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NATIONAL EXCLUSIVE: Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah Talks With Former US Diplomats on Israel, Prisoners and Hezbollah’s Founding

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The US government considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but several former US diplomats sat down with the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in Lebanon earlier this year. In a US national exclusive, we play excerpts of the interview, and speak to former US Ambassador and White House Terrorism Task Force Director Edward Peck, who took part in the meeting. [includes rush transcript]

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah is the leader of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Although the United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, three former U.S. diplomats had a chance to meet with Nasrallah this past February in Lebanon. The diplomats were members of a delegation organized by the Council for the National Interest.
During the meeting, Nasrallah discussed Hezbollah’s strategy to free Lebanese prisoners being held in Israel. He also spoke about the origins of Hezbollah, and recounted an event that is back in the news this week — Israel’s bombing of a UN observation post in the southern Lebanese town of Qana in 1996 which killed 106 Lebanese refugees.
One of the retired diplomats who met with Nasrallah in February was Edward Peck–he joins us from our Washington studio. Edward Peck is the former U.S. chief of mission in Iraq and ambassador to Mauritania. He served as the deputy director of the White House Task Force on Terrorism in the Reagan administration.

  • Edward Peck. Former U.S. Chief of Mission in Iraq and ambassador to Mauritania. He served as deputy director of the White House Task Force on Terrorism in the Reagan Administration.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: During the meeting, Nasrallah was asked about Hezbollah’s strategy to free Lebanese prisoners being held in Israel. This was his response.

SHEIKH SAYYED HASSAN NASRALLAH: [translated] The only possible strategy is for you to have Israeli prisoners, soldiers, the soldiers as prisoners, and then you negotiate with the Israelis in order to have your prisoners released. Here, this is the only choice. Here, you don’t have multiple choices in order for you to choose one of them. You have no multiple choices. You have two options, either to have these prisoners or detainees remain in Israeli prisons or to capture Israeli soldiers.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. One of the retired diplomats who met with Nasrallah in February is Edward Peck. When we come back from our break, he joins us in studio. Edward Peck, former U.S. Chief of Mission in Iraq and ambassador to Mauritania.


AMY GOODMAN: We turn to one of the retired diplomats who met with Hassan Nasrallah in February, Edward Peck. He is the former U.S. Chief of Mission in Iraq and ambassador to Mauritania, served as the Deputy Director of the White House Task Force on Terrorism in the Reagan administration. We welcome to you Democracy Now!, Ambassador Peck.

EDWARD PECK: Thank you, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you describe this meeting you had with the head of Hezbollah in Lebanon? And then we’ll talk about the content of what he had to say, because this was before the capture of the two soldiers, and he basically said this was the plan.

EDWARD PECK: Well, we were out there as international election observers in Gaza for the election, and then we traveled elsewhere through the area, to Israel, to the West Bank, to Jordan, Syria, and finally to Lebanon, where we met with Nasrallah. We had spoken already with senior officials in Egypt and for Hamas and Fatah and the presidents of Syria and Lebanon in an effort, which the Council for the National Interest was sponsoring, to get a feeling for the area, how it was at that time in January.

It was interesting to meet with him, because we had already met with leaders of Hamas and Fatah before and after the election was over in Palestine, and his point was a fairly simple one, I think. Talking to us, retired diplomats, Americans, his key concerns were essentially how to free his country from the domination, which he perceived, and how to go about building the nation up again, despite all of the things that had happened to it over the years.

So it was a logical, reasonable presentation. No screaming, no shrieking. You know, just an educated intelligent man talking about serious issues that he perceived. It was interesting in the sense that the projection of people like that in this country is of, you know, blood-soaked wackos, and there are some of those out there on all sides, but that certainly was not the case with him. He believes very strongly in what he’s doing, which is something that you want to think about as you deal with him, because he is intent on accomplishing the objectives that he believes are the right ones.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this issue of using Israeli, capturing Israeli soldiers to, in essence, trade for Lebanese prisoners is not unheard of, actually. Didn’t Nasrallah negotiate a major prisoner release back in 2004?

EDWARD PECK: Yes, and the Palestinians and the Israelis and the Lebanese, Hezbollah and Israelis have negotiated prisoner exchanges before. As I think you’re aware, the Israelis have been holding a number of Lebanese as prisoners that they kidnapped from Lebanon, which is one of the contentious issues that upsets the folks on the northern side of that border.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, he was very clear, Nasrallah, saying the only possible strategy is to have Israeli prisoners and soldiers as prisoners, and then you negotiate in order to get your prisoners. This is the only choice. You don’t have multiple choices in order for you to choose. You have the two options, either to have your detainees remain in Israeli prisons or to capture an Israeli soldier.

