have for citizens, then no political party is going to be strong. If we do our job like we are supposed to do it as a government I think all political parties, including Future Movement, will weaken. The agenda will be the benefit of the Lebanese people. In 2018 things will clear up much better with the Gulf States. I will be going there also and we will have discussions in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and all these countries hopefully very soon.

Question: Many saw a gas oil link in your first trips after leaving Saudi Arabia. You went to France, Egypt and Cyprus. How entangled is this industry’s future with Lebanese politics?

Hariri: We have it on the table of the Council of Ministers tomorrow and it will pass with no problem. We will have some discussions in the Council of Ministers. It is going to be a clear cut discussion. Total has a good offer and finally, after five years of discussions on this issue, this government will be able to sign off the first gas and oil exploration.

Question: Lebanon and Israel are in disagreement over the demarcation of their respective maritime economic zone and this is something the United States has been trying to mediate

Hariri: Yes we are working with the United States on this issue and I believe that we have gone through positive steps, but these discussions are ongoing and we can come to a closure on this issue. We need to finalize certain meetings and this government can finalize this problem.

Question: How would do you envisage the Lebanese-Syrian relations if Bashar Assad stays in power?

Hariri: Non-existent. I am not going to change my mind on this issue. The world has to understand that we have 1.5 million Syrian refugees and we believe in their safe return and their voluntary return. The United Nations has, now that there is some safety and security in some zones, to involve itself in those stable or de-escalation zones. If these zones become a fact and are secured and safe, then with the help of the United Nations, Russia, the United States or whoever, these refugees should go back to Syria. In the past, General Security officials were coming and going to Syria, for the safety of Lebanon. I think this is the maximum relation that we can foresee.

Question: The problem with the de-escalation zones is that they are not workable. Places like Eastern Ghouta continue to be besieged. Are there any safety measure or will you rely mainly on the UN to ensure that the move of the people is voluntary and safe at the same time?

Hariri: Anyone who wants to go back to Syria is free to go back. We are not holding anybody. At the same time, the world has to understand that any problem instigated by Israel will have an effect on 1.5 million refugees. These escaped the war and they will not stay in Lebanon or return to Syria but they will go somewhere else. The international community must understand that these people if they leave will not go to an Arab country but to Europe. We have done everything possible for them. But if a conflict opened in Lebanon, where will these people go?

Question: Let me ask you about the reconstruction process of Syria. The EU has stipulated that its financial support to the reconstruction of Syria will only take place after a political transition. You previously discussed the Lebanese role in the construction of Syria. What are the political implications and how do you see Lebanon’s involvement in the reconstruction process in view of the EU’s position?

Hariri: I think the EU or us or any country that wants to start a reconstruction effort in Syria has to understand that there will be a political end to the conflict. When we talked about Lebanon being involved in the reconstruction of Syria, we were saying that we should start building the infrastructure in Lebanon, so companies that would like to go to Syria and do the reconstruction can use the Lebanese expertise after the conflict ends.

We never said that we want to go to Syria while the conflict is ongoing and while there’s no final solution in Syria. I believe that EU position is the right position and will put pressure on the regime and on all countries to find a political solution because in the end the Syrian people have to go back home. We have to understand that any political process also on Syria has to include a solution for the refugees because you cannot have a political solution in Syria without bringing back about 5 to 7 million refugees that are lurking around the world and have no place to go. We have to make sure that the return of the refugees is part of the political solution in Syria.

Question: Moving to local politics, there is much speculation about the shape of political alliances coming up for the elections. Many are thinking of the 2005 alliances. What are the alliances you are aspiring to in the coming elections?

Hariri: It is a very good question and seriously I don’t have an answer for you today. We will have alliances with different political parties, we have allies, I have allies that I would like to hold on to. We have also this understanding or this alliance now with the president that proved good for the stability of the country, so we have to look for the interest of our political party to start with and we will act accordingly.

What’s important for the Future Movement is to make alliances to have the bigger bloc. These are elections, you might not like somebody but if he makes me win. There are certain political parties that we cannot ally with because our differences are tremendous but at the same time, we are going to be open to alliances that serve the interest of our political bloc.

Hariri then answered questions from the audience:

Question: Knowing Saudi Arabic, and probably you know personally Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia, do you foresee that in his eagerness to reinvent Saudi Arabia as a new nation, there will be an opening for Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel, and by this recognition also ask the Israelis to back from the Jerusalem issue and solve the problem, so we can have a neutral Lebanon, a better Middle East?

Hariri: First of all, I do not speak for Saudi Arabia, we understand that. But I believe that Saudi Arabia is reinventing itself and there are a lot of steps taking place, in moderation and openness in Saudi Arabia. I believe that people can see that.

On the issue of Jerusalem. I think the Saudi position has been very clear by the declaration of the foreign ministers in the Arab League. The Saudi government is very clear on the issue of Jerusalem. I believe also that the only way to move forward on this conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is the Arab initiative towards the two state solution for Israel and Palestine.

