Asharq Al-Awsat Publishes Details of the Late Premier’s Meetings in London
A series of recently declassified British documents reveal details of meetings held by the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri with British officials in 1997 and 1999.
According to the documents, Hariri informed his British counterpart Tony Blair that Lebanon and Israel held 11 rounds of negotiations in Washington, but the Hebrew state put forward a series of conditions, including “dissolving Hezbollah.”
The accounts, which are published by Asharq Al-Awsat in two episodes, quoted an official in the French presidency as saying that Paris was upset with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and accused him of reneging on previous promises to deploy the Lebanese army in the south after Israel’s withdrawal in May 2000. This prompted Paris to freeze steps to increase the number of its troops in the UNIFIL.
The documents confirm that the United Kingdom tried to play a role in the negotiations on the Lebanese and Syrian tracks with Israel, and believed that there was a great possibility of achieving progress in light of the promises made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (1999-2001) to withdraw from South Lebanon, and the “courtesy” between him and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
They also show that a special envoy of Blair met with Assad in this regard, and carried a message to Lahoud on the negotiations with Israel. However, the latter refused to receive him due to pressure exerted on him.
The documents, which were declassified in the British National Archives, show that Blair’s reception of Hariri came at the “insistence” of French President Jacques Chirac.
While the first meeting in 1997 was normal, because it took place between two prime ministers, the second meeting in 1999 was problematic “protocol”. Once again, Chirac insisted on Blair to meet Hariri, who was then a former prime minister after he resigned in 1998, following Lahoud’s election as president to succeed President Elias Hrawi.
On July 17, 1997, Blair received his Lebanese counterpart, Rafik Hariri, at 10 Downing Street. He was then the new prime minister after he led his party, the Labor Party, that year to a landslide victory over the Conservatives. Hariri had been prime minister for years under President Elias Hrawi and was focusing his efforts on rebuilding Lebanon after the long years of civil war.
Hariri visited the prime minister for 35 minutes on July 17. He was accompanied by the Deputy Prime Minister and Ministers of Finance, Information and Trade, Secretary General of the Council of Ministers and Lebanon’s Ambassador in London. The meeting was also attended by Derek Fatchett (Foreign Secretary of State for the Middle East), and other UK officials.
The minutes of the meeting show that Hariri clearly held then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responsible for obstructing progress in the peace talks, and argued that this policy would only lead to the growth of the influence of Hamas and the fundamentalists.
Blair asked about the situation in Lebanon. Hariri said that there was now a monitoring group looking into the April understandings in South Lebanon. The group included Americans, French, Syrians, Israelis and Lebanese. He said that nobody wanted the situation to escalate, adding that the Lebanese were trying to build infrastructure throughout the country and achieve financial stability. There have been dramatic developments over the past five years, he noted.
Hariri invited the British Prime Minister to visit Beirut to see for himself. Fatchett said he visited the Lebanese capital, pointing to significant progress compared to its previous visits the year before. Hariri said that they were now hosting the Arab Games, and that a British company had built a wonderful stadium to host it.
Blair-Hariri... A second meeting in different circumstances
Two years after Blair’s meeting with Hariri, a second meeting took place between the two men, but under different circumstances. Hariri had been outside the Lebanese government after his resignation during the term of Lahoud.
An important change also took place in Israel, with the arrival of Ehud Barak to the premiership, succeeding Benjamin Netanyahu.
On July 5, 1999, Philip Barton wrote to the British prime minister, saying that Hariri, the former premier, would visit him the following day because of Chirac's repeated insistence.
He added that Hariri would be accompanied by some people from his office.
A list attached to Barton’s letter comprised the proposed topics for discussion. Those included the possibility of achieving progress in the Middle East peace process in the wake of Barak’s election; the necessity to reach progress on the Syrian and Lebanese track to achieve a comprehensive peace; the negotiations with the European Union; concern over the recent escalation in southern Lebanon that caused the bombing of Beirut on June 25; and progress in the negotiations of the Association Agreement between the European Union and Lebanon.
The brief explanation provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the following:
A recent escalation of violence in southern Lebanon culminated in the June 25 Israeli Air Force attacks on Beirut, the Bekaa Valley, and southern Lebanon, which killed 10 civilians, and a Hezbollah attack in northern Israel that killed two. The Israeli Air Force attacks were ordered by the Netanyahu government. Barak was informed of it, but not consulted. The situation is calm, but tense, according to the explanation. Contacts resumed in the Israeli-Lebanese monitoring group set up to monitor the April 1996 understandings.
Some saw the Hezbollah attack as a reminder to both Syria and Barak that they could not be ignored in any peace negotiations…
The Middle East peace process
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it expected that Barak would implement the Wye River memorandum whenever he forms a government. The second redeployment of Israeli forces under Wye will be the starting point for renewed negotiations on all tracks in the peace process. It added that the greatest progress was likely to be made on the Syrian-Lebanese tracks (with Israel). Barak may focus his attention here, according to the explanation.
It also noted that a unilateral withdrawal of the Israelis from South Lebanon would deprive the Syrians of one of their main cards in the negotiations over the Golan Heights, specifically their (implicit) influence regarding Hezbollah’s attacks on Israeli forces in southern Lebanon.
The Lebanese will not walk alone without their dominant partner. Nevertheless, we understand that Barak knows the need for Syrian cooperation to ensure a successful withdrawal from Lebanon, the British ministry reported in the documents.
The internal Lebanese situation
The British Foreign Affairs’ Ministry said that Emile Lahoud was inaugurated on November 24, 1998, to succeed Elias Hrawi. In order to enable Lahoud, the former commander of the Lebanese army, to become president, the Lebanese parliament voted to amend Article 49 of the constitution that bars senior civil servants from running for president as long as they are in office or within two years of leaving office. It added that 118 of the 128 Lebanese deputies voted for Lahoud. The ten MPs who boycotted were members of Walid Jumblatt’s party.
The documents added that Hariri was offered the opportunity to continue his work as prime minister under the new president’s rule, but he declined on constitutional grounds, as he put it.
Speculation continued in Lebanon about the reason for Hariri’s “resignation”, but it seemed likely that he did not consider that he could work with Lahoud without playing the minor role in the administration.
Dr. Salim al-Hoss was nominated prime minister on December 2. Lahoud and Hoss appointed a mini-government of 16 ministers (half of the previous government). The government included reform-minded technocrats, in an effort to tackle corruption.
The British Foreign Ministry pointed to disappointment in Lebanon with the limited performance of the Hoss government. It added that a sharp economic slowdown was remarked, noting that an anti-corruption campaign appeared to be directed specifically against political opponents of Lahoud and Hoss and away from friends of the Syrian government.