Lebanon PM says he will return to seek settlement
By SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — In his first TV interview since he announced his surprise resignation last weekend, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Sunday he will return to his country from Saudi Arabia “within days” to seek a settlement with the militant group Hezbollah, his rivals in his coalition government.
Hariri, looking downcast and tired, denied he was being held against his will in the kingdom and said he was compelled to resign to save Lebanon from imminent dangers, which he didn’t specify.
He held back tears at one point and repeated several times that he resigned to create a “positive shock” and draw attention to the danger of siding with Iran, Hezbollah’s main patron, in regional conflicts.
“We are in the eye of the storm,” Hariri said.
A political crisis has gripped Lebanon since Hariri read his televised resignation from Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4 in which he accused Iran of meddling in his country in a vicious tirade that was uncharacteristic of the usually soft-spoken 47-year old premier.
The live interview on Future TV was designed in part to dispel rumors that Hariri, who holds Lebanese and Saudi citizenship, was under house arrest by Saudi authorities who have escalated their rhetoric against Iran and Hezbollah. Many feared Saudi Arabia was dragging Lebanon into its rivalry with Iran and called for Hariri to return home to ensure he was acting of his own free will.
“I am free to travel tomorrow if I wanted to. But I have a family. I saw what happened when my father was martyred. I don’t want the same thing to happen to my children,” Hariri said.
His father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 2005. Hezbollah members are being tried in absentia for the killing. Saad Hariri’s family lives in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Hariri sounded less belligerent in Sunday’s interview than he did during the resignation announcement. He said he realizes his resignation was unconventional, adding he was ready to return to formally submit it and seek a settlement with Hezbollah.
He suggested he may be willing to withdraw it but said that would be conditional on Hezbollah committing to remaining neutral on regional conflicts, putting the onus back on the militant group.
He singled out Hezbollah’s involvement in Yemen as the main cause of the kingdom’s ire. Saudi Arabia has stepped up its rhetoric against Hezbollah and Iran, accusing both of supporting Shiite rebels in Yemen known as Houthis. A Saudi-led coalition has been at war with the Houthis since March 2015 in a bloody, stalemated conflict that is causing a major humanitarian disaster.
Hezbollah has also sent thousands of fighters to Lebanon’s neighbor, Syria, to support the forces of Syria’s President Bashar Assad.
Hariri said the unity government he formed a year ago was supposed to stick to an agreement not to interfere in regional affairs but that Hezbollah has not kept its end of the deal.
“If we want to go back on the resignation, we have to return to the policy of distancing ourselves” from regional conflicts. “I will come back to Lebanon to work. … We can’t deal with any more ambiguity in this issue. There must be a final settlement with Hezbollah on this regional aspect.”
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said Saudi Arabia has declared war on Lebanon, instead of confronting Iran. Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia was holding Hariri against his will to meddle in Lebanon’s affairs.
Hariri repeatedly tried to dispel that he was forced to resign, describing his relations with the Saudi king and crown prince as amicable, almost family-like. He also said he is looking into security arrangements before returning to Lebanon, suggesting his life was in danger.
Maha Yahya, the head of Carnegie Middle East, tweeted after the interview that Hariri’s words suggests his resignation was not final and that Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the government was no longer a key demand.
The interview followed pressure from Lebanese officials, who said Hariri’s resignation was not accepted because it was declared in Saudi Arabia.
Lebanon President Michel Aoun said before the interview that the “mysterious circumstances for Hariri’s stay in the Saudi capital of Riyadh makes all his positions questionable and in doubt and not of his own volition.” Several local TV stations, including Hezbollah’s, decided not to show the interview in line with the president’s comments.
Hariri had not been heard from since the resignation announcement, but met with foreign diplomats, and appeared with Saudi royalty and in Abu Dhabi.
He refused to comment on the recent wave of arrests of scores of people in Saudi Arabia, including princes and business leaders, calling it an internal affair. He said it was mere “coincidence” that the announcement of his resignation from Riyadh coincided with the wave of arrests. He said rumors that he was involved in the purge were “dreams.”
In the wake of the crisis in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia has asked its citizens to leave the country, and many Lebanese fear further economic sanctions or even military action.
Hariri first held the post of prime minister in 2009 for nearly two years before Hezbollah forced the collapse of his government. Hezbollah ministers withdrew because of differences over a U.N.-backed tribunal investigating his father’s assassination.
Hariri was appointed prime minister in late 2016 and headed a 30-member coalition government that included Hezbollah. But it has again been an uneasy partnership between Hariri, who heads a Sunni-led camp loyal to Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah, which represents a faction loyal to Shiite Iran.
A business graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, he headed his father’s Saudi-based construction business for years. The company has struggled with debts for years before closing down in July.
Earlier Sunday, thousands of people attending Lebanon’s annual marathon used the event to urge Hariri to return home. One woman raised a placard reading: “We want our prime minister back.”
Hariri was a regular participant in the marathon, giving the race a big boost. This year, Aoun encouraged runners to call on Hariri to return.
Spectators along the route wore hats and held signs reading “Running for you” and “Waiting for you.” Billboards with pictures of Hariri rose overhead.
Joanne Hamza, a physical education teacher who wore a cap with a picture of Hariri on it, said his absence “has been unifying. All Lebanese, from all sects, are missing their leader. This is somehow reassuring but we still want him with us.”
In the northern city of Tripoli on Saturday, unknown assailants burned posters of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a sign of the rising tensions. Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk tweeted that those acts did not reflect the “true feelings” of the people of Tripoli or Lebanon, and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed.