BEIRUT: Rival political leaders agreed Monday during their first National Dialogue session in over 18 months to commit themselves to dialogue and political, security and media pacification as well as avoid speeches that fuel sectarian incitement.
Apparently responding to growing local and foreign fears of a spillover of the 15-month-old turmoil in Syria into the country, they also pledged to work to bolster stability and civil peace in order to prevent Lebanon from sliding into sectarian strife.However, the four-hour meeting chaired by President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace was marred by a heated debate between former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc, and Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad after the former blamed Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Hezbollah-controlled government for a series of deadly security incidents in the north and the proliferation of arms across the country, according to sources who attended the Dialogue session.
The spat also erupted after Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, renewed accusations that Siniora, while prime minister in 2005, had sought to bring in multinational troops to be deployed in south Lebanon, allegedly as a deterrent force against Hezbollah’s armed presence in the region, said the sources. This prompted Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt to intervene in defense of Siniora, rejecting Raad’s accusations, they added.
Sleiman had called for the resumption of National Dialogue, suspended for the past 18 months, in light of deadly sectarian clashes in the northern city of Tripoli that killed at least 25 people in incidents directly linked to the uprising in neighboring Syria.
In a statement issued after their meeting, the leaders from the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc and the opposition March 14 coalition agreed on the need to control the increasingly tense Lebanese-Syrian border following a series of security incidents, and rejected the idea of a buffer zone between the two countries.
The statement said stability must be maintained along the shared border and that neither a “buffer zone” nor a “base or corridor for the smuggling of arms and gunmen” would be tolerated.
Syria has accused some Lebanese opposition parties of financing rebel forces and smuggling arms to them. For their part, the March 14 parties, which strongly support the Syrian uprising against President Bashar Assad, have repeatedly accused Damascus of violating the border with Lebanon and of launching attacks against Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees alike. Several Lebanese have been killed or wounded by Syrian gunfire in border incidents.
The March 8 and March 14 leaders agreed to back the Lebanese Army both financially and morally as the guarantor of civil peace and national unity. They also agreed to devote efforts so the army and other legitimate security forces would carry out their duties in “emergency security incidents.”
The leaders affirmed commitment to the Taif Accord that ended the 1975-90 Civil War and promised to continue efforts to implement all its provisions. Any demand for developing or amending the Taif Accord would be considered in consensus among the parties and according to constitutional mechanisms, the statement said.
It added that the leaders agreed to “keep Lebanon away from the policy of regional and international conflicts and spare it the negative repercussions of regional tensions and crises.” The leaders also agreed to continue studying the means to implement decisions agreed upon at previous Dialogue sessions. These decisions include commitment to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the removal of Palestinian arms from outside the refugee camps and the demarcation of the Lebanese-Syrian borders.
Monday’s Dialogue session was supposed to discuss a national defense strategy and how to benefit from Hezbollah’s arsenal and resolve the problem of the proliferation of arms in cities and towns outside the jurisdiction of the state as mentioned in Sleiman’s invitations to the leaders who met face-to-face for the first time since November 2010.
But a March 14 source who attended the Dialogue session said that Sleiman had promised the 16 leaders to discuss a defense strategy and the issue of arms at the next session set for June 25.
The source added that the impression inferred by March 14 leaders during the meeting had been that the Mikati government was staying in office. “Since the country is going through difficult circumstances, it is our duty to support [state] institutions,” he said.
The source did not say whether the March 14 parties would set terms for attending the next Dialogue session or demand the implementation of the coalition’s political memo they had presented to Sleiman, which calls, among other things, for the departure of Mikati’s Cabinet and the formation of a new government.
The statement issued by the rival leaders stressed the need for dialogue in order to maintain security and urged citizens not to resort to “arms and violence regardless of the concern they hold.”
It called on all political parties and intellectuals to avoid “fiery political speeches and media rhetoric that fuel sectarian and confessional incitement in order to achieve national unity and protect the country against external threats, particularly the danger posed by the Israeli enemy.”
Mikati said he felt confident of the results of the dialogue, hoping it would eventually lead to the withdrawal of arms from cities.
“If dialogue goes on as it is, it will constitute a major step that will lead us to the removal of arms from a number of Lebanese cities,” the prime minister said in an interview Monday night with new Beirut-based pan-Arab satellite television station Al-Mayadeen.
Participants in the Dialogue meeting described the atmosphere of the talks as positive. “Dialogue was very serious,” Speaker Nabih Berri told reporters following the meeting.
Mikati said that the “conciliatory scene” between the rival Lebanese leaders was “a positive message to the Lebanese abroad and a call on world states to translate their interest and concern [over Lebanon] in order to enable us to confront challenges.”
Siniora, who represented former Prime Minister Saad Hariri ’s Future bloc at the meeting, said: “Today’s Dialogue session was a step.”
Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun told reporters after the meeting: “The atmosphere during the Dialogue was very good. Agreement was reached on everything.”
However, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, a key March 14 figure, boycotted National Dialogue, arguing that the all-party talks were futile and unlikely to address the divisive issue of Hezbollah’s weapons.
Sleiman opened the National Dialogue session, underlining the importance of holding intra-Lebanese dialogue given the upheaval in Syria and the security incidents in north Lebanon.
“We are close to the brink of danger and slide. The situation is alarming. The international community is concerned, while Arab states are worried and have warned their nationals [against traveling to Lebanon],” Sleiman said. He added that his call for National Dialogue has gained a large Lebanese support, in addition to Arab and international backing.
For his part, Siniora, addressing the meeting, said that failure to implement decisions of previous Dialogue sessions would undermine the credibility of National Dialogue.
“One issue was left at the dialogue table to talk about. It is not a defense strategy but the resistance’s arms which led to the proliferation of other arms,” Siniora said. He added that Hezbollah’s arms were being used by pro-Syrian gunmen in Jabal Mohsen against their rivals in Bab al-Tabbaneh in Tripoli.
According to a statement released by Siniora’s office, Raad accused the Future Movement of smuggling arms into Syria, seeking to establish a buffer zone and preventing the Lebanese Army from deploying in the north.
However, Raad’s accusations were rejected by Siniora who said: “We are against any arms outside legitimacy. We are against arms smuggling into Syria, against the smuggling of arms into Lebanon too, and against the smuggling of gunmen. But we will not back off from our political position supporting the Syrian people’s demands.” He added that the Future Movement was not working to establish a buffer zone in the north.