A Conversation With Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah BouHabib

Monday, January 22, 2024
REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool

Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, Lebanon


Ferris Professor of Journalism, Princeton University; CFR Member

Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah BouHabib discusses developments in the Middle East, increasing tensions with Israel, and Lebanon’s perspective on the conflict and ongoing efforts to deescalate tensions.

AMOS: Hello, everybody. I hope you have enjoyed your lunch. We did. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Foreign Minister Abdallah BouHabib of Lebanon, a timely—a timely meeting.

My name is Deb Amos. I’m the Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University, and I am a recovering journalist. And I will be presiding over today’s discussion.

We’re joined today by CFR members in person in New York, and we’ve got two hundred attending virtually via Zoom. So we have a robust audience.

Minister, I want to start with this. My sense of the Middle East at this moment is we’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve been in—covering the Middle East since 1982, and I can’t think of a time of unrest like this. Do you feel that this is a different time that you don’t quite know where the end will be?

BOUHABIB: That’s true, because the killing and destruction is worse than ever before. What happened on October 7 and later the Israeli reaction to it was really very, very different from any time in the region. And we had a lot of wars, even wars between Gaza and the Israelis; they were not of the same dimension. They were not of the same degree of killing and destruction. Today, it is very bad, and this probably gives us big, big reasons so that we can support, all of us, peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

AMOS: But there’s more than just Gaza. You have the Americans bombing the Houthis, the Houthis bombing shipping, the Iranians bombing the Pakistanis, the Pakistanis bombing the Iranians. That’s what I mean. I mean, it’s not just Gaza, but the whole region is in a turmoil. And you ask yourself: Why is everybody, you know, trying to hit everybody else?

BOUHABIB: Well, I don’t know whether it is—it’s not that certain whether what’s happening between the Iranians and Pakistanis is related very much to what’s happening in Israel. But it is. They are all concerns, especially Iran. This concern is part of the—of the game that we have in the—in the Middle East.

Yeah, it is—unfortunately, it is, I mean, you know, still very not—I don’t want to say safe or not safe. I mean, in Beirut you go to now after two, three weeks of kind of a slowdown, we are back to normal, you know, in Beirut. Also, we have a war in the south. So it’s the same thing around—all around the region.

So I don’t know if they are related, but there is no indication that they are related to what happened between Iran and Pakistan and between Iran and hitting Syria, or that part of Syria that’s occupied by Turkey—Türkiye. So, no, I don’t know if they are related.

But Iran, of course, is involved. I mean, it has a lot of—a lot of resistance movements that are really involved with Iran and has to do with Iran, of course, including Hezbollah, including the Iraqi groups, and Syrian groups as well. You know, while we see the Syrian government is neutral, has nothing to do with the war, you see a lot of areas in Syria is involved in the war a little bit. But not very much with Israel, but more, you know, with the borders or so.

AMOS: Sure. So when you—when you read the news, you see that Israel says it plans to escalate fighting on the Lebanese border with Hezbollah if a long-term diplomatic agreement isn’t reached soon. That’s from the Washington Post. And this announcement is made based on interviews with unnamed Lebanese officials, so you know it’s coming. And I wondered if you felt that you were being pushed into a war. Can you be involved in these negotiations over what the Israelis are talking about, which is moving Hezbollah north of the Litani River? Do you—do you feel that you can move fast enough on negotiations to forestall what Israel’s talking about?

BOUHABIB: I doubt it. In fact, the Americans came with a proposal like not—around eight kilometers north of the borders rather than to the Litani River so that settlers in northern Israel would feedback and come back. But you see, there isn’t—there has not been this animosity between—I mean, there is, there are enemies, but the Lebanese don’t feel like Israel took our land, a lot of our land. We have difference on the borders. We were trying so far many times in order to finish the borders that are between us. The Israelis have been taking their time on that. And we have what we call Shebaa Farms also, that disputed areas. They say: It’s not yours. It’s part of Syria. But, well, what difference does it make, you know, we say. And if this is settled, there’s very little—little piece of land there on the borders. If we settle it, there would be no problems between us. They can build the highest wall they want if they want. And so we are really—and we’re looking forward. We asked for the border—to have a border agreement to—you know, there are fourteen points on the border that are disputed. Some of them were agreed upon years ago, and we’re trying to finish the six points so that we—really, we have border demarcation and finish from it. And then we go to other places like the—like the Shebaa Farms and the other—the other areas there that are disputed. But there hasn’t been any progress. And we take, of course—the Israelis would say that’s the Lebanese, but we think it is the Israelis because we’ve asked for it. We asked it through the UNIFIL and through other means, through the Americans as well.

