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A solid first step
Rival political leaders gather at the National Dialogue table at Baabda Palace, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
Rival political leaders gather at the National Dialogue table at Baabda Palace, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
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Lebanon’s National Dialogue Committee convened Thursday and came to grips with a single item on its agenda: national defense. It was a long-awaited event, as it finally moved forward a process that has been talked about for years.

Instead of seeing politicians arrive at Baabda Palace to demonstrate their ability to disagree with each other over how to grapple with the major issues facing the country, the session was finally able to take place. The National Dialogue Committee has fallen victim to a range of obstacles in the past, but the session should be considered a positive first step.

At long last, politicians assembled for a useful purpose: discussing a national defense strategy, after months and months of merely talking about such an endeavor. In the past, excuse after excuse was offered by certain parties, justifying their decision to keep the Dialogue committee inactive, when it should be discussing something of vital importance, such as how to protect the country and deal with Hezbollah’s weapons, which have helped deter the Israelis in the past.

President Michel Sleiman, who chaired the session, laid out a series of points for the participants to ponder. They went beyond the issue of Hezbollah and its arsenal. One involved the threat of terrorist groups coalescing in certain parts of the country; another, the chaotic spread of weapons throughout the country, and whether these are in the hands of Lebanese political parties, Palestinian factions or ordinary citizens.

Sleiman’s overarching stance is that Lebanon must enhance its strength and efficiency, an objective few people can argue against. The president wants the participants to commit to a wide-ranging program to enhance various components of the official state apparatus, whether this involves political, military, media, economic or education reform.

Forging a National Defense strategy, in his eyes, is also based on certain principles, such as adhering to the 1949 Armistice agreement in the south, while recognizing the need to liberate those parts of Lebanon that remain under Israeli occupation. Israel commits daily violations of national sovereignty, by air, sea and land, and until Lebanon presents a united front, and more importantly a unified strategy, no amount of rhetoric about sovereignty will serve as a deterrent.

The participants at Thursday’s session committed to meet again in roughly six weeks, and they have serious work to tackle until then. If they want to see through the process of enhancing the weaponry and other aspects of the Lebanese Army, for example, they must show a level of seriousness and clarity about how much this will cost, how it will be paid for, and how the results can be guaranteed.

As long as politicians have the interests of Lebanon in mind, and not the interests of outside players, the process of National Dialogue can only pay dividends.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 21, 2012, on page 7.
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