BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman’s call for National Dialogue appeared to hang in midair Thursday after the March 14 parties reiterated their demand for the government’s resignation and the formation of a neutral Cabinet as a prerequisite to attend any talks with their March 8 rivals.
Although the opposition’s negative response to Sleiman’s call has cast a pall of gloom over the new Dialogue session set for Jan. 7, Baabda Palace sources said the session was still planned as scheduled.
“The Dialogue session will be held as scheduled on Jan. 7 despite the March 14 response to the president’s call,” a Baabda Palace source told The Daily Star.
The source pointed out that in his latest invitation to the rival political factions to attend the Dialogue session, Sleiman signaled his readiness to discuss all divisive issues, including the possibility of forming a new Cabinet, a key demand of the March 14 coalition.
Responding to the president’s call, March 14 politicians renewed their demand for the government’s resignation as a condition for attending any Dialogue session with the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said that political assassinations and attempts on the lives of March 14 politicians prevented the opposition from attending the all-party talks at Baabda Palace.
“The alternative [to Dialogue] is the resignation of the current Cabinet and adherence to constitutional procedures which will definitely lead to the formation of a new Cabinet to supervise the elections,” Geagea said in an open letter to Sleiman. Geagea and Batroun MP Butros Harb escaped attempts on their lives earlier this year.
However, a political source said the March 14 demand for the government’s resignation was not meant as “an alternative to Dialogue, but as a precondition” to attend the all-party talks.
Addressing a Cabinet meeting he chaired at Baabda Palace Thursday, Sleiman stressed that Dialogue was the hope for the Lebanese to resolve the current political crisis. “Dialogue was also the basis of all agreements that have been reached, from the National Covenant agreement to the Taif and Doha accords,” he said.
Sleiman also called for the parliamentary elections, scheduled for early June next year, to be held on time. He said efforts should be intensified to approve a new electoral law. “All these matters require that everyone comes to the Dialogue table,” he added.
Sleiman renewed his call for Dialogue after meeting Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai in Bkirki Tuesday to congratulate him on Christmas. “I hope that all Dialogue parties will come on Jan. 7. If they don’t come, let them offer me alternatives,” he said.
In his open letter to the president, Geagea scoffed at March 8’s argument that the country would fall into a power vacuum should the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati resign before an agreement is reached by the rival factions on a new Cabinet.
He accused the March 8 parties of “political and security blackmail” and foiling National Dialogue.
“After 25 attempts of political assassinations and bombings, the Dialogue table is almost vacant of March 14 representatives. Who will talk to whom? “ said Geagea, speaking during a news conference.
“The March 14 parties have always called for a serious and constructive Dialogue based on what had been agreed before. Dialogue should be held without a gun being pointed at the head of the March 14 parties, unlike what is happening today,” he said.
The LF leader accused the March 8 parties of using National Dialogue to impose their illegitimate arms and secure the political gains they failed to obtain through “intimidation and assassinations.”
Recalling statements by Hezbollah officials that the party’s arms are not a subject for discussion at National Dialogue, Geagea said in his letter to Sleiman: “We renew our full commitment to a national but genuine dialogue. But at the same time, we reject intimidation, blackmail and participation in a process of political hypocrisy which is merely a distraction for you, for us and for the Lebanese.”
Beirut MP Ammar Houri also restated the March 14 stance on National Dialogue. “No dialogue before the government’s resignation and the formation of a neutral salvation Cabinet to oversee the [2013 parliamentary] elections,” Houri told The Daily Star.
Houri, a member of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc, also called for the implementation of decisions of previous Dialogue sessions such as the parties’ commitment to the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the demarcation of the Lebanese-Syrian borders and the withdrawal of arms and gunmen from outside Palestinian refugee camps.
Following the Oct. 19 assassination of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan, who headed the police’s Information Branch, the March 14 coalition has called for the government’s resignation and the formation of “a neutral salvation Cabinet” to oversee the 2013 elections. The coalition has boycotted the government and all Cabinet-related meetings in Parliament as well as National Dialogue sessions as part of its tactics to force the government to resign.
In his letter to Sleiman, Geagea also rejected March 8 accusations that the opposition was trying to prevent the adoption of a new electoral law on the basis of which the 2013 elections would be held.
He said the March 14 parties were ready to end their boycott of Parliament to discuss and approve a new electoral law to replace the 1960 legislation.
“We are fully ready to break our boycott and go to Parliament to attend a session devoted to approving a new electoral law that can ensure a true representation for which you and we are working to achieve,” Geagea added. He said the March 14 parties have proposed dividing Lebanon into 50 small electoral districts to replace the 1960 law which is based on the qada and a winner-takes-all system.
Speaker Nabih Berri Thursday called members of a parliamentary subcommittee tasked with studying a new electoral law to meet in Parliament on Jan. 8.
His decision came three days after the March 14 coalition agreed to resume talks with their March 8 rivals on a new electoral law after accepting the speaker’s proposal for the subcommittee’s March 14 members, facing security threats, to stay at a hotel near Parliament and under Army protection until the body finishes its work.
Formed in early October, the subcommittee, which includes MPs from the March 8 and March 14 parties, was tasked with studying the type of the electoral system and the distribution of electoral districts in the absence of Cabinet members or representatives.
Meanwhile, former President Amin Gemayel voiced in remarks published Thursday his support for Sleiman’s call for Dialogue, saying he would attend the Jan. 7 session.
“Our stance is clear. We will attend the upcoming [National] Dialogue session,” Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb (Phalange) Party, told As-Safir newspaper.
“But if major political parties decide not to attend the session, we will leave it to the president to take the appropriate decision [on whether to go ahead with the session or postpone it],” Gemayel added.
Gemayel said the decision by the Kataeb, a member of the March 14 alliance, to attend Dialogue in the event it takes place was out of respect for Sleiman and the post of president.