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from issue no. 07 - 2003

INTERVIEW. Noureddine Hached, Vice-Secretary of the League of Arab States

«We are willing to take a definitive step»

President Bush’s Road Map, the stabilization of the Middle East, the Italian semester as president of the EU, the action of the Vatican. Requests and proposals of the Arab League

by Giovanni Cubeddu

Noureddine Hached embodies a generation of Arab leaders who have found themselves having to deal with one of the most delicate moments in the history of the Middle East and of relations between the Arab world and West.
The son of Farhat Hached – one of the “founding fathers”, creator of the trade union movement, who worked in close contact with Habib Bourghiba, the first president of independent Tunisia – Noureddine boasts a cursus honorum in which he has been businessman, regional governor, minister and several times ambassador (to Italy also). He was called in 1996 to the League of Arab States as Assistant Secretary General and from 2001 he has been Vice-Secretary General.
We met him.

How does the League of Arab States judge the Road Map proposals for restarting the peace process?
NOUREDDINE HACHED: La Feuille de Route [the Road Map, ed.] presented by the quartet US, EU, Russian Federation and United Nations, constitutes a very positive step toward peace. It has been accepted without reserves by the Palestinian Authority, backed in doing so by the Arab world and the Arab League. The problems come from the Israelis, from the fourteen reservations on the text they have expressed and from their wish not to retreat from the policy of targeted killings which has been causing so much “collateral damage” among the population. It’s only because of the personal commitment of President Bush that, after so much time, we are persuaded we can believe in a positive outcome to the peace process. We hope so, especially after the final declaration of the Beirut summit in which it was for the first time settled that if Israel recognizes the territorial rights of the Palestinian people, Lebanon and of Syria, the whole Arab world is ready to establish normal relations with it, as of now.
What can the Arab League do to ease the peace process?
HACHED: It has its role alongside the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority and Palestine, which is a member of the Arab League. And this in each negotiation in which the Palestinians participate. The Feuille de Route itself recognizes the legitimacy of an Arab initiative in favor of a peace that I would describe as just and lasting, for the whole world.
Colin Powell has recently stated that terrorism cannot stop the negotiations. It’s what he told Rabin. On the other hand, is the Arab world ready to sign a peace agreement with Ariel Sharon?
HACHED: Yes. We have already said that if the rights of the Palestinians are fully respected, in the occupied territories as in the problem of the refugees, we will sign. With Sharon or with someone else, no problem… We are ready for a definitive step, it’s absurd to be in the 21st century and living through a medieval situation in the Middle East. Enough of the policy of state terror, stopping is also in the national interest of Israel. Both President Bush and Colin Powell, two authorities in whose commitment we believe, have made it very clear to the Israelis. What has happened in the world in the last two years is a consequence of the situation in Palestine, it’s clear to everyone by now.
Given the new commitment to the peace process declared by the European Union, what effective role do you see it playing?
HACHED: Europe has incomparable knowledge of the Middle East. It’s a matter of geography and of a history of thousands of years. Europe knows the paths that lead to a stable peace, something it needs itself if there are to be prospects for its own economic development, something that overlaps with the economico-social development of the Mediterranean, a pledge of European security. The phrase European Union implies a long experience of bilateral and multilateral treaties and more than ten years work in the field following the Madrid conference of 1991. Another point in its favor is the recognition of the role of partner that the United States has bestowed on Europe in the famous “quartet”.
Thus Europe is in the peace process and must pull its weight in the international conference set down in La Feuille de Route for 2005, that is to settle the balance in the area once and for all, at which negotiations with Syria and the Lebanon are planned and awaited.
Despite the importance of the United States it would be unthinkable to cut Europe out of a peace process fraught with consequences for the whole world and of which Europe must become guarantor tomorrow. Obviously what we ask of the Europeans is that they do not draw back from putting pressure on Israel and above all on Sharon, and that they use all the means at their disposal to convince them that this can’t go on any longer, that a situation like the current one is no longer tolerable. It’s time that Israel came to the negotiating table and accepted a peace process.
