Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Middle East Interview - Today Programme

Friday 21st July 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury appeared on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme 21 July 2006 to talk about the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. He was interviewed by Carolyn Quinn.

CAROLYN QUINN: Britain and America appear to be alone in refusing to endorse the United Nations demands for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and the Hezbollah. The Pope has added his voice to those calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and, in a letter this week to the heads of Churches in Lebanon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has condemned the escalating violence in the Middle East. He joins us in the studio. Dr Williams, good morning to you.


CQ: The Pope, as we've heard, joining those international calls for immediate ceasefire. We've heard Tony Blair and some others arguing that Israel has a right to defend itself; do you think that a State ever does have an inherent right to resort to violence?

ABC: I think all states have a right to defend themselves and I don't think anyone disputes the state of Israel's right to exist and therefore the state of Israel's right to defend itself. But the question is, morally, whether that right of self-defence allows any and every method. And, without for any moment suggesting that there's a sort of equivalence between terrorist activity and the activity of a legitimate state, the question is 'what can a state morally do without subverting its own cause in self defence?' That's the question, which I think people are pressing at the moment in Israel.

CQ: Are we talking about proportionality here? Can Israel truly say that the damage it's inflicting on Lebanon and the civilian deaths is in proportion to the threat that it faces?

ABC: I think there's a real question about the way in which, in calculating methods in any conflict, you define your outcome, you define what needs to be done for that outcome. I think recent history doesn't encourage us to think that conventional aerial bombardment is rapidly successful in dealing with terror organisations. They may be dispersed but they're not destroyed. Now in the light of that, it's hard to see how this becomes a coherent strategy. But can I give an analogy here? We're familiar - horribly familiar - with hostage crises in recent years and of course this recent conflict does begin with, effectively, a hostage crisis, but it's as if you've now got a hostage crisis involving a whole nation. Hezbollah is in effect using the nation of Lebanon as a human shield, as a set of hostages. Now everybody would condemn that kind of activity without reserve. But think of the questions we ask in another kind of hostage crisis - how do the forces of law go in and deal with it? Do they go in at fantastically high risk of the slaughter of innocent hostages themselves? Do they look for alternatives? And it's as if that's the kind of situation which, blown up on a huge scale, is what we face now.

CQ: What is the answer then, when you've got such intractable conflicts between armies and militias, how should they be resolved?

ABC: We have some experience, I suppose, of dealing with hostage crises. Not all of them are dealt with by main force; particularly not resolved...

CQ: ... but when it's moved beyond a hostage crisis and when it's moved to the sort of open warfare that we're seeing now?

ABC: ... that's why I use the analogy of a large-scale hostage crisis. We attempt to talk, what we do - we attempt to talk - we defer a violent action that puts more innocent lives at risk and that I think points to a ceasefire and the deployment of whatever resources there are for brokerage in the region. Now one of the things I would want to say rather strongly is what's the role going to be of religious leaders in the region - Jewish and Muslim? We try to keep up a dialogue here with those religious leaders and in fact we'll be announcing this weekend the invitation to the Israeli Chief Rabbis to visit Lambeth Palace later this year, and that's a dialogue, which, as I say, continues. Where are those voices now? It would I think be good to hear them in this context.

CQ: And would a visit from you to the region perhaps help?

ABC: That I don't know; I'm perfectly prepared to consider it, if it were at all useful. I think every voice that that can be brought in here needs to be brought in with the escalating humanitarian crisis, not only the deaths but half a million people now displaced and the likelihood of more having to leave their homes as we've heard on the latest news. So I think that we have to ask who is speaking for those in this situation who don't have any choices? The people who have not chosen to be identified with Hezbollah, and people on the Israeli side of the border who have not chosen to be identified with the Israeli Defence Force? Israeli Arabs have died in the conflict as well as Jewish Israelis citizens. Who speaks for them? And how are their interests to be defended by the world at large?

CQ: These problems have of course happened time and time again and if you've seen the front page of the Times today, it shows Israeli soldiers taking a break from their bombardment in order to pray. How do you feel when you see a picture like that, almost showing the incongruity of war and a religious belief?

ABC: It's sadly an incongruity which is part of a history we share. Christians do this, Muslims do this, Jews do this. They do take a break from military activities to pray; they do try and relate what they're doing and I'm sure there are many people trying to act in good conscience in this setting, but whether it's done by Christians Muslims or Jews it's that unhappy impression that God is somehow content with the killing of innocents.

CQ: I'm interested to know how you view it - you say that both sides need to talk, there needs to be negotiation, there needs to be an end to the killing, of course, that is a widespread agreement. But going back to the origins, do you think that Hezbollah are to blame for starting it? Has Israel overreacted? Do you share the views of those who say that the Israeli response is disproportionate?

ABC: I think it's clear that the provocation here comes from actions by Hezbollah. I don't think there's much dispute about that. Overreaction? I think the difficulty is that many of us see the reaction that there's been as contributing not to the short and middle term security of the state of Israel and its citizens, but to further destabilisation and that to me is near the heart of the problem. What Israel needs more than anything, I think, is stable neighbours and regional security. And while I fully see that the presence of terrorists and terrorist groups in the region constantly undermines that, where is the activity that builds up stable neighbours? Because that would seem to me to be the proper proportional response to a crisis like this.

CQ: And just finally, in terms of international reaction; do you think that the only way there could be an immediate ceasefire is if there is united international support for the United Nations call for that - for an immediate ceasefire?

ABC: I'm not sure that even that would necessarily produce the effect, but I don't think it's going to happen without that united support. And I think here we really have to ask whether the governments of some Western countries are catching up with the consciences of their own people.

CQ: What do you mean by that?

ABC: I mean that the major players in this at the moment who are not supporting the ceasefire - our own government and the United States government - may perhaps have to reckon with a rising level of public despair and dismay at the spiral continuing. And I hope very much that they will bring their influence to bear in moving towards a ceasefire.

CQ: They need to change their minds?

ABC: They need to change their minds.

CQ: Dr Rowan Williams, thank you very much.

Back · Back to top