A series of recently declassified British documents reveal details of meetings held by late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri with British officials in 1997 and 1999, as well as letters exchanged between then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Lebanese presidency.
In the first episode published by Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday, Hariri informed Blair that Lebanon and Israel held 11 rounds of negotiations in Washington, but Tel Aviv had put forward several conditions, including “dismantling Hezbollah.”
The accounts, which were published by Asharq Al-Awsat in two episodes, quoted an official in the French presidency as saying that Paris was upset with then Lebanese President Emile Lahoud for reneging on previous promises to deploy the Lebanese army in the South after Israel’s withdrawal in May 2000.
The second episode focuses on London’s efforts to join negotiations between Beirut and Tel Aviv. The British documents, which were declassified in the National Archives, show that Blair’s government believed that it was possible to achieve progress in the peace process after Ehud Barak assumed the Israeli premiership, succeeding Benjamin Netanyahu.
They also recount that a special envoy of Blair met with Hafez al-Assad in this regard, and carried a message to Lahoud on the negotiations with Israel. However, the latter refused to receive him due to “stressful circumstances.”
The documents explain how Israel withdrew its forces from South Lebanon in 2000, as promised by Barak. However, Lahoud angered the French, who saw that he was reneging on his pledges to deploy the Lebanese army. This prompted Paris to freeze steps to increase the number of its troops in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
In June, the UN confirmed that Israel had indeed completed its unilateral withdrawal from the South on May 24, 2000, weeks before the scheduled date in July. The step led to the collapse of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. Many of its members and supporters fled to Israel for fear of reprisals by Hezbollah.
Lebanon later said that Israel did not complete its full withdrawal from the South, referring to its presence in the disputed Shebaa Farms.
In a letter addressed by Paris to the British Foreign Office, a copy of which was sent to Blair, detailed the French policy towards the developments in Lebanon.
South Lebanon: The French approach
The letter explained that no decision was taken over the French reinforcements to the UNIFIL. It said the UN Affairs office at the Quai d'Orsay noted that the French conditions were not met, accusing Lahoud of going back on his previous commitments to deploy the Lebanese army.
According to the letter, the director of UN Affairs said no decision had been reached in the government’s discussions regarding a possible increase in the French contribution to UNIFIL.
He continued that the prospects for Lebanon’s cooperation with the French demands were now seen as less encouraging than they were at the end of the previous week.
The letter underlined that contacts would continue between Beirut, Washington, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and other regional players.
Britain offers to mediate between Lebanon and Israel
The Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon came at a time when Britain was trying to mediate a negotiation track between Lebanon and Israel. However, these efforts did not bear fruit, in light of the hardening position of the Lebanese presidency, which accused the Israelis of carrying out “adventures” and violating “understandings” reached in 1996.
On March 10, 2000, Tim Barrow, the foreign minister’s private secretary, sent a letter to Philip Barton at 10 Downing Street, enclosing the text of a letter from Lahoud to Blair. Barrow said that Lahoud’s message “explains itself... There is no need to respond to it.”
The letter, dated February 16, 2000, stated: “I would like to thank you for your heartfelt message conveyed by your Special Envoy and friend Mr. (Michael) Levy. Unfortunately, due to stressful circumstances, I was unable to meet him.”
The president added: “The recent Israeli aggression clearly violated the April 1996 Understandings, the mechanism aimed at protecting against the unjustified killing of civilians and the destruction of countries’ infrastructure… As we work diligently to clear the rubble, in wake of a new and lamentable chapter in Israeli adventurism, allow me to share with you the hope for the imminent resumption of ‘peace talks’ that will eventually bring a comprehensive and just peace to the region.”
He added that while Lebanon has always paid a price for war in the Middle East, it remained hopeful and looked forward to reaping the benefits of peace, while reclaiming its unique role in the region.
“Your invaluable efforts, dear Prime Minister, for a just and lasting settlement of age-old disputes remain the cornerstone of your leadership,” he concluded.
Lahoud’s message to Blair came in response to a letter addressed by the UK Prime Minister through his personal envoy, dated February 1, 2000, over the resumption of the Lebanese-Israeli track.
Blair started his letter by thanking the Lebanese president and his government for “the kind reception you have extended to the bearer of this letter, Michael Levy”, whom he described as a trusted close friend.
He added that Levy was traveling directly from Damascus, where he was able to discuss the peace process in detail with President Hafez al-Assad.
He also expressed optimism over the imminent resumption of negotiations between Lebanon and Israel, as well as the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 425.
Blair underlined his confidence in Barak’s “sincerity and determination” to fulfill his commitment to withdraw from southern Lebanon by July.
Wishing Lahoud success in the upcoming negotiations, Blair stressed that he, along with Robin Cook (Foreign Secretary) and Levy, were ready to help wherever they could.
The UK Prime Minister’s offer to Lahoud to help in the course of negotiations with Israel did not come out of nowhere. Blair himself had told the Lebanese president in a letter a year earlier that Barak wanted to resume negotiations with Lebanon and Syria and sought to withdraw his forces from the South.
In a letter dated July 26, 1999, Blair told Lahoud that he had the opportunity to talk at length on July 21 with Ehud Barak on his way back to Israel from Washington.
He recounted that Barak voiced his commitment to ending the century-old Arab-Israeli conflict.
Blair said he was convinced of the premier’s sincerity in prioritizing the peace process as the primary task of his new government.
He also quoted Barak as saying that peace in the region would remain fragile until a final settlement was reached with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians, adding that he was determined to move on all tracks and advance each one wherever peace was possible.
According to Blair, Barak confirmed his intention to withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon. He also acknowledged the complexities of the Lebanese problem while searching for a settlement with Syria.
The British premier told Lahoud that he expressed to Barak his political support for a just and secure peace. He stressed that the UK would not be lecturing the parties directly involved on how they should get there but would play whatever constructive and supportive role, “both bilaterally and with our EU partners, to help achieve this.”