BEIRUT: Lebanese leaders attending the last National Dialogue session of President Michel Sleiman’s term emphasized Monday the need for further national defense strategy talks and praised the president’s centrist position throughout his term.
The session, which lasted for over an hour, was boycotted by most March 8 leaders and some March 14 figures.
“[Attendees decided] to continue discussions in order to agree on a national defense strategy for Lebanon, based on the proposal made by the president and which the Dialogue committee considered a starting point for discussion,” said a statement issued after the National Dialogue session.
Convening under Sleiman at Baabda Palace, attendees highlighted the importance of fully implementing the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War along with preserving parity and coexistence between Muslims and Christians.
The Dialogue participants also stressed the need to continue efforts to implement decisions taken by the International Support Group for Lebanon that aim at boosting stability by supporting state institutions, the Lebanese Army and the economy, along with addressing the burden of hosting over one million Syrian refugees.
The Lebanese leaders agreed on the need to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on time and securing a quorum in Parliament to elect a new president.
They also praised Sleiman’s role in chairing the Dialogue sessions and his efforts in generating proposals and initiatives.
Dialogue participants said it was essential that all-embracing talks continued, as Dialogue was the only means to resolve conflicts between the Lebanese.
They added that efforts should be made to implement decisions made during earlier National Dialogue sessions in order to boost security in Lebanon and spare it the repercussions of regional conflicts.
Speaking at the start of the session, Sleiman highlighted recent local and regional developments.
He also touched on the achievements of National Dialogue since it was launched in 2006, particularly the Baabda Declaration and the national defense strategy talks.
The National Dialogue sessions were first launched by Speaker Nabih Berri in March 2006 in a bid to bridge mounting differences between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions in the wake of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
With his election in May 2008, Sleiman began to chair the sessions, which numbered 18 during his term.
In June 2012, Dialogue participants agreed on the Baabda Declaration, which calls for distancing Lebanon from regional turmoil, particularly the war in neighboring Syria. But Hezbollah reneged on its support for the pact and joined Syria’s war the following year.
During a Dialogue session in September 2012, Sleiman proposed a national defense strategy that would see Hezbollah place its arms under the Lebanese Army. The proposal has yet to be discussed.
During Monday’s session, Sleiman touched on remarks made by Iranian officials, saying they contradicted Lebanon’s sovereignty and adding that he would seek clarification from Iranian authorities over the matter.
Yahya Safavi, a senior military aide to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described south Lebanon over the weekend as Iran’s first line of defense.
Sources close to Sleiman said the president felt the time was not suitable to address the national defense strategy in depth Monday.
The sources said that the president believed that Dialogue was successful during his term and should continue under the auspices of the new president.
Apart from Speaker Nabih Berri, no March 8 representatives attended the session. Hezbollah boycotted the talks for the second time in a row after differences with the president surfaced over the resistance’s role in Syria. Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun also boycotted the talks at the last minute.
Political sources told The Daily Star that Aoun decided not to attend after he learned that Sleiman had criticized him in front of foreign diplomats. But sources close to Sleiman said the president informed Dialogue participants that Aoun had telephoned him and told him he was not attending for “personal” and not political reasons.
Also absent were Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geaga, Marada Movement chief Sleiman Frangieh, Syrian Social Nationalist Party MP Asaad Hardan and Lebanese Democratic Party leader Talal Arslan.
MP Mohammad Safadi and Deputy-Speaker Farid Makari did not attend because they were not in the country.
Besides Berri, in attendance were Prime Minister Tammam Salam, MP Hagop Pakradounian, MP Jean Ogassapian, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, MP Michel Murr, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Kataeb Party leader Amine Gemayel and MP Michel Pharon.
Pakradounian was the first to arrive, followed by Ogassapian and others. Surprisingly, Berri did not have a convoy, but arrived in a car that was not accompanied by any other vehicles.
The politicians were seen chatting with each other as they waited in the hall for Sleiman to arrive.
Speaking to reporters after the session, Jumblatt praised the president, whose term expires on May 25, saying he did his utmost to protect the country.
“President Sleiman ruled the country during the most difficult circumstances and was able to remain the president of all the Lebanese without being biased to any party,” Jumblatt said.
“He was able to overcome the most delicate phases and spare the country great tension and highlight that Dialogue was inevitable,” Jumblatt added.
The PSP leader said that the Baabda Declaration was a positive point in Sleiman’s term, although regional and international circumstances did not allow for its implementation.
Other Dialogue participants joined Jumblatt in praising Sleiman’s stances and policies.
“He sought to prioritize the higher national interest of the Lebanese and never took sides during conflicts, and here lies the essence of his consensus role, which he preserved,” Siniora said.
Siniora expressed his opposition to the prospect of holding a conference to reconsider the political system, a proposal made by Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah in June 2012.
“The Lebanese agreed during the Taif talks to renew their National Pact, which has become their Constitution. It is based on coexistence and parity and I stress that Muslims will not accept to abandon parity [between Muslims and Christians] or coexistence,” Siniora said.
The Sidon MP also called for the full implementation of the Taif agreement, including the establishment of a senate.
Siniora said that Lebanon would never witness stability if the issue of Hezbollah’s arms was not resolved by it being placed under the authority of the state.