BEIRUT: A boycott by Hezbollah and three other March 8 parties of a new round of National Dialogue, scheduled for Monday, in protest at what they perceived as President Michel Sleiman’s biased stances threw the fate of intra-Lebanese talks into disarray.
Furthermore, the Lebanese Forces, which had boycotted previous Dialogue sessions, dismissing them as “a waste of time,” said it would not attend Monday’s talks.
The boycott on both sides of the political fence cast a pall of gloom over the results of inter-Lebanese Dialogue seen badly needed to defuse mounting political and sectarian tensions stoked by the repercussions of the 3-year-old war in Syria and the dispute over Hezbollah’s arsenal.
Following the formation of a new Cabinet on Feb. 15, Sleiman invited rival March 8 and March 14 leaders for a new session of National Dialogue to resume talks on the divisive issue of Hezbollah’s weapons as part of a national defense strategy.
Despite the boycott by Hezbollah and other March 8 parties and the LF, a source at Baabda Palace said the Dialogue session was still planned as scheduled.
“A final decision on whether to convene or postpone the session will be made Monday morning,” the source told The Daily Star.
MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s bloc in Parliament, who had represented the party in previous Dialogue meetings, informed Baabda Palace officials Sunday of the party’s decision not to attend Monday’s session, Al-Manar TV reported.
The Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Manar TV said the reason for the party’s boycott of the Dialogue session was what it termed Sleiman’s “offensive and harmful speech” against the resistance.
Sleiman’s relations with Hezbollah have been strained over the president’s repeated criticisms of the party’s military involvement in the war in Syria.
Hezbollah has also rejected Sleiman’s proposal for a national defense strategy that would allow the party to keep its arms, but place them under the command of the Lebanese Army, which would have exclusive authority to use force.
LF leader Samir Geagea confirmed his party’s boycott of the Dialogue session, saying Hezbollah was not serious about talks over its arsenal.
“Hezbollah is not serious about Dialogue ... There is no need to think about participation in Dialogue as long as Hezbollah will not participate in it,” Geagea said in an interview with Al-Jadeed TV Sunday night.
“Hezbollah is not ready for Dialogue [over its arms]. We must search for other ways to run the country’s affairs,” he said. “At present, Dialogue will not lead to any results.”
Geagea also said he would run in the presidency race. “The main reason for my nomination [to the presidency] is that I am seeing the ship is sinking and it needs a different action,” he said.
Despite the Hezbollah and LF boycott, Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt said he and Speaker Nabih Berri would attend the Dialogue session.
“We agreed as usual to attend tomorrow’s Dialogue session in order to continue the discussions we have started, but without confining the discussions to a specific subject,” Jumblatt said after meeting Berri at the latter’s residence in Ain al-Tineh.
“Matters are open, especially since terrorism as we see is striking in every direction,” he said, referring to Saturday’s suicide car bombing that targeted a military post on the outskirts of the northeastern town of Arsal, killing three soldiers and wounding four others.
In reply to a question, Jumblatt, who was accompanied by Health Minister Wael Abu Faour, said he and Berri did not discuss the presidential election.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who is not a member of the National Dialogue Committee, said he would attend Monday’s session. “Dialogue is essential and is very useful in this period,” Salam was quoted as saying by visitors.
Three pro-Syria regime parties said they would boycott the session. Marada leader MP Sleiman Franjieh, who has been criticizing Sleiman, said he would not attend.
Lebanese Democratic Party leader MP Talal Arslan also announced that his party would boycott the Dialogue session.
A statement issued after the party’s meeting said Sleiman’s invitation for Dialogue to discuss a defense strategy did not conform with the priorities of the current situation in Lebanon. “Priority should be given to fighting terrorism that is striking most Lebanese areas,” it said.
MP Asaad Hardan, head of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, who had represented the party in previous Dialogue sessions, said he would not attend Monday’s talks. He urged Sleiman to postpone the session and hold consultations to agree on a formula that can ensure the participation of all members of the Dialogue committee.
“Priority should be given to the issue of terrorism because its danger is threatening Lebanon and all the Lebanese,” Hardan said in a statement.
Despite the boycott, Sleiman said National Dialogue must go on, expressing regret that some parties have decided not to attend.
“We must complete the discussion of a defense strategy that can protect the country from the Israeli dangers and the threat of rampant arms and terrorism,” Sleiman said in a speech during the launch of the First Alphabet Poetry Festival in Jbeil.
“We raise this subject on the eve of the National Dialogue that we called for in Baabda Palace to continue discussion of the defense strategy with the aim of benefiting from the national and resistance capabilities, bolstering the Lebanese Army’s capability and restoring the Army’s exclusive authority over arms. This will enhance [the military’s] capacity in uprooting terrorism,” Sleiman said. “No red lines can be put for the Army.”
His remarks came a day after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah hinted at his party’s boycott of National Dialogue by calling for an early presidential election “so that we can launch a new phase in Lebanon.”
“We call for an early presidential election if that is an option so that we can launch a new phase in Lebanon and then we can join [National] Dialogue [sessions] and discuss a national defense strategy and mutual cooperation,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
Sleiman has repeatedly criticized Hezbollah over its military role in Syria. In a February speech, he said political parties should not cling to “wooden equations,” referring to Hezbollah’s formula of “The Army, the people and the Resistance.” Hezbollah hit back at Sleiman, saying the president needed “specialized care” because he could no longer differentiate between gold and wood.