AMOS: So when I read the Lebanese talking about 1701 and talking about the negotiations, it sounds much longer term, as you describe it—you know, let’s get the Lebanese-Israeli border sorted; let’s get Shebaa Farms sorted. Hezbollah is saying the same kinds of things. Your government is saying we need help. If the Lebanese troops are going to be on the border, we’re going to need some backup on that—some money, some backup. My sense is the Israeli timeline is much shorter; like, next month they want Hezbollah to move north of the Litani. And I just wondered if that’s—it doesn’t sound like you think that that is possible.

BOUHABIB: You know, now we have, like, a neutralized area north of Israel, because there are no people. Lots of people moved southward, and they are a big burden on Israel. And we have also something like eighty thousand people moved northward.

AMOS: Yes.

BOUHABIB: It’s a different kind of burden because people have more relatives. They sit with their relatives. They don’t stay in a hotel. They don’t stay in the occupied land, I mean, houses that are free, something like that. No. So it’s more costly to the Israelis, perhaps. But it is the same on both. If there is—if there is a war, I mean, people are going to—who have nothing to do with the war, they’re going to leave their areas, so—unless we have a settlement. So what would happen? If Hezbollah moved northward, what would happen then? Israelis would come back and so on with the war there down south in Gaza is going on? No, we need a whole—last time when we had a five-days truce, you know, to exchange prisoners, the situation on the border with Israel from Lebanon stopped also, the fighting. So it is minor fighting, and I don’t think the intention is to have a big war, and it has to do also with what’s going on in Gaza.

What’s going on in Gaza is not acceptable Arab-wise. It is not acceptable world-wise. Even in the United Nations, it’s not acceptable most countries in this world. So we really need to stop. If they stop the war in Gaza, and there is truce, and there is—we start negotiating with how to solve our problems, then everybody would go back and there would be no problem.

And we also have to start talking directly or indirectly—indirectly, mostly—with the Israelis in order to locate the borders through the United Nations, through the Americans, whatever it is, the French if they want to get involved in that, in order to demarcate the borders, because the border was demarcated in 1948. We agreed upon it. But by time, Israel has established some settlements on the border, and therefore there is some kind of danger and they want to change a little bit of the border. All can be managed and all can be talked about if there is talks, indirect or direct talks, like we do with the United Nations usually. And so we’re ready to do it. We asked to do it, but the Israelis said it’s not time for it now. So if it’s time for it, let’s do it.

AMOS: So let me just ask one more question in this vein and then I’ll leave the border. And that is, so you’re saying that if there’s a ceasefire in Gaza that the—the small skirmishes that are going on between Hezbollah and Israel would stop.

BOUHABIB: That’s right.

AMOS: But the second thing is, Israel’s timeline has been—lately, they—I see it in the Israeli press: They must move back. If they don’t move back, we are going to—you know, we’re going to bomb there. The Americans are in Lebanon talking about moving them. Do you worry that you are being pushed into this war?

BOUHABIB: Yes, we worry that we are pushed to this war. But this war, I mean, the Israelis know it’s not going to be a picnic. I mean, you know, Hezbollah has more means than Hamas had, and therefore, I mean, it’s going to be very difficult. It’s going to be costly for everybody. Of course, Israel has their air force and they can dominate the—and the land. But on the whole, it’s going to be damaging for everybody. I think the Israelis know that. And I—you know, I think that they wouldn’t do it, they wouldn’t attack. And if they really reach an agreement in Gaza, this would stop immediately and automatically would stop in southern Lebanon or northern Israel. It will stop. And if we finish, like, the demarcation which was put in 1948—we agreed upon it—but we come back to it, and do it, and finish it—because we don’t think this is our border—then there shouldn’t be any problem between us and them, security problem.

AMOS: Let me ask you—security problem. Let me ask you an economic question, and that is that I read yesterday that the war in Gaza has cost Lebanon dearly—25 percent off on tourism coming into the country, that you are taking a hit. And I wondered if you feel it in Beirut, that you know that it is tied to the war in Gaza.

BOUHABIB: Well, the situation in Lebanon has not been good for the last few years, and most visitors to Lebanon are Lebanese abroad—Lebanese living in Europe and the United States, all over the world, in Gulf, in Africa. They come to Beirut in seasons, like on Christmas they do come. On vacations in the summer they are all there taking all their vacation. We don’t have very many tourism, you know. We depend more now on Lebanese tourism coming—(laughs)—if there is—if you call it tourism, although they are coming to see their families.

AMOS: To see their family.