EDWARD PECK: Yeah, and it’s called a bargaining chip. It’s kind of a demeaning phrase, but if you’ve got some, and we’ve got some, then perhaps we can make an exchange. And that has indeed happened before. One of the things that concerns me, of course, is that I am not convinced that it’s the capture of those two soldiers, which has provoked this horrific Israeli response. I believe they were looking for an excuse, and there it was, and this is what’s happened since.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go back to this videotape that we have gotten a copy of. During your meeting with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, he also discussed the founding of Hezbollah.

SHEIKH SAYYED HASSAN NASRALLAH: [translated] You know that in the year 1978, the Israelis invaded South Lebanon, and the UN Security Council issued or passed the Resolution 425. They requested that the Israeli forces immediately withdraw from South Lebanon, and the Israelis did not. On the contrary, in the year 1982, they invaded more Lebanese territory. They even occupied the capital, Beirut. Mr. Sharon was the defense minister then.

Between 1978, 1982, up ’til the year 2000, the international community did nothing to help the Israeli occupation forces out of Lebanon, nor did it, meaning the international community, do anything to prevent these aggressions on Lebanon. There was a resolution called 425, but it was put on the shelf. We, as Lebanese, were left to face our fate.

Lebanon is a small country, weak, an army with very humble capabilities. What is first is that the people is torn as a result of the civil war, while facing the strongest army in the Middle East, meaning the Israeli Army. Not only the international community, specifically the U.S. administration, did nothing, there’s also the Arab League, the OIC, Organization of Islamic Countries, nobody did anything.

We are a group of Lebanese youth. We took the decision that we needed to confront and resist the occupation. The resistance which we have established, when we started with it, I was — our ages, he’s talking about the ages of the young who took part in this — I was 22 years old then. The oldest among us was 27 years old, because those who were over 30 then believed that it was impossible to defeat Israel. They viewed themselves as sage, as wise people, and they viewed us or considered us as the crazy youth.

AMY GOODMAN: Hezbollah founder Hassan Nasrallah, speaking with a group — leader, not founder — speaking with a group of U.S. diplomats, including Ambassador Edward Peck, who joins us in our studio in Washington. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Ambassador, he mentions there this UN Resolution 425, which obviously is almost ancient history, forgotten in current crisis. But Israel is constantly mentioning UN Resolution 1559, and there are some, including Hezbollah, who believe that that resolution doesn’t really apply to Hezbollah, per se. Could you explain that and the differences of opinion about even this latest resolution?

EDWARD PECK: Well, let me start with saying that people in the Middle East, for obvious reasons, find it sort of ironic that Israel is now insisting on the implementation of 1559, whereas, as Nasrallah said, they ignored this earlier Security Council resolution demanding that they remove themselves from South Lebanon for 20 years, that that’s called selective morality. Everybody practices that, but it kind of cuts the ground up from under your stance if you think that only certain Security Council resolutions should be enforced.

Hezbollah, the problem we face — the problem the Lebanese government faces is that Hezbollah is a political party, as you’re aware, that does a lot of things in the humanitarian and social field, which is good, and does some things in the military field, which certain people consider to be not good. And the Lebanese government, which is weak and riven, as you know, by the many, many sectarian groups and the differences that they have religiously and socially, is in no position whatsoever to take on Hezbollah. That would be a civil war. And while Israel does not mind necessarily seeing that happen, would like very much to have Hezbollah go away, there’s no way in the world, as far as I can tell, that the Lebanese would even consider undertaking this. And this was made clear to us by the leaders of the Lebanese government with whom we also met on that trip.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Peck, did you have any inkling, when you met with Nasrallah, after talking to him, that something was imminent, that some kind of action was going to be taken?

EDWARD PECK: No, ma’am. Certainly not from that meeting. But those of us who have lived in and worked on that part of the world for a long — well, for any length of time recognize that eventually there’s going to be some kind of an explosion, to use the phrase correctly, because the situations like that, just they’re rumbling. They’re like, you know, semi-nascent volcanic eruptions. Something is going to happen. But certainly, there was no indication at that moment that I detected, nor my colleagues either, that something like this was going to transpire.

And it’s worthwhile noticing, by the way, that what some people call the disproportionality of the Israeli reaction — if I could, I have a piece of paper here I would like to quote from, if I may, because this discussion comes up so many times. In 1985, when I was the Deputy Director of the Reagan White House Task Force on Terrorism, they asked us — this is a Cabinet Task Force on Terrorism; I was the Deputy Director of the working group — they asked us to come up with a definition of terrorism that could be used throughout the government. We produced about six, and each and every case, they were rejected, because careful reading would indicate that our own country had been involved in some of those activities.