What, in the view of the Arab League, is the situation in Baghdad? What prospects are opening in Iran? And how do you judge the behavior of Damascus?
HACHED: In Iraq, according to the United Nations’ Security Council, there is officially occupation. The Arab League, like all the Arab world, is at present concerned as to how such a situation is to be handled, and here prime responsibility certainly falls on the Anglo-American forces. The occupying force must guarantee the creation of a local autonomous government, prepare democratic elections in which the Iraqis can decide for themselves who will govern them, and then leave the country quickly: wasn’t the war in Iraq called a war of liberation? Then the Iraqis must be left free, now! The Arab League has made available its own headquarters in Beirut, to whatever political party wants, as a venue for debate on the future of the country. Iraq was a founder of the Arab League in 1945, it is a current member, and its place is with us, in the Arab world. We trust in what the Iraqis autonomously decide.
HACHED: Iran is a neighbor of the Arab world, we have a mutual need of good relations. The current secretary of the League, Amre Moussa, went to Teheran in June for meetings that have been fruitful. About the nuclear arms which Iran is accused of wanting to acquire – and on all weapons of mass destruction in any case - the position of the Arab League has been known for ten years: the Middle East doesn’t need them. This is true also for Israel, which has two hundred nuclear warheads. A global regional conference is needed to put a full stop to the business.
As for the student protests in Iran, it’s an internal question.
HACHED: Its position is clear: it recognizes that la Feuille de Route is well accepted by Palestinians and respects their judgment on it. It thinks it legitimate that the Palestinians groups have offices in Damascus, and it deals with delicate cases through continual contacts directly with the United States. The Syrian attitude is responsible and serious, as always. As when they ask for the restitution of the Golan by Israel.
Might the Italian semester as president of the European Union add new hope for the looked-for restart of the peace process? On what conditions?
HACHED: I was ambassador to Rome from 1993 to 1996, I am considered a great friend of Italy and I retain it an honor. We have been waiting impatiently for the Italian turn as president of the Union because every Italian presidency has been followed by positive effects on Mediterranean politics. Politics that benefit the whole of Europe, which the northern European countries also require and for which they are then thankful. So we expect another step forward from the Italian presidency, because we’re in a dangerous situation in which naïve behavior and errors of analysis can’t be allowed. Feasible solutions must be proposed that give appreciable results. We want and expect Italy to be capable of the expectations and historical responsibility of which it has given proof since1957, the date of the very foundation of Europe that happened on Roman soil. Italy will itself benefit from maintaining its historical relation with the Arab world, it will remain credible and balanced in its statements. Among Italian politicians there are still consolidated and permanent positions, and we want Italy to be able to steer on its usual course and so find its traditional friendship in the Arab world.
Finally, do you believe that there is a part that the religions and the Holy See can play in restarting the peace process, after 11 September?
HACHED: In that sphere it’s known how, after 11 September, Saddam tried to make differences more acute, to encourage the clash of civilization, whereas the Arab League instead appointed a commissioner for dialogue among cultures. We believe that the clash of civilizations is not a phenomenon without importance and without responsibility, it remains because extreme positions exist within the three monotheistic religions, in the form of a Jewish fundamentalism, a Christian and a Moslem one. And all three can give rise, directly or indirectly, to “explosive” situations, intolerable for the rest of the world. Our duty is that of not hiding ourselves, of not letting it pass under silence by believing that at bottom it’s normal, no! There is a duty of vigilance. It’s necessary that all of us who cultivate the values of the peace and tolerance - values that exist in the three religions - can meet and talk together. The Moslem world won’t forget the stance taken by John Paul II on the war in Iraq, a lucid position, of historical value, destined to clarify the attitude of the Catholics toward the Moslem world. That was a fundamental moment. It’s on that we have to build. The Arab League is willing to play its part in that picture.

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