BOUHABIB: And because we have quite a large number of Lebanese in the Gulf and in Africa and in Europe—I’m not talking about the Americans here because we have a lot, especially from North America, that visit Lebanon in summer. So the economy is bad because we did not put our house together, in a sense. We still have kind of unstable economic situation, but—in that the banking system is not working very well, and so a lot of hoarding. People keep their money in their houses rather than in the bank. So this economic circle is not going on. But the country, if you go to Lebanon, you will find that restaurants are open. You know, things are—I don’t want to say normal because we are not in a normal situation, things. But we are not doing well, but still doing well, you know, and so.

AMOS: Almost every day there is an attack from Israel in the south. There is a Hamas operative who was killed in an apartment in Beirut. Yesterday, a Hezbollah operative was killed in a car in southern Lebanon. There are Hamas people in Beirut. Do they stay there? Do they feel that they are under threat? There seems to be a new way to operate in this war. It’s called the Munich option, where Israel tracks down Hamas and Hezbollah people and shoots them. A, is this destabilizing for Lebanon? And, B, do these people eventually leave?

BOUHABIB: The I don’t know if they leave or not, because a lot of us did not know that these people exist there, like the Palestinian leader who was there and was killed by the Israelis. But this is—this was a violation of the of the game that we’re playing, you know—(inaudible)—that they are talking—we’re talking about, you know, a few kilometers—two, three kilometers in south Lebanon, and two, three kilometers in north Lebanon—or miles, whichever. And now, suddenly, it was in Beirut. Suddenly, you know. So the Israelis were not—they expanded the kind of struggle that we’re having between us and them. And this is unfortunate, yes. They have a way—they’re better off than—I mean, Lebanon government is not involved in this war. Yes, there is Hezbollah in the south. And there are some Palestinians with it as well. You know, what it is more under the umbrella of Hezbollah, let’s say—I mean, let’s say it is this.

And we feel that expanding the war is not in the interest of anybody because everybody has a lot of weapons, and everybody can damage the other. So we really think that it is very important that this war in Lebanon, between Lebanon and Israel, remain very, very limited. And, you know, the same way that our—that the Israelis went south, there are Lebanese that went north. There is something like eighty thousand, if I—if I recall—eighty thousand, right? And the Israelis have similar number, you know? So we’re looking forward for peace to come, and which is in Gaza to stop fighting there. They’ve been—this is the longest war that Israel is facing. And this is almost three months. We’ve never had a war three months in the Middle East. So they—I think the Israelis should know that at the end there is no alternative to peace and peace talks. So we’re looking forward for that.

AMOS: A ceasefire in Gaza does not take into account assassinations of both Hamas people and Hezbollah. I want to know how it works between the Lebanese Government and Hezbollah. Do you—are you—do you talk to them about. we’d really like it if we didn’t have a war here? Are you able to veto Hezbollah’s plan?

BOUHABIB: No. We don’t do that. (Laughter.) We veto it. And, yes, they operate down south. And is it through the support of Hezbollah, with the government? No, there was no such government decision to support them. But the south has been under the control of UNIFIL, you know, the United Nation forces, and also Hezbollah has been there, because there is a lot of contact—bad contact between them and the Israelis, you know? So unfortunately, because of still Israel hold some of the land that is Lebanese, and once it is settled—and we are ready to do that. We are ready to start talking through the United Nations or through the Americans on settling the border between us and the Israelis. Because we feel the Israelis, when they left in 2000—in the year 2000, did not leave from all Lebanese land.

So there are, like, fourteen points for demarcation. And we agreed on seven. There are still six. And they are holding—we asked last spring that let’s start talking about it, and they refused because in the—in UNIFIL, there is a committee that meets, like, every three, three months or so, that has a guy from the UNIFIL, from the United Nation forces, one from Lebanon, and one from Israel. They meet and discuss it. And we proposed to start talking about, you know, the border. And Israel said, it’s not time for it now. Well, we’re still ready. And we’d like to avoid any kind of war in the future. If we have—if we really finish the demarcation of the border, which was demarcated in 1948, you know, which was accepted and rose in 1948, we feel that we don’t have a tort. Some—Israel did not leave from all of it. So let’s talk. Let’s find out. We want to do with solving and peace.

And then there is other areas, like Shebaa Farms and Hills of Kfarchouba. And they say, well, you will not know whether it is Syrian or Lebanese. So what’s the problem? We are saying that that it’s Lebanese. Syrians are not saying anything. But, I mean, what why is—you care about? This is our logic, our talking. Give it—give it back to us, and we will—we’ll talk. And we’ll have a stable border. We want to have a stable border. We’re not—and then they can build the highest wall that they want, once we finish the demarcation—the final demarcation—of the border. Which, again, I say it was agreed upon in 1946 and ’48. But there is no line to point at.

AMOS: Green or otherwise.

