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Second round of Dialogue convenes amid split over arms

FILE - President Michel Sleiman, right, heads a session of the National Dialogue at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Monday, June 11, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s rival political leaders will hold a second round of National Dialogue Monday amid fears that a long-running split over the issue of Hezbollah’s arms might bring the all-party talks to a halt.

President Michel Sleiman held backstage consultations in the past few days with all leaders attending the Dialogue in an attempt to narrow the wide gap between the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc and the opposition March 14 coalition over a national defense strategy and the contentious issue of Hezbollah’s arms, Baabda Palace sources said.

March 14 parties are seeking a defense strategy that would eventually integrate Hezbollah’s arsenal into the Lebanese Army, while the party is adamant on keeping its arms.

The main topic on the Dialogue’s agenda, to be chaired by Sleiman, is a

national defense strategy designed to protect Lebanon against a possible Israeli attack, how to benefit from Hezbollah’s arsenal and resolve the problem of the proliferation of arms outside the jurisdiction of the state. Another related subject is the removal of Palestinian arms from refugee camps.

“Discussions of the remaining topic on the Dialogue agenda, the national defense strategy, is supposed to begin at Monday’s session,” a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star Sunday.

“President Sleiman has held behind-the-scene contacts with all Dialogue parties with the aim of reconciling their conflicting viewpoints on a defense strategy,” the source said. He added that the president appeared to be satisfied with the results of his contacts with the March 8 and March 14 leaders on a defense strategy.

However, March 14 leaders, who staunchly oppose Hezbollah retaining its arms, have hinted at the possibility of halting their participation in Dialogue unless the issue of the party’s arsenal is discussed at Monday’s session.

“March 14 leaders have agreed on a united stance on the need to discuss the only remaining topic on the Dialogue agenda which is Hezbollah’s arms,” former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told The Daily Star. “If the arms issue is not discussed, we will take a stance,” he said, refusing to say what steps the March 14 coalition would take.

Asked if March 14 leaders would stop attending future Dialogue sessions if the issue of Hezbollah’s arms is not addressed Monday, Siniora said: “We will see what will happen, and we will act accordingly.”

March 14 politicians also stressed the importance of implementing decisions of previous Dialogue sessions, including commitment to the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal to Lebanon and the demarcation of the Lebanese-Syrian border.

Hezbollah has voiced its readiness to discuss a defense strategy, but it has persistently rejected March 14 demands to surrender its weapons.

This stance was reaffirmed by Hezbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah. “We are going to Dialogue in a very positive and open manner to discuss the defense strategy item. But we will not engage in dialogue on the resistance’s arms. These arms are part of a national equation that includes the Army, the people and the resistance,” he said in speech in the southern village of Safad al-Batikh.

Sleiman discussed preparations for the National Dialogue session during a meeting Saturday with Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, a main pillar in the March 14 coalition who boycotted the Dialogue, reiterated in an interview with As-Safir newspaper Saturday that he will not attend because the talks are “a waste of time.”

Apparently responding to Geagea, Hezbollah’s State Minister for Administrative Reform Mohammad Fneish said National Dialogue was essential to protect civil peace and was not a waste of time.

“No matter what we try to do, we will remain at odds and different in intellectual or political schools. But we must follow the road of dialogue in a country like Lebanon which is rich in diversification because a break will lead to increasing tension,” Fneish told a rally in the southern port city of Tyre.

Referring to speeches that stir sectarian hatred, he said: “We have to protect ourselves by meeting together and engaging in dialogue. We should not be ashamed of each other because the convening and the continuation of the Dialogue conference are necessary for the protection of our country and our internal peace.

“Dialogue is not aimed at wasting time ... It is not enough to sit at the Dialogue table while we have already taken in advance a stance on any issue,” Fneish said.

Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour said the Dialogue session on a defense strategy did not emanate from a desire to show “hostility to the resistance’s arms or to ignore the role of these arms in confronting any Israeli attack, but [was meant] for the Lebanese state to have a clear authority in this matter.”

“There should be dialogue without sanctities, taboos or conditions. The only sacred thing is the country’s safety, the only taboo is civil strife and the only prohibited thing is a break among the Lebanese,” said Abu Faour, who is a member of Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 25, 2012, on page 1.

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