Moderates Feel The Heat

Seldom have moderate Arab leaders felt so besieged by events. President George W. Bush gave Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon his unqualified backing on April 14 at the White House. Shortly afterward, Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz Rantisi was killed in a missile strike--prompting Jordan's King Abdullah to cancel his own visit to Washington.

Saudi Arabia has seen new terrorist attacks; in Iraq, fighting has spread and the uneasy siege of Fallujah goes on. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a Sunni Muslim and billionaire ex-businessman, has presided over his country's reconstruction after 17 years of civil war, forging strong relations with Western countries as well as Arab neighbors. Last week he spoke with NEWSWEEK's Rod Nordland in Beirut. Excerpts:

NORDLAND: Have the prospects for Mideast peace ever seemed so bad?

HARIRI: These are the most difficult days yet. We are witnessing a drastic change.

With what effect on Arab moderates?

What is happening between the Israelis and the Palestinians is marginalizing the peace camp among the Arabs, strengthening fundamentalism and giving inspiration to extremists in all camps. This is against the interests of the United States.

Bush strongly supported Sharon's policy of disengagement from Gaza. But he also endorsed his rejection of any Palestinian right of return and even approved some continued occupation of West Bank territory. Does this encourage the Israelis to be more uncompromising?

Judge for yourself. On Thursday, the prime minister told the Knesset that the support Bush gave him in his letter was an "unprecedented accomplishment" and the "heaviest blow" ever inflicted on the Palestinians since the creation of Israel. The perception is that the United States is supporting Israel all the way. Add to this what the normal Arab man is seeing on television from Iraq, and it creates a very difficult situation for Arab leaders.

So what's the solution?

For the U.S. to again try to play the role of arbitrator on the basis of U.N. resolutions. A second state has to be created for the Palestinians. Targeting the Palestinians will not help in any way; it only strengthens the extremists.

What about Iraq?

The United States has to cooperate with the rest of the world--and the United Nations in particular.

Outcry over the U.S. Marines' offensive in Fallujah was so great that many Iraqis feared it could cause a general uprising.

It can happen at any time. During the war in Lebanon we learned that in the absence of a political solution, anything can happen. Any ceasefire or truce can be blown at any time. But again, the auspices under which that political solution is reached are extremely important--whether it has been imposed by the occupier or whether it's internationally recognized and respected by the people.

Sectarian differences led to civil war in Lebanon. Is that a danger in Iraq?

Civil war is a possibility, yes. Nobody denies the reality of a Shiite majority in Iraq. But the Sunnis are not a small minority, so it's very wrong to ignore them if you want a democracy. The issue is stability. We in the international community have to work to achieve a partnership and power-sharing among the Sunnis and Shias based on an equal footing, not on who is more numerous. Only the U.N. can provide such assurances. Iraq doesn't need more soldiers, it needs political solutions.

You've called for an American pullout from Iraq. Do you see that happening by the end of this year?

I wish, but it's very difficult to see this happening.

Has the American invasion of Iraq had any positive results as you see it?

Beyond any doubt Saddam Hussein's regime was the worst in the world, so its end is a positive aspect. But are the Iraqi people living in a better situation than before? No, I don't think so. They feel lost, they don't see a future.

Should Saddam be tried by Iraqis or an international tribunal?

One thing we shouldn't do is to treat Saddam as he treated his own people. They have to prove through Saddam Hussein that they are different, and there is law. Despite who he is and despite what he did, he deserves to be tried.

Is the situation in Iraq promoting terrorism?

Al Qaeda is gathering from all over in Iraq now. Nobody likes to see American troops in Fallujah or Baghdad, or British troops in Basra. This creates anger. We don't need this. America is a superpower, with which we share so many values. But with unlimited support to Israel and no political solutions in Iraq, the future is open to dark possibilities.