After the task force concluded its work, Congress got into it, and you can google into U.S. Code Title 18, Section 2331, and read the U.S. definition of terrorism. And one of them in here says — one of the terms, “international terrorism,” means “activities that,” I quote, “appear to be intended to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”

Yes, well, certainly, you can think of a number of countries that have been involved in such activities. Ours is one of them. Israel is another. And so, the terrorist, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. And I think it’s useful for people who discuss that phrase to remember that Israel was founded by terrorist organizations and terrorist leaders, Menachem Begin, who became statesmen and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. And Nasrallah may not be the same kind of guy, but his intentions are the same. He wants to free his country from domination by another.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to the videotape. Nasrallah also mentioned an event that’s back in the news this week, and that’s Israel’s bombing of a UN observation post in the southern Lebanese town of Qana in 1996. In that attack ten years ago, about 106 refugees were killed.

SHEIKH SAYYED HASSAN NASRALLAH: [translated] Between the years 1985 and the year 2000, we went on with the resistance. There was, for example, the Qana massacre. You’ve heard about that. The UN Security Council did not to condemn the Qana massacre, due to the U.S. veto. In other words, our experience with the international community, first, it does not protect us, meaning it does not prevent Israeli aggressions on Lebanon. And even after the aggression takes place, they do not even condemn the aggressor. On the contrary, they condemn the victim and regard those who defend themselves as terrorists.

AMY GOODMAN: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, speaking with U.S. diplomats in February, among them, Ambassador Edward Peck, who is the former Deputy Director of the White House Task Force on Terrorism in the Reagan administration, joining us in Washington. You were meeting with Nasrallah, as, of course, the occupation and the war in Iraq continued. What effect was that having on him? How did he describe that?

EDWARD PECK: I don’t remember directly, but one of the things that we spoke — I have to tell you that we spoke to so many interesting people, interesting in the sense of having things to say that we needed to hear, that I would have to remind myself. But I think it’s important for Americans to try to understand that those dots are connected. There is, in the minds of the people in that part of the world, at the very minimum, a connection between Palestine, West Bank and Gaza and Lebanon and Iraq and Afghanistan and the threats against Syria and Iran. And Nasrallah, who is an educated man, is certainly aware that these things are indeed linked, and he probably, and I have to — I’m open to correction — he probably implied that there was a direct connection between what America’s involved in in Iraq and the American concerns with the security and safety of Israel at any cost.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In your opinion as a veteran diplomat, what is the impact of these United States actions in the world at large, especially in the Arab world? How is our standing in the eyes of the Arab world developing, especially now in this latest Lebanon situation?

EDWARD PECK: Well, the latest situation is merely, you know, further indications of the sorts of things that they had already come to believe. There are facts and there are facts, and then there are perceptions, and perceptions are the only reality. And the perceptions, in the minds of an awful lot of people in the Arab world and Europe and elsewhere, reflects the loss of American prestige, credibility, respect, as we go on doing things, which seem in the eyes of others to be irrational and unjustifiable.

And now, when we have stepped up and say — you know, the first thing that you do in any struggle anywhere in the world is try to get a ceasefire so you can work on solving or trying to solve underlying problems. And then the United States says, “No, no. No ceasefire. Let’s let them go on bombing and killing.” I think that the damage to us is not only vital, I think it is going to have a lasting effect on our relations with the rest of the world commercially, socially, culturally, in every way imaginable.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Peck, the way the Western media deals with al-Qaeda, with Hamas, with Hezbollah, is sort of basically massing them all together. You have been meeting with people individually. What is your sense? I mean, the latest news, al-Qaeda releasing a new recording urging Muslims to attack Israel and its allies over the ongoing attacks in Lebanon and Gaza. What is your sense of where they agree and disagree and how much they work together?

EDWARD PECK: I guess it’s the sort of thing that you could see — it’s a clumsy analogy, but it’s the sort of thing where Democrats and Republicans will work together towards the achievement of an objective that they both see desirable, and as soon as that is over, they’ll go back to squabbling again.

And I think that that’s the sort of thing that applies with any political, economic, military operation, so that Hezbollah and Hamas, which are from different sects, different sections of Islam, are perfectly prepared, for example, to take money and arms, if they can get them, from Iran. But they have no desire, certainly in the case of Hamas, to become a Shiite-dominated fundamentalist government. It’s in the same way that we provide arms and money and so forth to Israel, but Israel certainly does not do our bidding, as we have seen many times, especially since we don’t ask them to do much.

The linkage of America with Israel with this perceived war on Islam is, to me, deeply concerning, because history has shown that you can build tremendous pressures of that kind, especially in societies which tend to be less developed than our own, which tend to be less well educated than our own in many cases, and which become — you know, they’re more traditional than we are, and you can generate an awful lot of anger and resentment, which we have succeeded in doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Peck, I want to thank you very much for being with us, former ambassador to Mauritania.

EDWARD PECK: Sorry to talk so much.

AMY GOODMAN: No. Thank you very much for speaking with us, speaking with us from Washington. Former White House Task Force Deputy Director on Terrorism in the Reagan administration.

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