BOUHABIB: Nothing, yeah. (Laughs.)

AMOS: So I know that you’re here because there is a U.N. meeting on the Middle East. Will you be bringing any new proposals to negotiate 1701, which is the U.N. resolution after the—I’m going to get this date wrong—2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. And the U.N. resolution was the negotiated end to that. And it referred to where Hezbollah was to be in terms of the Litani. Are you here with any new proposals about 1701?

BOUHABIB: Yes. I think we want to finish our border. We want to know, and the Israelis know, where is their borders, and finish agreed upon borders. And each one will can do whatever it wants because, you know, maybe fifty years ago we were not ready to do it. Why? Because we did not recognize the right of Israel to be there. But now, since 2002, all Arabs recognize the presence of Israel, and all—you know, the in a Beirut summit. And it was a Saudi proposal. And at that time, Sharon was—Ariel Sharon was the prime minister. And they refused. So let’s talk to West Bank and Gaza, those the Palestinians and so on, accepted the separation of Palestine, the division of Palestine.

So, but the Israelis were not forthcoming. And now, even now, I mean, the Israelis—the present government of Mr. Netanyahu would not accept to do that at all. So we really need to—there are—around the world are more Palestinians there are Israelis in Israel. Now, even Israel itself now, there are more than two million Palestinians out of eight million total Israelis. And in the—in the West Bank, there are three million and three million-plus. And in Gaza, two million-plus. So there are in Palestine, two and three and two—seven million Palestinians. And there are in Jordan, and Lebanon, and in Syria, a lot of Palestinians as well. They are still refugees. They are still living the dream of going back. And they still have the Palestinian accent when they talk Arabic. So they are Palestinians, for all practical purposes. And so we need to solve this problem. There is a willingness in the Arab world to really solve this problem once and for all. But this government in Israel is not ready to do that.

AMOS: So, before I turn it over to the audience, let me ask one more question. President Joe Biden is talking about a two-state solution. Most of Europe is behind him, and so is the Arab world. Netanyahu has said absolutely not. And not only absolutely not, but I am the man who stands between a two-state solution and the Israel that we have now. And he’s pretty serious about that, because he is fighting for his political life in Israel. Who wins?

BOUHABIB: (Laughs.) I think, hopefully, peace would win. (Laughter.) Hopefully. I pray that peace would win, because the region really needs peace, especially the eastern Mediterranean area. Palestine, or Egypt, or Jordan, or Lebanon, or Syria—we really need peace. We’ve been—misunderstanding has been for a long time. And I think it’s time to have peace. And peace would—and the Palestinians accepted that they have the West Bank and Gaza. So let’s do it and finish. And they think the Israelis would live in peace, and everybody will live in peace. And gradually we’ll learn how to live together. You know, we’ll open up the borders to each other gradually, once we recognize each other. Look, the relations between those countries, Arab countries that recognized Israel and Israel, is pretty good. I mean, they exchange diplomatic relations. There isn’t yet people-to-people relation, but there will be.

AMOS: You can imagine Lebanon doing that with Israel? You are the country that—it’s illegal for Israelis to come to Lebanon.

BOUHABIB: Now. It’s illegal for Syria, to go to Iraq, and—

AMOS: It’s true. You’re not the only one, I know.

BOUHABIB: Tunisia and so on, you know. But if there is peace, yes. And we have half a million Palestinians. There is a solution for them. We have to do—we have to find a solution. And why not? I mean, this is—the Arab summit in 2002. It was in Beirut also that was taken. This issue was settled in the Arab world. And they’re still talking about it.

AMOS: OK, I’m going to open this up. And I’d like to invite here in New York and on Zoom, and I’ll get notices of Zoom questions, to join our conversation. So that lady right there. And the microphone will come to you. And please introduce yourself.

Q: Hi. I’m Donna Shalala.

Could you give us some indication, it seems to me that Lebanon doesn’t have a lot of leverage when it doesn’t have a president and when its economy is basically very weak. So could you give us some indication whether this year we’re going to see a president? And whether there’s a real strategy to deal with the economy—the economic challenges in Lebanon?

BOUHABIB: Well, my answer is, inshallah, we have a president this year. (Laughter.) Because we try in the foreign—in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to isolate ourselves from the problems in the country, including the election of a president, so that we can conduct our foreign policy without any problem. So we don’t get involved very much. It does mean we don’t know. Now, I don’t know. I mean, there is an attempt from a committee of five countries—that include the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt. A new attempt to do it. I think the people in Lebanon, those—the decision makers, and there are so many, they wait. Well, let’s see now, the committee of five is coming. Let’s see the French played at one time or another single role among the—you know, among the five. And so let’s—everybody waits. And then there is no result. So I think it—if it’s left for us alone, I think—this is my own impression, I just leave that out—that I can share it with others. I mean, it’s shared by others. Is that it should be left. There should be pressure on us to elect the president, then we’ll elect the president.

