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Sleiman chairs Dialogue session without substantial discussion

President Michel Sleiman, right, chairs the National Dialogue session in Baabda, Sunday, March 30, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

BAABDA, Lebanon: President Michel Sleiman chaired a National Dialogue session Monday but the meeting lacked substantial discussion given the absence of major March 8 parties, including Hezbollah.

A statement issued after the two-hour session said that attendees highlighted the need for a national defense strategy to defend Lebanon.

“They stressed that the escalating Israeli threats against Lebanon, procrastination over the full-implementation of [U.N. Security Council] Resolution 1701, the increasing danger of terrorism, particularly the dangers from the Syrian crisis along with the proliferation of arms in the hands of Lebanese and those living in Lebanon require agreement on a national strategy to defend Lebanon exclusively,” the statement said.

A source close to Baabda Palace told The Daily Star that attendees did not discuss in detail the national defense strategy proposed by Sleiman in 2012, but only highlighted the need for a defense strategy.

“They prefer to go into details when representatives of all parties, particularly Hezbollah, are present,” the source said, requesting to remain anonymous.

In the summer of 2012, Sleiman put forward a national defense strategy that would place Hezbollah’s arsenal under the command of the Lebanese Army.

Hezbollah boycotted the talks Monday in protest over a speech against the resistance made by Sleiman recently.

Also absent were Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geaga, Marada Movement Chief Suleiman Frangieh, Syrian Social Nationalist Party MP Asaad Hardan and Lebanese Democratic Party leader Talal Arslan. Monday was the first National Dialogue session since September 2012.

The statement said that participants highlighted the need to discuss Sleiman’s national defense strategy proposal and stressed the importance of Dialogue, calling on all parties to participate in the upcoming session, which Sleiman called for May 5.

Attendees also welcomed the formation of the new Cabinet and said it should work toward meeting all constitutional deadlines.

“They stressed that it was necessary for the government to succeed in addressing its main challenges and the problems facing the country, particularly imposing security and the rule of the law and with preparing to meet constitutional deadlines in line with Lebanese democratic tradition,” the statement said. The two-month period to elect Lebanon’s new president began last week.

At the start of the session, Sleiman touched on the dangers and challenges that have resulted from the growing Syrian refugee crisis, from the increasing level of terrorist activity and sectarian tensions along with the failure of some Lebanese groups to abide by the Baabda Declaration.

He also explained the main elements of his national defense strategy.

Hezbollah violated the Baabda Declaration when it announced last year that its fighters joined Syria’s war alongside President Bashar Assad. The pact calls for distancing Lebanon from regional turmoil, particularly Syria’s civil war.

Hezbollah argues that the Future Movement began supporting Syrian rebels before the party’s interference in Syria, a claim strongly dismissed by the group.

The source said that Sleiman played a two-minute audio recording of the June 2012 Dialogue session during which rival parties, including Hezbollah, voiced their support for the Baabda Declaration.

The source added that most of Dialogue participants gave a speech which highlighted the importance of the all-embracing talks.

He added that participants discussed the security threats facing the country and underscored the importance of implementing a security plan approved by the government last week for the Bekaa Valley and Tripoli, which has been plagued by intermittent clashes between supporters and opponents of Assad since the start of the Syrian crisis.

Taking part in the Dialogue session were Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Tammam Salam, former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Future parliamentary bloc head MP Fouad Siniora, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, Free Patriotic Movement head Michel Aoun, Kataeb Party leader Amine Gemayel, Future bloc MP Jean Ogassapian, Metn MP Hagop Pakradounian, Tripoli MP Mohammad Safadi, Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon, MP Michel Murr and Deputy Speaker Farid Makari.

The leaders engaged in side chats which preceded the start of the talks. Berri was seen talking separately to Salam and Siniora.

He also engaged in a conversation with Aoun and Salam.

Meanwhile, March 8 sources said that hopes expressed by Dialogue attendees that all party representatives would attend the upcoming session were unfounded, given Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s statement over the weekend that the party wanted a new president to be elected as soon as possible to launch a new phase of National Dialogue.

For his part, a March 14 official who took part in Monday’s session said that it reflected the current divisions in the country.

He pointed to the recording played by Sleiman and to the fact that Siniora and Makari asked Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria during the discussions.

The source added that there was also a lengthy speech by Berri, who listed the achievements of the resistance in Lebanon.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 01, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

President Michel Sleiman chaired a National Dialogue session Monday but the meeting lacked substantial discussion given the absence of major March 8 parties, including Hezbollah.

A statement issued after the two-hour session said that attendees highlighted the need for a national defense strategy to defend Lebanon.

The statement said that participants highlighted the need to discuss Sleiman's national defense strategy proposal and stressed the importance of Dialogue, calling on all parties to participate in the upcoming session, which Sleiman called for May 5 .

Taking part in the Dialogue session were Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Tammam Salam, former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Future parliamentary bloc head MP Fouad Siniora, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, Free Patriotic Movement head Michel Aoun, Kataeb Party leader Amine Gemayel, Future bloc MP Jean Ogassapian, Metn MP Hagop Pakradounian, Tripoli MP Mohammad Safadi, Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon, MP Michel Murr and Deputy Speaker Farid Makari.

March 8 sources said that hopes expressed by Dialogue attendees that all party representatives would attend the upcoming session were unfounded, given Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah's statement over the weekend that the party wanted a new president to be elected as soon as possible to launch a new phase of National Dialogue.


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