Lebanon News

Calls for new round of National Dialogue draw skepticism

BEIRUT: Despite calls by top officials to embark on a third edition of the National Dialogue, analysts are skeptical arguing that due to internal tension and developments in the region these talks are likely to be nipped in the bud.

“Initially, the National Dialogue didn’t have such a great outcome,” said International Crisis Group analyst Sahar Atrache, who described the call for dialogue at this time “unrealistic.”

“The current uncertainty [in Lebanon and the region] would make [dialogue], if it was to be held, even more useless.”

In recent weeks, President Michel Sleiman and Speaker Nabih Berri have stepped up efforts to revive National Dialogue sessions frozen since late 2010 when Hezbollah and its allies the Free Patriotic Movement and the Marada Movement boycotted deliberations in light of escalating tension regarding a divisive U.N.-backed court probing the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

While Berri urged Lebanese leaders last week to immediately engage in dialogue so that the country could decide on its future in light of the wave of protests that have swept the Arab world, his opponents in the March 14 alliance say they will only take part if Hezbollah’s arms are the sole topic on the agenda.

The alliance is also asking for the implementation of decisions agreed in the 2006 edition of the Dialogue, mainly collecting Palestinian weapons outside of refugee camps and demarcating Lebanon’s border with Syria.

Conversely, the March 8 alliance proposes reviewing Lebanon’s agreement with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon during any future dialogue sessions; furthermore dimming chances of the deliberations taking place.

“Requiring that Hezbollah’s weapons be the sole topic of discussion is a way to bury the National Dialogue before it even starts knowing that this is the only thing Hezbollah is not willing to discuss,” said Atrache.

Several rounds of talks have made no progress on the formation national defense strategy that could integrate Hezbollah’s weapons into the regular armed forces.

Mohammad Bazzi, adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said it remains unclear what March 14 would gain if Hezbollah’s weapons are not addressed.

“If the central issue is off limits why would March 14 bother to participate?” he asked.

Bazzi said the March 14 coalition would accept to take part once the political jockeying inside and outside Lebanon, mainly in Syria, unfolds.

“Only then will they accept to engage in dialogue so they are not considered a stumbling bloc,” he said.

A source close to the speaker, however, told The Daily Star that Berri, a strong backer of unconditional dialogue, was optimistic that talks will get under way. “Speaker Berri reasons that dialogue would be a chance for the March 14 to regain its role as an integral part of the country’s political decision-making process,” said the source.

According to the source, Berri who had held talks with Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the leader of the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc, MP Fouad Siniora, last week was awaiting Siniora’s response to his proposal on dialogue.

“So far signals coming from various components of March 14 are positive,” the source added.

But Future Movement MP Ammar Houri said while his group welcomes the call for dialogue, talks should begin from where they ended in 2010, when politicians were working out a defense strategy.

Houri added that expanding the agenda of talks was considered by his party as an attempt to draw attention away from the “central issue” of the funding of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and impeding justice to be achieved in the case of the assassination of the founder of the Future Movement.

Atrache argued that the Future Movement-led March 14 alliance does not see dialogue as beneficial to them in the short term at least.

“Frankly,” she added. “Why would the March 14 coalition accept to go to dialogue at a time when they were sidelined from political power and when, in their view, they expect that the uprising in Syria will change the Lebanese balance of power in their favor.”

But Atrache ruled out the idea that dialogue was a means to draw the attention from the STL, saying Hezbollah had resorted to direct means to undermine the Netherlands court.

“I don’t think that neither the Party nor its allies expect that National Dialogue could be helpful in that regard,” she said.

“On the other side, a national dialogue won’t dissuade the March 14 from backing the tribunal.”

Atrache and Bazzi, however, agree that Lebanon’s political class were in a wait-and-see mode that doesn’t allow for much maneuvering.

Atrache explained that parties who are calling for the national dialogue or adhering to it, mainly Sleiman, Berri, Mikati and Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt are worried about the impact of the Syrian uprising on Lebanon and its spillovers.

“One has to notice that all players in Lebanon are in the wait-and-see mode,” she said. “Even if a National Dialogue were to be held, it would be just filling the void until the political landscape in the region and in Syria, more notably, becomes clearer.”

Bazzi, meanwhile, said for any dialogue to be effective in the current circumstances, it ought to address core topics the Lebanese political class failed to address since the end of Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War over two decades ago.

He cites abolishing sectarianism, in addition to the full implementation of the requirements of the 1989 Taif Accord, which put an end to the Civil War, among the fundamental issues that need to be addressed during dialogue talks.

“When we look at what is happening in the region these are huge changes and it’s time for Lebanon to address the real problems that have been put off since the Taif Accord; otherwise any dialogue is doomed to fail,” said Bazzi.

Atrache is not more optimistic. The analyst said previous experiences show that there is not much to expect from National Dialogue sessions.

“With the current political landscape, Lebanese [political frailty], regional changes and stakes, one tends to be skeptical more than ever.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 14, 2011, on page 2.

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