Q: For a long while in my dealings in Lebanon, there was a tight relationship in banking, particularly, between Lebanon and Syria. And I didn’t hear any discussion today about your relationships with Syria, following the brutal results of their civil war and their attachment somewhat with the Russians. Would you like to comment?

BOUHABIB: Yeah. Well, it is undiplomatic to talk about other countries when it’s not related to you. But I’ll tell you that the Syrian government and regime, they are not very much involved in the war taking place. It doesn’t mean they’re not part of it or something, but they are not much involved, I think, in it. But Syria is not under—completely under the regime’s, you know, control. There are areas under Türkiye’s control, others are Americans and their allies, others—Golan is—that’s what the Syrian think is under the Israelis, and so on. And so there are there are also forces there that are not Syrians. You know, the Russians are there. The Iranians are there. So but Syria, as is—the government of Syria and Damascus and all the areas—they try not to get involved in the war. They really—that’s what we hear from them. Otherwise, you know, the land of Syria as a whole is involved. I mean, there are a lot of action going on from around the Golan Heights or from Syria towards the Golan Heights, and so on.

AMOS: Man right behind Rita.

Q: Jeff Laurenti. If I can just follow up on Rita’s question.

What do you see as the status of what’s happening in yesterday’s war, that is Syria? Has the fighting effectively ended. or do we just not read it? And is the political process for some, inshallah, future political resolution dead, alive? And what about all the Syrian refugees who had decamped to Lebanon? Are you still playing host to them without much financial support?

BOUHABIB: Yeah. No, Syria, as I said, it has part under the Turkish control and part under the American and Kurdish control, and part maybe some militias. But the regime is sanctioned very much, especially from the United States. Very difficult to deal with them before without being penalized by the United States. Last time—I was there in October, right? Yes. And around October 10. And I met with U.N. people there. They are working there with the Syrian regime. And they say that 90 percent of the population is under poverty level. So they are—really they don’t have—when they had an earthquake in the north, I mean, they didn’t have the equipment necessary in order to help. We had to send them fuel from Lebanon. That tanker, best they know, that they are sanctioned strongly, you know, by the United States, especially—not necessarily Europe, all this way.

And there is a kind of—they have a lot of pride. You know, sometimes—we have a word, it’s called amphuan (ph), which is false pride. You know, sometimes—because you have to be, in this world, more pragmatic than you are. But they have a lot of pride in what they’re doing. And I think, you know, we deal with them a little bit better than we used to in the past. That’s all what they can say. But now the regime has, to the best of my knowledge—I may be mistaken—has kind of isolated itself from the war going on now between Israel and—on the two fronts, Israel in Gaza or in Lebanon.

AMOS: And the Syrian refugees?

BOUHABIB: Syrian refugees in Lebanon?

AMOS: Mmm hmm.

BOUHABIB: We have around two million. They are mostly supported by UNHCR, and which is supported by Western countries. Because, you know, China or, of course, Russia, or the Arabs don’t pay very much to UNHCR for this purpose. And still, the West is determined to keep them. And there are too many for us. Two million, out of population we are five million. But one million in the neighborhood in Lebanon. We have one million Lebanese in Europe and Africa and in the Gulf. And so we have four million, and two million of them are Syrians, half a million Palestinians. We have, you know, quite a large number to accommodate. We don’t know—I mean, we don’t want to have some kind of quarrel with the Western countries, especially Europe and the United States, you know, because they are financing their stay there.

And they—you know, what we found out later that they have nothing to go back to in Syria. It is not a political situation, because they are normal people. They may have any kind of thinking that will not affect the regime’s presence. And, you know, what we want is—you know, the issue is that they are there economically. They are in Lebanon, in Jordan, and in Turkey. In Turkey, they are accommodating them because Turkey is a big country, verses in Lebanon and Jordan they are pretty tough. I mean, we have two million out of four million living in Lebanon. That’s—you know, it’s too many. But they do work sometimes in Lebanon, because we need manual workers. And so—and the Syrians, we talked to Syrian. Said they are most welcome to come. Anyone who has a problem with that, solve it before it comes.

But they have nothing to go back to Syria. Last time, before Christmas, we were in—we were in Geneva, right? And we talked with the UNHCR people. And say, have a pilot project for their return. You know, have four or five villages. That’s even been done. Get them back. Continue to pay them whatever you pay them and see what happens. Because the purchasing power between Lebanon and Syria is very, very different. A hundred dollars in Lebanon, you need twenty-five dollars in Syria. So they can live happily there. And, you know, they can build their villages that was destroyed, and so on.

