BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman chaired Monday a National Dialogue session, despite a boycott by several parties, including Hezbollah, with the group's weapons constituting the most divisive outstanding issue.
Sleiman opened the session by playing a two-minute audio recording of the June, 2012 Dialogue session in which the rival parties agreed on the Baabda Declaration, an attempt to remind the parties of their vow to keep Lebanon out of regional conflicts, according to a source close to the president.
Participants then discussed the security threats facing the country and the general outline of a national defense strategy.
“The participants said they prefer to discuss the details when all parties are present, especially Hezbollah,” the source said.
They also addressed the ongoing violence in Tripoli, and the recent Higher Defense Council decision to implement a security plan in the north and east. The participants agreed that stability must be restored to the city, which has been plagued by intermittent clashes since the start of the Syrian crisis.
In a statement issued after the two-hour session, the Dialogue committee welcomed the formation of the new Cabinet and said it should work towards meeting all constitutional deadlines.
“The new government must succeed in addressing main problems and challenges facing the country and must impose security and the rule of the law,” said the statement. “[The government] should also work to meet constitutional deadlines and in a way that is compatible with the traditions of Lebanese democracy."
The statement warned against Israeli threats to Lebanon and stressed the need for the full implementation of UN Resolution 1701, which aims to maintain peace on the border.
The statement also warned of “terrorism and the increasing risks facing the country as a result of the Syria crisis and the spread of illegitimate arms among citizens.” The statement stressed the need to develop a comprehensive defense strategy based on Sleiman’s proposal to incorporate Hezbollah's arm's under the authority of the Army.
The statement concluded by calling on all parties to take part in the next Dialogue session scheduled for May 5.
Those taking part included Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Tammam Salam, former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Future parliamentary bloc leader MP Fouad Siniora, Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt, Free Patriotic Movement chief MP Michel Aoun, and Kataeb Party head Amin Gemayel.
Absent were representatives from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Forces, the Marada Movement, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Lebanese Democratic Party.
Hezbollah’s decision to boycott the Dialogue came after its secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, voiced over the weekend resentment towards Sleiman, who has repeatedly criticized the party over its military role in neighboring Syria.
Jumblatt, who regards himself as a centrist alongside Sleiman, said in comments published earlier in the day that boycotting the National Dialogue would serve no purpose and stressed the need for all-party talks given the present situation in the country.
“Boycotting the Dialogue does not affect [it], because the Dialogue will be open and will tackle more than one issue,” Jumblatt told An-Nahar newspaper.
“It doesn’t help to boycott the Dialogue because there is external and internal interference that is threatening Lebanon, and it is better to face such meddling through intra-party dialogue,” he said.
In the last Dialogue session held in Sep. 2012, Sleiman proposed a national defense strategy that would allow Hezbollah to keep its arsenal but under the command of the Army, which would enjoy a monopoly on the use of force.
MP Jean Ogassapian, a Future parliamentary bloc member, told Voice of Lebanon radio ahead of the session that the Dialogue would tackle Sleiman’s proposal on resolving the question of Hezbollah’s arsenal.
“Today we will discuss in depth the proposal submitted by President Michel Sleiman in the last [Dialogue] session in 2012,” he said.
“Hezbollah should realize that the arms of the resistance are a controversial issue among the Lebanese, and there are broad differences in approaching the issue of weapons and the presence of arms beyond the state’s authority,” the MP said.
“Thus, we should stress to the Lebanese, both politically and through the Dialogue, that we cannot build a strong state if we have a political party which enjoys military capabilities that outweigh those of the Army and works to implement a foreign agenda,” he added.