BEIRUT: Lebanon's participation in a US-sponsored Mideast conference on Tuesday has sparked debate among feuding opposition and loyalists, who have yet to reach a consensus over the presidential election. "The decision to attend the conference was a hasty one because it is unlikely that such a conference brings anything new to the peace process," said a joint statement issued on Monday by two of the main opposition forces, Hizbullah and Amal.
Tuesday's meeting in the city of Annapolis, Maryland, is the first large-scale Arab-Israeli gathering since a 1996 meeting in Egypt. The Arab League has proposed offering normalized ties with Israel if the Jewish state cedes all land captured in the 1967 war, shares Occupied Jerusalem and agrees to a "fair" solution for Palestinian refugees.
"The decision to take part in the ... meeting is yet another flagrant demonstration that the illegitimate government does its best to monopolize crucial decisions," the statement added.
Lebanon entered a dangerous period Friday after incumbent President Emile Lahoud stepped down and Parliament failed to elect a new head of state after the opposition and the March 14 Forces could not agree on a candidate. A session is scheduled for Friday to elect a new president.
On Monday, acting Foreign Minister Tarek Mitri, who is attending the Annapolis talks, reassured skeptics that "no deals likely to jeopardize Lebanon's rights are in preparation."
"No negotiations whatsoever will take place during the conference, which is to be considered as sort of an ice-breaker," he said in a statement.
Mitri has been acting foreign minister since the resignation of Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, along with five other Cabinet members, last year.
"The conference is an occasion for Lebanon to remind the international community and shed light on pending issues such as the Shebaa Farms, maps for cluster bombs dropped by Israel during the summer 2006 war and Lebanese detainees in Israeli prisons," Mitri said.
The Shebaa Farms, situated in a sensitive spot where the borders of Syria, Israel and Lebanon meet, has long been a point of contention but assumed added significance after Hizbullah drove Israeli forces from most of South Lebanon in 2000, because both Syria and Lebanon insist it is Lebanese territory still under Israeli occupation.
Following Israel's withdrawal, Lebanon argued that Shebaa Farms was part of its sovereign territory. However, the United nations maintained that the territory was part of the Golan Heights and its future would be decided in negotiations between Syria and Israel.
Mitri said the Lebanese delegation goes to Annapolis, "like other Arab teams, clinging to the Arab Peace Initiative, UN resolutions, and the refusal of having Palestinians settled in their host countries."
The Arab Peace Initiative was first proposed by then-Crown Prince (now king) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during the Arab League summit held in Beirut in 2002.
The initiative is a proposed solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. It obtained the unanimous consent of all members of the Arab League, including hard-line states like Libya and Syria.
Israel categorically opposes a complete territorial pullback and the repatriation of Palestinian refugees.
A senior Hizbullah official did not share Mitri's optimism concerning the conference and instead condemned Lebanon's participation at the talks.
"Lebanon's participation in the Annapolis meeting is a blatant violation of the Constitution and puts Lebanon's rights in danger," resigned Energy and Water Resources Minister Mohammad Fneish told The Daily Star on Monday.
Since six ministers - including all five Shiites - resigned in November 2006, the opposition has considered the government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora illegitimate.
"Neither the liberation of occupied lands nor the settlement of Palestinians is to be discussed during the conference... so Lebanon's presence there is irrelevant," Fneish said.
He added that the Annapolis meeting was meant "to have the Lebanese make concessions we totally refuse."
Speaking about the same issue, the head of the Carnegie Middle East Center, Paul Salem, said the talks "do not affect Lebanon directly."
"However," he added, "the conference could be seen as the beginning of a process of talks concerning pending matters."
He said Lebanon's participation "should not be subject to much controversy since Syria has decided to attend too."
But "Iran is not so enthusiastic about the conference and some of its allies in Lebanon are likely to replicate its behavior," Salem said, referring to the opposition, especially Hizbullah.
In other Annapolis reaction, Palestinian Liberation Organization representative Abbas Zaki, visited Speaker Nabih Berri on Monday to deliver a letter from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"Our participation in this conference is not to be seen as a normalization of relations," Zaki said.