So we’re still at the beginning. They’re still studying and they need approval on it. And, you know, when the Arab League made an attempt to start helping Syria get back, because it’s really affecting every one of us—especially Jordan and Lebanon. And in the future, if it continues, it could also affect Israel as well because when there is people—when people are deprived, you know what they do, or where they go, you know, whatever. And so we—but it stopped. This committee of five countries, it stopped working because there was Western pressure on it. We don’t want to deal with Assad.

Well, Assad is there. I mean, if you don’t—I mean, we have to deal with him or remove him. If you can’t remove him, we have to deal with him. And there was a big war against him, and he is still there. And he is not the only dictator in the region. So if he is a dictator, he’s not the only one. So we want really Syria should come back to play its role, peacefully and gradually. And still, we didn’t hear from UNHCR about that this pilot project that we talked about when we were in Geneva.

AMOS: Let’s take a question from our audience on the internet.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Christopher Isham.

Q: Hi. Chris Isham here. Thank you.

A question, sir. You mentioned briefly the banking crisis. I know this is slightly out of your portfolio, but you are an economist by background. What is Lebanon doing to restore confidence in the banks and stabilize the banks? And what are you saying to investors, both domestic and foreign, about when they can get access to their funds?

BOUHABIB: Well, we still have the problem. We still did not solve the banking system problem. They’re still working, but very limited work. And their work is not really affecting positively the economy in Lebanon, unfortunately. So there, we didn’t solve this problem. Although now the central bank is on the move, because—maybe because we don’t have a president, we don’t have a full-fledged government? I don’t know. We try, as I said at the beginning, to isolate ourselves as a Foreign Ministry from the rest of the—of the political situation there, but we’re still—we still have some problems in the banking sector.

AMOS: Thank you.

Q: My name is Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist.

My grandparents on both sides were Jewish immigrants to the United States over a hundred years ago, escaping repression and pogroms in Eastern Europe and in Russia. As an American Jew, I am appalled at the Israeli genocide in Gaza. And I wonder why the Arab countries are not acting more forcefully—acting at all, it seems—to protect the Palestinians. Now you indicated, I would guess, therefore, it’s the border and its refugees, that you don’t want to anger the Americans or the Israelis. What about the other countries? I have read that some—one of the reasons might be that they are getting shipments of Israeli arms and surveillance technology and don’t want to endanger that. Can you say why the Arab states are not acting strongly to protect the Palestinians?

BOUHABIB: Well, this is a difficult question for a diplomat to answer, you know? (Laughs.) Because you’re—I have to give an opinion about other countries. I cannot. I’ll tell you about Lebanon. Yes, we think, you know, we are affected very much directly by the war. And we look forward to finishing this war. You know, killing each other is not—is not a solution. I think the solution is to create for whatever left of geographic Palestine, historical Palestine, 22 percent for the Palestinian people. And they have accepted that. Arafat has accepted that a long time ago. But there has to be some kind of dialogue in order to reach a final agreement on this.

And sometimes the world, especially United States, leave it to them—to the Palestinians and Israelis. I think there should be direct involvement, strong involvement, because this is a problem that really affects everybody. Not in the region, even around the world, including the United States here.

So the best thing is to really—now is a good opportunity to find once and for all a solution for this. I mean, the Palestinians accepted that Gaza and the West Bank would be their own country. But more and more the Israelis are implanting Israelis there in the West Bank. You have a lot of settlements. And the settlements are growing. Bu, you know, no matter what, it cannot be—I still recall in 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank, there were zero Israelis and three-quarters of a million Palestinians. Now there is 3.3 million Palestinians and less than three-quarters of a million Israelis. So they cannot beat them. I don’t know what’s the—you know, the issue.

And it is not—you know, 1948 is not going to happen again. This is what the—especially this Israeli government that exists now should understand. I mean, there’s—the Palestinians are not going to go away from being in the West Bank and in Gaza. So the best way is to deal with them and try to see things are not the same as it used to be in 1948. In 1948, they left thinking that it’s in a couple of weeks, you know, they were thinking still of numbers. Arabs are so many, Israelis were so small, you know. But this is not—they didn’t take into consideration technology that even existed there is different. Now, they’re not going to leave their country. They feel that they are Palestinians. And wherever they go in the Arab world, they are still Palestinians.

I think they assimilate more in the United States than they assimilate in Arab countries, to say the truth about it. I mean, Palestinians in Lebanon—I’ll give you an example. Since 1948, they have been in Lebanon. Of course, they started like a hundred and something thousand. Now there are over half a million. But they’re still Palestinians. They still have the Palestinian accent. You can tell a Palestinian from whatever he tells you good morning. So they need—they need a country of their own. And I think the sooner the better for all people in the region.

