Editor’s note: See also:

* New York Times: “Tide of Arab Opinion Turns to Support for Hezbollah
* Agence France Presse : “Hezbollah remains in control but nowhere to be found
* Salon: “The ‘hiding among civilians’ myth.”



Matthew Tostevin; Reuters messaging

Aug 2 (Reuters) – Below are edited excerpts from a Reuters interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday.

Question: How soon do you expect to complete the goals of the current operation in Lebanon?

Olmert: Well it very much depends on the nature of the U.N. resolution. If indeed, as we hope, the international force will be an effective force made of combat units, then we will be able to stop fire when the international force will be on the ground in the south part of Lebanon.

Q: Will you carry on fighting until then?

Olmert: Yes.

Q: How much ground do you plan to hold there before the international force comes in?

Olmert: The purpose of holding ground is really not going to take over Lebanon. We
have no intention and we made clear from the outset that we don’t want to take over Lebanon.

We pulled out from Lebanon. Israel was outside of Lebanon.

We haven’t changed our mind and we don’t want to occupy any Lebanese land. We just don’t want Lebanese land to be a base of continuous aggression and violence against the people of Israel.

We are trying to push more and more the Hizbollah from where they were and to open up for the international force to take over, and the sooner the better.

Q: Who would you like to see in the international force, what goals should it achieve and how soon should it begin disarming Hizbollah?

Olmert: The international force should be made up of countries which have a genuine concern for the changes in this part of the world. I would consider France a natural candidate and many other European countries. British soldiers, Italian soldiers. I know that Australia was interested … Turkish soldiers, a very important part of this area and we have a lot of trust and respect for the Turkish army and government.

I think it has to be, as President Bush said, a robust force made up of combat units that are prepared to force the implementation of (United Nations) Resolution 1559 on Lebanon entirely, starting with the south part of Lebanon.

Q: How soon would they begin disarming Hizbollah?

Olmert: I think Hizbollah has been disarmed by the military operation of Israel to a large degree. That can’t be measured only by the number of missiles that they still shoot. The infrastructure of Hizbollah has been entirely destroyed. More than 700 … command positions of Hizbollah were entirely wiped out by the Israeli army. All the population which is the power base of the Hizbollah in Lebanon was displaced. They lost their properties, they lost their possessions, they are bitter, they are angry at Hizbollah and the power structure of Lebanon itself has been divided and Hizbollah is now entirely isolated in Lebanon, in the Arab world, except for Iran and Syria.

Now, when the international force will be deployed into the south of Lebanon, I think they will have to … further push them away from these areas that they were present in and I believe this will be done almost immediately.

Q: Would it be acceptable to you if disarming Hizbollah is not part of the mandate of the force?

Olmert: As far as we are concerned, the full implementation of (Resolution) 1559 is the purpose of what we were doing, of what the international community was aiming at and that includes the dismantling of the private militias.

The outcome has to be that Lebanon will be governed by the legitimate government of Lebanon not by the private militias.

Q: You said earlier that you’d be ready to end the operation in Lebanon once the international force is ready to deploy. Does this mean you’ve completed all your other goals in Lebanon?

Olmert: … I think we have achieved much of what we set out to do. The question is, can it be measured only by the number of missiles shot at us? I think it’s a simplistic way and a mistake because if someone thought that at the end of this military operation there will not be missiles any place that can threaten the people of Israel, this was a dream that we never thought could be realised.

The question is whether they were given a lesson that it’s very costly and unworthy to shoot missiles and I think that this has been explained in a most powerful manner…

I personally presume that it will take a very long time, if at all, before anyone, Hizbollah or Syria or anyone, will think of shooting missiles on the Israeli population.

Q: Where do we stand on a prisoner exchange in the future with Hizbollah?

Olmert: Well I remind you that the resolution of the G8 and the international community and all the other countries was that the two Israeli abducted soldiers must be returned uncoditionally and I think that this is very just.

Q: So you will refuse any negotiations or any exchange for their release?

Olmert: I expect the Israeli soldiers to be returned unconditionally.

Q: What about the Hizbollah people who were captured in the raid last night in Baalbek?

Olmert: I think this was an extraordinary operation by the Israeli commandos… I am very proud of this operation…

I think the Hizbollah people will have to be investigated and treated according to the fundamental moral rules which characterise the Israeli conduct.

Q: Do you see them being part of any prisoner exchange in the future?

Olmert: It’s too early, they have to get used to being in Israeli custody.

Q: Looking ahead to your West Bank realignment plan. Israel pulled out of Gaza, Israel pulled out of Lebanon and yet Israel is back in Gaza and back in Lebanon. What does this bode for your West Bank realignment?

Olmert: We are not really back in Gaza. We are acting in Gaza in order to defend ourselves in spite of the fact that we pulled out entirely and they were shooting at us as they did and the same in Lebanon.

The answer for our security problems is not occupying territories. The answer is to create an environment that will be more encouraging for peace negotiations and that is what we were trying to do.

Today, to speak about the realignment is not the right time because we are engaged in this effort to stop the terrorist actions from Gaza and the war against Israeli citizens from Lebanon.

But I genuinely believe that the determination that Israel manifests and the power that we project and the outcome of these operations both in the south and in the north will ultimately lay the foundations for movement in the framework of the realignment…

Q: When you see the attacks from Gaza and Lebanon, both areas from which Israel had withdrawn, and now you see the Israeli attacks in Lebanon, the bloodshed, the increase in hatred of this country. Do you think that Israel is ever going to be able to live at peace with its neighbours?

Olmert: Well I am an optimistic person. You refer to this part of the picture and this is legitimate but turning to the other part, look what happened in Lebanon.

The government is split now. Most of the people in Lebanon are entirely opposed to what Hizbollah did. Look at the moderate Arab countries which stood up against Hizbollah. This is an extraordinary phenomenon.

At a time of an actual violent war with Israel … some of the most powerful and important Arab countries stood up against the Arab side and criticised Hizbollah in the most serious manner because of what they did.

I think it shows that there are good chances that this strain of moderation, of a realistic approach of understanding that Israel is not necessarily an enemy but a potential partner is now spreading amongst many countries, unfortunately not among all our neighbours…

My policy is to try and build the bridges of cooperation and understanding with these moderate Arab countries and we will continue to do it. We will never give up on the chance to change the realities of the Middle East.

((Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Reuters messaging: matthew.tostevin.reuters.com@reuters.net))