I believe also that this conflict has to take some serious steps towards an ending so the Arabs should be ready for their initiative to start the real discussions. The decision on Jerusalem only made things worse so I don’t think that anybody is willing to take the step towards Israel.

Questions: 1- I think the disassociation policy leads to one place, the formal neutrality of this country. Obviously, disassociation is the first step. Do you foresee a road map towards formal neutrality of Lebanon or is that beyond our expectations at this point?

2- What happened since you announced that you will reveal everything bothering you, saying I will spill the beans two days ago, and this morning we had this tweet from our dear friend Marcel Ghanem saying that you cancelled or postponed the program. Why do we have the impression that yesterday’s allies are becoming today’s enemies and yesterday’s enemies are becoming today’s allies? What happened?

Hariri: On “spilling the beans”, I was having a discussion with a group of young Beirutis at the Center House. I said specifically that one day I will have an interview with Marcel, I did not decide the day, I said one day I will have an interview with Marcel and I will spill the beans. This is what I meant, I did not decide when, but now every person is a news outlet so with all these live Facebook, Instagram, they said that Saad is going to have an interview.

On the issue of the alliances, I do not believe this. My job today is to unite the Lebanese and the biggest challenge that I have is that during this crisis, all the Lebanese came around and wanted me to come back and this is a great responsibility and I am not a person who wants to make enemies. I want to unite an agenda in the interest of Lebanon not in the interest of Saad. I believe that the media has been expanding on these issues of conflicts between me and certain allies. This is not my policy and we should have clear a discussion on how to move forward for the country, not for Saad but for the country and this whole story of allies being enemies is absolutely not true.

On the issue of disassociation and neutrality, I believe that this is a first step and we need to make sure these steps are abided by all political parties. The neutrality of Lebanon is a policy but you can never be neutral regarding a conflict with Israel. We should be neutral, or enforce more disassociation in the future. to have a neutrality maybe in the Arab conflicts between certain countries. I believe that Lebanon has acted on this issue quite well. When it comes to the regional conflicts, we need to work more. It is still too early to venture into something like this but I think most Lebanese would like to see a Lebanon as a country that is not involving itself in conflicts that have nothing to do with Lebanon. We will work on it. Nothing is impossible by the way.

Question: We hear a lot about corruption files, when will the Lebanese justice be able to solve these files immediately and fairly?

Hariri: We all know that Lebanon is suffering from corruption and this is due to our lack of decision for 3 years in electing a president. I think the previous government tried everything to limit any kind of corruption but when you don’t have the head of the pyramid and when you have a government that is dysfunctional, a parliament that wasn’t able to meet to convene and to pass laws, when you have institutions that didn’t have their heads of pyramids especially the supervisory institution to fight this corruption, it is not an easy task. A large part of fighting corruption will be by moving to E-government because this will cut corruption in a tremendous way. We filled up all the vacancies in the supervisory positions and at the same times, just a month and a half ago, we did appointments in the justice departments. It is a start, it is not enough, we need to do a lot of work on this issue.

I believe that all political parties should remove their hands when it comes to corruption.

Question: 1- I would like to go back to local politics and especially the upcoming elections. How confident are, you representing a major line, that the outcome of these elections will really reserve, at least the actual balance within the parliament, because some analysis I have read, and I spoke to many experts on the matter, expect probably the axis of the resistance to come in the upcoming elections will be at least 71 members. This is going to disturb the balance and probably this majority could make new laws to bring major changes to the Lebanese system.

2- The disassociation policy is the corner stone of your government, which is a one way policy from Lebanon to regional neighbors. What about reciprocity, have you had any assurances that regional powers like Iran will not intervene in local politics through allies, whether local or such as Khazaali lately?

3-We are heading towards elections and the situation is very critical, will these elections improve the situation or will they reflect the condition in which we live? Concerning civil society, does the government have a strategy to move the civil society from consensual democracy to a real democratic process?

Hariri: First of all, on the question of parliament. If you go back to 2009, when we passed the law of 1960, the same people said the same things about the results of parliament and yet we were able to win the elections and we won it by good majority. I believe the parliament in the Future is going to be the same outcome. All these discussions about March 8th winning the elections come from people who are scared of the electoral law or want to delay the elections. I do not think there will be one majority in the country. The alliances today in this government are not about 8 and 14. The problem we have today is there are certain people are still fixated in their old tranches and do not want to move forward. This new alliance between us and the president has nothing to do with 8 and 14 but is for the interest of the country and we have showed it many times on different matters. Trying to differentiate between 8 and 14 again or the division we had in the past is not going to make the country move forward because for 12 years before electing President Aoun, we had 8 and 14. But what did we do? We had a horizontal and vertical division in the country and nothing moved. No economic file moved, no political file moved, we had some achievements for March 14, like the tribunal, things that were important for us and the country. But when it comes to the economy, when it comes to the interest of the people, to moving forward the country, to ending this kind of division, to lessening the tension between Sunnis and Shias, we have to understand that we don’t live in a cocoon. We live in a region that is boiling and exploding and we see the conflict in Iraq, Syria and it could have easily come to Lebanon. Our responsibility as political leaders is to make sure that this fire does not touch Lebanon and yes sometimes we have to make compromises and we all make compromises but I do not believe that the outcome of this election is going to tilt like you said.