The Arabs have accepted Israel. I would say before ’67, or before ’73 they did not. But now they do. And there are six or seven Arab states that have recognized Israel, including Egypt and Jordan and the UAE and Bahrain and Morocco. They’ve all accepted. So, you know, we look forward to a peaceful situation to people accept each other and live together. Live together, I think, it’s good for everybody.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Foreign Minister. Cliff Krauss, of the New York Times.

Could you give us a little update on the situation with natural gas drilling offshore Lebanon, and if the current conflict has any implications for the exploration and production there?

BOUHABIB: I wish I know more than I know, but I don’t. (Laughs.) OK, now everything has stopped because nobody wants to take a risk. But, you know, I think Total did find a little bit of gas, but it didn’t go deeper there to find more. And the process in Lebanon is slow. But we think we have gas—we have gas down, you know, under the—under the water. But the process of developing it is very slow. So, and now that the war is going on, I think everybody has stopped, even in Israel, in the northern area. They’ve stopped working there at the same time, you know, because of the war. Nobody wants to jeopardize the work there or be hurt by anybody. So I wish I have more to say about it.

AMOS: Questions? I have one, and that is this: So you say that, you know, give peace a chance. And watching Gaza, who wouldn’t? But we’ve had these moments before. You know, there was Oslo. And it seemed at that time that we were on a path to a solution. Now, we have calls for a solution after horrendous, horrendous death and destruction, from both sides. What do you think has changed to make this time the time that is the breakthrough, where people get really serious about a two-state solution, or not, or whatever the solution is?

BOUHABIB: You know, countries need to have a leader that they really have confidence in. (Inaudible)—was not killed in—he was killed by Israeli. And with him stopped the process, unfortunately. Things—Shimon Peres came after him, and he only stayed six months. And then came Mr. Netanyahu. And then came Mr. Barak, after—Ehud Barak. And he tried his best. And they did reach, in Camp David, a solution with President Clinton at that time.

I think, you know, after all these experiences, I think everybody’s ready for a solution. But the borders is demarcated. Everybody knows where—his country is. So it’s acceptable. The West Bank and Gaza. But stop taking part of the West Bank. I mean, you have maybe around three-quarters of a million Israelis in the West Bank. And more is coming. And they’re very aggressive, you know. So we need—really, we need a little bit of peace, little bit of thinking, a little bit of work, and then we will—we should reach a solution soon.

AMOS: But Hamas is against two-state solution. Netanyahu is against a two-state solution. The settlers are against a two-state solution. So it’s not everybody. And it’s some key players who are against. So I don’t see how you get from here to there. I mean, I see that Mr. Netanyahu is not a popular man. And it is quite likely that he will be replaced and there will be another leader of Israel, and then we’ll see. But for the moment, that is who you have.

BOUHABIB: You know, Arafat was not for a two-state solution.

AMOS: Correct.

BOUHABIB: He became for a two-state solution. I don’t know. I don’t know anybody in Hamas. And I think they should be the same. They realize that there is—Israel is there to stay. And they realize, I think, all what they want—I mean, the way they were living in Gaza does not produce except what the West called terrorists, what—or what in the Arab world is called nationalists, you know? So, no. I mean, I think if there is more—there were more democracy and more openness in Gaza, they cannot exploit anything. Everybody says they have gas in their sea there, that they are not allowed to search it, and so on.

So you need really a relaxation of things in the region, which is not coming. And you know, I don’t know about Hamas. I don’t know anybody in Hamas. But I think at the end, you know, Fatah and Arafat were like that. They wanted back all of Palestine. And they accepted in the end to live with West Bank and Gaza. Things did not go. (Inaudible)—was killed, not by a Palestinian, you know, as we said. So we know—let’s give peace a chance. That’s all. Let’s give peace a chance, you know? And there is, again, a good number of Arab countries that recognized Israel. So let’s move. Let’s move on it.

AMOS: Sir?

Q: My name is Andrew Gundlach, CEO of Bleichroeder.

Educate me, please, because in our own country, as a—America, as a result of the war, we’ve had a breakout of anti-Semitism that we haven’t seen before on a campus otherwise colloquially known as the Jewish Ivy, Penn, OK? And we’ve had pro-Palestinian marches in New York City that we have never seen—I’ve never seen; I grew up in New York City. I’m curious what it looks like from your area of the world. Are you surprised? And I’m—and I’m not talking about people like you who know America well; I’m talking about the street. What is the images on TV, on Instagram, which is—we’ve never had a war like this on Instagram, right? What is this saying to your people, meaning your Lebanese people but also the Muslim world? What can we learn from you?

