BAABDA, Lebanon: President Michel Sleiman proposed to Lebanese leaders Thursday a national defense strategy that would allow Hezbollah to keep its arms but place them under the command of the Lebanese Army, which would have exclusive authority to use force.
Under the proposal, Hezbollah would not hand its arms over to the Army, as demanded by the March 14 coalition, nor would there be coordination between the resistance and the Army, the defense strategy that Hezbollah has backed.
Instead, the arms of the resistance would be used by the state until the Army could take over all defense responsibilities. The plan stipulates that the resistance would operate only in the event of occupation.
“In line with Article 65 of the Constitution and the law of National Defense and until the Army is provided with the appropriate power needed to handle its mission, an agreement [should be] reached on the appropriate frameworks and mechanisms to use resistance arms, to specify control over them and to put them under the command of the Army which has the exclusive right to use force,” says the proposal.
Sleiman’s plan, which he announced at Thursday’s National Dialogue session, calls for providing the Army with sufficient weapons, equipment and training to develop its human and military capacity to defend Lebanon’s land, airspace and sea.
According to the three-page proposal, Lebanon faces dangers from Israel, terrorist groups and the proliferation of arms among individuals, parties and Palestinian groups, which requires a defense strategy that has at its heart an Army capable of defending the state.
Forcing Israel to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 and boosting Lebanon’s presence in the international arena through diplomacy are among the strategy’s pillars.
According to the plan, Lebanon would take all steps needed to liberate Lebanese territories that are still under Israeli occupation and would follow the armistice agreement with Israel signed in 1949.
Copies of Sleiman’s proposal were distributed to Dialogue participants, who made brief comments on it before demanding time to study it carefully and make their remarks in the upcoming session, which is scheduled for Nov. 12.
During the talks, which lasted for almost two hours, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora touched on recent remarks by Mohammad Ali Jaafari, the top commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who said members of the elite force are in Lebanon as advisers.
The head of the Future parliamentary bloc said that before starting Dialogue, Hezbollah should assure the Lebanese that it has no intention to use its arms for anything not in the interest of the country.
“He [Jaafari] wanted to say by these remarks that the Revolutionary Guard has an armed presence in Lebanon and that Lebanon and Hezbollah’s arms could be used to threaten others and that Lebanon could be used as a bargaining card,” Siniora said.
“I want to clarify that we, like most of the Lebanese, strongly oppose any aggression against Iran by Israel or another state ... but at the same time we cannot accept that our country becomes a launching pad for a group, or as a land of confrontation between regional powers or to confront international powers,” Siniora said.
“Some will say that I am raising the issue and trying to exploit it and that the remarks of the head of the Revolutionary Guard were distorted ... but we did not hear a clear and honest denial by Hezbollah or assurances that its arms serve only Lebanese goals,” the Sidon lawmaker added.
Nabatieh MP Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, said that steps taken by Sleiman were enough in this regard.
Sleiman demanded official clarification from Tehran over Jaafari’s remarks during a meeting with Iran’s Ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Roknabadi Monday.
Siniora also warned that Cabinet’s rushed handling of the economic situation in the country would backfire.
“Is it plausible that the Cabinet passed a new salary scale without being aware of its actual costs, as some ministers acknowledged?” Siniora asked.
The final statement issued following the session said: “Participants agreed to consider the proposal made by the president a starting point for discussion in a bid to agree on a national defense strategy that includes the issue of [Hezbollah’s] arms.”
Speaking to reporters following the session, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt said the talks were excellent, adding that discussing a national defense strategy requires time.
The PSP leader cited the time it took for the Irish Republic Army to give up its arms as an example of how difficult it can be for groups to come to a resolution.
“It took more than 15 years, if not 20 years ... in our case, every day there are Israeli threats and aggressions.”
“Everyone has his own remarks [on the defense strategy] ... matters are only resolved via a slow and constructive dialogue ... there are no miracles here,” Jumblatt said.
“It is maybe the first time that I speak [to reporters] following a Dialogue session ... the session today was excellent and calm and there was no tension at all,” Jumblatt said.
“The president presented to us a very important paper, which is not final but will be subject to discussion,” he added. “We finally started to address major topics.”
Future Movement MP Jean Ogassapian, speaking to The Daily Star following the talks, described the meeting with his rivals as “positive” and said that there were many points of agreement between Sleiman’s proposal and that of the March 14 coalition.
The opposition lawmaker acknowledged, however, that there are important differences with Sleiman’s proposal that center on the issue of who controls the resistance’s arsenal.
“President Sleiman suggested that Hezbollah keep its arms but [they] can only use them under the command of the state while we think the party’s arms should be handed in to the state,” Ogassapian said.
The lawmaker said the next Dialogue session would address this point.
Siniora and Sleiman held a closed-door meeting after the session.
Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh, who did not take part in the previous session, did not attend Thursday’s talks due to prior engagements outside Lebanon, while the head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, MP Talal Arslan, was absent for personal reasons. As in the previous three dialogue sessions, Future Movement leader MP Saad Hariri and Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea did not take part. – With additional reporting by Jana El Hassan