I remember in 2009, everybody was convinced, and this was at the peak of the conflict between March 8 and 14, that March 8 was going to win the elections and will have 71 or 75 members in parliament and the outcome was the opposite. I believe this time it’s going to be the same. The law is difficult and not the law we are used to. But I believe that you will have much more civil society come into parliament, and knowing them and their goals, they are going to be either with us or against us. I believe they have their own agenda, their agenda can make us work harder because they are going to push us to enhance ourselves politically.

Question: If we open a Carlton Ritz in Beirut, who do you think should be in it?

Hariri: Ooooh (laughs in the crowd). But we have a Phoenicia (laughs). Do you think you are getting out of here? (laughs)

Question: How can you guarantee the disassociation policy, not using Lebanon as a proxy for regional wars, when we know that Hezbollah and other political parties are historically, confessionally, financially, politically, and in the case of Hezbollah militarily, sponsored by these regional powers that are in high conflict? How can you guarantee something like this in the context of the actual ties that political parties on both camps have with regional powers?

Hariri: The problem should not be Lebanon’s problem. It’s a regional conflict and the regional players are the ones supposed to pay the price. We always want to blame Lebanon, because Lebanon is the weakest link in the chain. Yes maybe Hezbollah is in Lebanon, but at the same time the conflicts in the region are played by regional players. It is like in Syria. The problem in Syria is that everybody is involved there. So do you blame one side or do you blame all sides? Why didn’t we end this conflict from the beginning? Because the international community did not move forward as it should. How many conflicts did we have against Israel under the pretext that Israel wants to get rid of Hezbollah? Was Israel successful in ending Hezbollah? Or did it only make sure that Hezbollah became stronger? The solution is dialogue. The solution is a political solution. It is not Lebanese but regional. You can blame this country as much as you want but you know very well there are so many millions of Lebanese here and around the world who don’t want this conflict and don’t want to be involved. Do you take a policy that alienates these people who are against any conflict? Or do you go for the main problem that is causing all of this? Let us stop hiding behind our finger, let us see things as they are and let us solve these issues like they should be solved. There is a regional conflict that the international community understands but it does not have the guts to take position on these issues. Don’t blame Lebanon, blame the international community.

Question: The fact is the Syrian Republic is still led by Bachar el-Assad, which is a government still recognized by the United Nations, whether we like it or not. Lebanon has an embassy in Syria and Syria has an embassy in Beirut. The point is to deal with the refugees crisis. You said that you refuse the contact with the Syrian government. But if it is in the Lebanese interest, isn’t it more responsible to deal with the Syrian government, because we know the UN can deal we this issue as crisis management, not a solution? In the Lebanese interest, isn’t it worth it to deal even with the devil?

Hariri: Is Lebanon the only country that has refugees? Iraq has, and has good relations with the regime. Jordan, Turkey and Egypt have refugees and relations with the regime. Did any refugee go back from these countries? No. It is not about the relation with the regime, it’s about the safety of these people. They need to go back for sure. I do not think that opening to the regime would take them back, because all these countries have relations with the regime. Why didn’t the refugees return? Because there is a problem for them to go back. For their safety and also because I do not think that the regime wants them to return. This is why the refugees issue is very important for Lebanon, and we are the ones suffering the most. I totally agree with the notion that we need to implement Lebanese law here. The international community also needs to be responsible for its commitments. If everybody does his job well and right, the refugees can go back.

We cannot be in the policy of refoulement because the moment we do that the International community will have a very bad reaction towards Lebanon. We need the international community, but it needs to understand that Lebanon can’t sustain this kind of pressure and they need to help us.

That’s why any conference to encourage people to help Lebanon is a public service for all the international community.

But let us not mix between the Syrians and the Palestinians. The Syrians have a country, a land and passports, and can go back when the conflict ends.

I believe that talking to the regime will only benefit the regime, but it will not do anything for the return of the refugees. The right venue on this issue is to talk to countries that are friends with the regime to stop the conflict. It is coming to an end. We are seeing a little stability. There are talks in Geneva and Astana. There is an understanding between the US and Russia and the players in the region, especially the Europeans, to end this conflict and this has to happen fast. These countries have to push their egos a little bit and work on solving the issue of Syria. It is not about who has more influence, it is about 25 million people who are suffering day and night and this conflict has to end.

Source: National News Agency