BOUHABIB: Let’s talk about the Muslim and Arab world. I mean, we all want peace. The Arabs—I mean, you know, I counted for you five, six Arab countries that already have peace with Israel, and the rest are not far away from that if they get back—you know, if we go back to, first, give the Palestinians chance. I mean, we have—we have half-a-million Palestinians in Lebanon. You know, when you talk to them in Arabic, we understand—same language—but they have different accent. They have a Palestinian accent, you know? So when you give them their right, when—I think the Arabs are open now to a solution. And they tell us: We’re tired of wars there. And it is mostly unnecessary wars. So we want, really, peace in the region, and I think now it is—everybody in the world, you know, looks at the situation there as this is time for peace. But they cannot move because the Israeli government is completely against that kind of peace, peace that would give the Palestinians a state, you know? They are completely against it. And they are encouraging settlers in the West Bank to take more and more and more land. It can’t work this way. This means that problem’s forever.

So we really—I think the Arab world, most of the Arab world, is ready for peace. And you see there are no demonstrations, there are no problems. And all where they go around, I mean, we had an Arab summit and we had a committee of four or five countries—an Arab and Islamic summit, and committee of four and five, six countries, they all were preaching peace. They were not preaching war. You know, among the Arab countries there were Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and was—


BOUHABIB: UAE? Jordan. No, Jordan, mostly. Qatar also got involved. And Islamic countries Turkey and I think Indonesia got also involved. And they all want looking—searching for peace. You cannot talk peace with Netanyahu, as he says, you know, that. So we really need peace in this region, and peace is at hand if we work for it. And I think—I think, you know, a lot of Americans I talk to, they want a two-state solution but we don’t know how to get it. We want—we need—we need the two-state solution. The Palestinians are Palestinians. Yes, we talk Arabic. Here, we talk English in the United States, but we are not British, right? And so on. I mean, how many countries in the world speak English, I mean, their first language, but they are not British? So this is the same thing in the Arab world. It’s not like throw them to the Arab world, like Israel in the beginning in Gaza they want to throw them to Egypt or to Jordan, and so on. It doesn’t work this way anymore. That was in 1948 that they left. They didn’t know what they were doing. Now it doesn’t work this way anymore. Hopefully, Israel would also wise up on that and accept that, you know, expansion is not possible anymore, and accept a two-state solution. That’s how it works. And try it; let’s see what happens.

AMOS: We have time for one or two more questions. Anybody? Come on, brave people. Let’s solve Israel-Palestine right here, right now. (Laughter.)

So do you see a moment where—I can’t figure out what the timeline is. I mean, if the war is over, there’s an election in Israel, we know that there will be a new leader. But between now and then, Netanyahu’s view kind of rules the day. So how do you see that change? How do you see that timeline where there is a different conversation?

BOUHABIB: I recall 1973, when Egyptian Third Army was encircled in the Suez Canal area, and Israeli army was a few miles from Damascus, and America say if there is going to be chance for peace—that’s America; Kissinger was there, and Nixon, in ’73—and they said no. And they hold—they held everything, the supplies to Israel. And then whoever was—I think Golda Meir was the prime minister—accepted. They stopped, and you know later what happened. So I—

AMOS: But she lost her job.

BOUHABIB: She lost her job because of the war, because she wasn’t ready for the war—

AMOS: And it’s very—

BOUHABIB: —not because of American pressure.

AMOS: No, but it’s very similar to what’s happening now.

BOUHABIB: Well, he’s going to lose his job anyway. I mean—(laughter)—it’s not me who will decide that; it’s the Israelis. And the way it’s going, I think Mr. Netanyahu is going to lose his job. So everyone who fought a war, even if you win it, you lose the job. I mean—(laughs)—take, in 1973, I mean, Golda Meir at the end won the war, right, and she lost her job. And which years also? In 1970—when then Olmert lost his job, OK, and was this, you know—Begin. Begin won the war in Lebanon. He kicked the Palestinians out of Lebanon, right? I mean, twelve thousand Arab Palestinians left Lebanon, then their families followed. So—and he—and he was out. So people don’t like wars, so not necessarily they support those who are involved in the war, whether directly or their response was late.

AMOS: So, Mr. Minister, I would like to thank you so much for being with us today. (Applause.) And thanks, everybody, for joining this session.

BOUHABIB: Thank you.

AMOS: This is on the record. And note that the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on the CFR website. Thanks, everybody, for being here.

BOUHABIB: Thank you very much.

AMOS: :Thank you, Mr. Minister.

BOUHABIB: Thank you.


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