BEITEDDINE, Lebanon: Rival Lebanese leaders postponed to September discussion of a national defense strategy after Speaker Nabih Berri decided not to participate in Thursday’s National Dialogue session.
Meanwhile, although the contentious topic was not tabled, a heated argument broke out between Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, over the party’s arms.
At the beginning of the session – which was chaired by President Michel Sleiman at his summer residence at Beiteddine Palace – the president informed Berri by telephone that the topic would not be broached in his absence, according to a source close to the president.
However, other sources told The Daily Star that Sleiman was unable to reach Berri by phone after receiving an SMS that the speaker would not attend. The president was told that Berri was unavailable, the sources said, adding that Sleiman was annoyed.
Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt said that discussion of a defense strategy should not take place without Berri and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a political aide to Berri, said that the speaker’s absence was intended to protect the Dialogue.
“The blackmail that the president and Dialogue were subjected to through the imposition [by the March 14 coalition] of conditions for attending until the last moment is not acceptable,” Khalil told reporters on his way to the Cabinet session.
“Up to the last moment, we continued to hear remarks [by March 14 officials] that they will attend and others saying they will not attend,” Khalil added. “Honestly, this had negative repercussions on the atmosphere needed for Dialogue.”
Khalil said that Berri is still keen on Dialogue and on pushing it forward.
Marada movement leader MP Sleiman Franjieh was also a key absentee at Thursday’s session.
The March 14 coalition boycotted National Dialogue last month over Hezbollah’s unwillingness to discuss its arms, which the coalition argues is the only remaining item on the agenda of the talks.
The coalition also demanded that Hezbollah lift its protection of those suspected of participating in the attempted assassinations of March 14 officials in recent months.
Siniora announced Wednesday following talks with Sleiman that March 14 groups would take part in Thursday’s session.
The Sidon MP said that for Dialogue to be “fruitful,” it should scrap the “duality of military decision-making,” and said that decisions of war and peace ought to be made exclusively by the state.
The next National Dialogue session, scheduled for Sept. 20, is set to resume discussions on the national defense strategy.
Even without discussion of the contentious issue of national defense, the session which lasted for more than two hours, saw an argument between Siniora and Raad.
In an indirect reference to Hezbollah, Siniora said that the “political rhetoric that maintains that arms protect arms and that the goal is to protect arms outside state-control” was responsible for Wednesday’s chaos.
Siniora said he believes that what happened was not a coincidence but an attempt to divert attention from the case of former MP Michel Samaha, who was charged last week with planning terrorist attacks in Lebanon.
Raad hit back, saying that Siniora’s accusations were unacceptable and could spark strife and incite members of Hezbollah.
“What happened yesterday is that the Meqdads and relatives of the other kidnapped were tense ... and what happened yesterday does not amount to one-tenth of what happened in other areas, like Akkar for example,” Raad said. “We spent all night resolving the issue ... while there are some Lebanese groups working so that they are not released and are negotiating to prolong the crisis.”
Siniora asked Raad to present evidence Lebanese parties were obstructing efforts to release the hostages, adding that Hariri had condemned the kidnapping from the first day.
“You said that arms appeared in Akkar similar to what happened yesterday [in the southern suburbs] ... this is true, but we opposed it in Akkar,” he said.
Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun called for the policy of dissociation from events in Syria to be applied in Akkar and the north as it is carried out in other areas of the country.
Separately, rival political leaders agreed to send a delegation to seek help from key countries in securing the release of 11 Lebanese hostages who have been held in Syria for almost three months.
Participants in the National Dialogue session agreed to continue official efforts to secure the release of the 11 men by “forming a delegation from members of the National Dialogue Committee to seek the help of influential countries ... and affirm brotherly relations with these countries.”
The incident came the same day as the Meqdad clan kidnapped members of the Syrian opposition, or those sympathetic to it, after a member of their family was kidnapped by the opposition Free Syrian Army in Damascus Sunday.
The Meqdad clan also kidnapped a Turkish national and threatened to kidnap citizens of Gulf states as well.