BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman postponed Monday a new round of National Dialogue scheduled for Tuesday until next month, in a move reflecting continuing divisions between rival political leaders over the thorny issue of Hezbollah’s arms.
Sleiman’s move came shortly after the opposition March 14 coalition upheld its decision to boycott the Dialogue session, citing ambiguities concerning the release of telecommunications data it says security bodies need to carry out their probes in cases of attempted assassinations of the coalition’s political figures.
Sleiman said the postponement of National Dialogue until Aug. 16 was meant to give time for more consultations on the main topic on the agenda: a national defense strategy.
“As a result of contacts and consultations which President Michel Sleiman held with the parties of the National Dialogue Committee and in view of the need for more consultations, the president has decided to postpone the committee’s meeting scheduled for tomorrow [Tuesday] until Aug. 16 in order to follow up discussion of the issue of a national defense strategy put on the agenda,” said a terse statement released by the president’s office.
Sleiman’s announcement came after he had apparently failed to convince March 14 leaders to attend Tuesday’s session, which was supposed to discuss methods to benefit from Hezbollah’s weapons in the context of a national defense strategy designed to protect Lebanon against a possible Israeli attack.
A source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star that in the third round of National Dialogue Sleiman was likely to present a blueprint containing a summary of ideas and proposals made by Dialogue parties and retired Lebanese Army generals concerning a national defense strategy.
Sleiman Monday sent his envoy, ex-Zahle MP and former Defense Minister Khalil Hrawi, to former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc. Khalil briefed Siniora on a ministerial security meeting that Sleiman chaired at Baabda Palace Saturday, which discussed a mechanism to deliver telecoms data to security bodies as demanded by the March 14 parties.
However, Siniora said in a statement after meeting the envoy that the March 14 parties upheld their boycott of National Dialogue because their demand for providing security agencies with telecoms data had not been fully and clearly met.
“In light of the information relayed by the presidential envoy, [former] Prime Minister Siniora had the impression that the mechanism for providing security apparatuses with telecoms data was unclear,” according to a statement released by Siniora’s office.
“Therefore, Siniora demanded that telecoms data be complete and be put automatically and constantly at the disposal of security apparatuses without barriers and complications in order for security apparatuses to be able to do their job in protecting the country and confronting terrorist operations,” it said.
“Based on this unclear information concerning the release of telecoms data, as well as the two other clauses mentioned in the March 14 statement [of July 19] which are still until now without a clear answer, Siniora informed the presidential envoy that the [March 14] position on suspending participation in Dialogue has not changed,” the statement added.
The March 14 coalition has held the government responsible for the attempted assassination of Batroun MP Butros Harb on July 5 because it had withheld telecoms data necessary for security bodies to uncover such plots. It has also called on the government to provide telecoms data after Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea escaped sniper fire at his residence in Maarab in April.
Environment Minister Nazim Khoury, who is close to Sleiman, lamented the March 14 decision to boycott National Dialogue. “It’s a big mistake not to have a dialogue ... The two sides have concerns and fears,” Khoury told Al-Jadeed TV Monday night.
Last week, the March 14 coalition decided to boycott Tuesday’s Dialogue session in protest against Hezbollah’s refusal to discuss its arms and the government’s failure to provide security agencies with telecommunications data following abortive assassination attempts targeting the coalition’s key figures.
The coalition also underlined the need for lifting political cover from wanted people, ensuring immediate and serious protection for threatened March 14 figures and adhering to the Constitution, “which stresses that the state is the only authority to defend Lebanon.”
The decision to boycott the Dialogue session was apparently in response to MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, who last week said it was premature for rival political leaders to discuss a national defense strategy, saying the country had yet to liberate itself from Israeli occupation.
The president last month convened two National Dialogue sessions between leaders of the March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance in an attempt to defuse political and sectarian tensions stemming mainly from the repercussions of the 17-month turmoil in Syria.
Meanwhile, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt informed Sleiman that he will stop attending Dialogue meetings, his party said without further elaboration. But LBCI television said Jumblatt decided to suspend his participation in Dialogue meetings for security reasons.
The Kataeb (Phalange) Party accused Hezbollah of paralyzing the National Dialogue Committee when it rejected the discussion of a national defense strategy.
In a statement issued after a meeting of its political bureau chaired by its leader Amin Gemayel, the party renewed its support for National Dialogue and its full solidarity with Sleiman who is “seeking to spare the country the repercussions and dangers of the crises in neighboring countries.”
The statement held Hezbollah responsible for canceling the Dialogue Committee’s agenda when it called for dropping discussion of a defense strategy.