Hizbullah had been expected to win last week's election in Lebanon, but voters took to the streets in droves and unexpectedly voted into power the pro-Western March 14 coalition led by Saad Hariri. Newsweek's Lally Weymouth talked by phone with the victor and probable new prime minister. Excerpts:
WEYMOUTH: How are you feeling after your victory?
HARIRI: I am feeling great.
Were you surprised?
No. We had our own polling but didn't publish it. We expected to win.
What do you think made voters turn out in such large numbers?
We presented a very convincing campaign. All we wanted was for Lebanon to come first. We talked about what the people really want—jobs, an economy that is thriving, reforms within the government and a strong central government. Also we had a clear vision of what we wanted.
What was that vision?
The vision is that Lebanon should come before any [foreign] interest. We should concentrate on rebuilding the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces to a level where there will be a stronger central government. In our economic program we are also looking for privatization and reforms within the government.
Four years ago I interviewed you after your victory, and you were not sure whether you would serve as Prime Minister. Now do you want to become Prime Minister of Lebanon?
I am going to discuss it with my allies and see what is in the best interest of the 14th of March Alliance and for Lebanon. I am not shying away from it. Four years ago I didn't have the experience and the knowledge. Today, Saad Hariri is a different Saad Hariri than he was four years ago. I learned a lot in four years.
Did you worry about your physical safety during the campaign?
It is something we decided to do and once we decide to do something we do it all the way. Either you believe in it or you don't.
Do you believe that President Obama's Cairo speech had an effect on your victory?
No, I think the Lebanese people were really involved in the local politics of Lebanon. I think President Obama made a fantastic speech. I think he made a historic opening to a part of the world that had been looked upon as forgotten. It is a historic opening up to the Muslim world, giving credit but at the same time saying we are all human beings and we all breathe the same air. In the end, there are things that the Muslim world should understand and also the Israelis—that peace should come to the region and this is the only way to move forward. We have been talking about the peace process since the Madrid Conference in 1990. Nineteen years have passed and we have not been able to advance. It is giving pretext to certain countries to use what Israel is doing to incite regional problems.
You are talking about Iran, correct?
Iran and other countries. As much as people say that the Palestinians are divided, so is Israel. Israelis need to make a decision about the peace process. There are big divisions within Israel and this is not going anywhere. At the end of the day, for the sake of humanity and for the sake of security and the region, everybody should sacrifice a little bit. The Arabs came out with a peace initiative. It was extremely forthcoming and it is on the table. Instead of working with it and negotiating, Israel has put it aside. We have an opportunity today with President Obama to really bring peace to the region.
When you say you will reach out to all the parties, does that mean you will reach out to Hezbollah?
Yes, we will reach out to all political parties. We won the majority but there are also people who voted for the 8th of March Alliance in which Hezbollah is included. This is something we need to deal with. There are no blue states and red states. We want to unite Lebanon and find a common ground in unifying Lebanon for the interests of Lebanon.
Will Hezbollah be in the government?
We would like to see a government that includes everybody but a government that works.
So you don't think Hezbollah will say they have a veto?
I don't want to make people take a position before we even get to the negotiating table. But what happened with this election—I think everybody got the message that the people want a government that works. We have seen the negativity of a blocking minority. We haven't seen any positivity from it.
What do you hope your relationship with Syria will be?
One thing that we have achieved that we did not have in the previous Parliament is that we have reached a diplomatic relationship with Syria—we have an embassy of Lebanon in Syria and we have an embassy of Syria in Lebanon. This is a big gain. We need to evolve this relationship into one where the two countries respect each other and have a better relationship.
Isn't it true that a lot of Lebanese don't feel warmly about Syria?
I know. But the United States is engaging with Syria. The Europeans are engaging with Syria. We are neighbors with Syria. We think that we have to have a diplomatic relationship with Syria where they respect Lebanon the way any other country respects any other country.
Do you think it is a mistake for the United States to engage with them?
No, we have benefited from this engagement. We got an embassy when France engaged with Syria. The United States is engaging for the sake of the peace process in the region.
The Syrians haven't shown a big interest in that to date, have they?
We will see. Time will tell.
Is Syria the big loser in your victory?
I think whoever was betting on a foreign agenda is the loser. Our agenda was purely focused on the Lebanese people who want their children to have medical care, schools to go to and the security not to have to worry about their children. If you have security and stability, it is the key to a thriving, prosperous Lebanon.
Did the Syrians or Iranians call to congratulate you?
The Iranian Ambassador called me today.
No calls from Syria?
So they weren't too happy?
Would you be?
You think you can deal with Hezbollah?
Yes we can. Nothing is easy in life.
How old are you now?
I am 39 going on 60.