Lebanon – National Dialogue hopes tumble over terms


President Michel Sleiman was locked Friday in a war of words with the opposition March 14 coalition over his latest call for National Dialogue in a development widening the gap and dashing hopes for bringing the March 8 and March 14 parties to the negotiating table.

Further weakening the chances of holding a new round of National Dialogue scheduled on Jan. 7 was a new condition set by the opposition for attending the all-party talks: a declaration by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah that he is ready to discuss placing the party’s arsenal under the authority of the Lebanese state.

“When Hezbollah’s secretary-general declares that he is ready to discuss putting [the party’s] weapons under the authority of the Lebanese state and that he will not use arms in any internal conflict …, we will then be the first to participate in the Dialogue,” former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said.

Even before the verbal sparring between Sleiman and March 14, the prospects for Dialogue appeared to be in doubt after the opposition reiterated its demand for the government’s resignation and the formation of a neutral salvation Cabinet as a prerequisite to attend any talks with the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance.

“I have issued an invitation to the Dialogue table. I will not abandon this until the [Dialogue] table is convened or those rejecting it propose an alternative, no matter what this alternative is,” Sleiman said in the remarks published by Al-Joumhouria newspaper Friday.

Addressing March 14 politicians, he added: “Let them tell me of an alternative that is more important than dialogue among the Lebanese. For my part, there is no alternative to dialogue. The day may come when we benefit from this dialogue. Matters cannot be solved with the push of a button.”

Sleiman strongly rejected reported proposals to extend his six-year term in office which expires in 2014, saying that efforts were under way to hold next year’s parliamentary polls on time.

Renewing his support for the government’s draft electoral law based on a proportional representation system with 13 medium-sized electoral districts, the president said: “I will do everything I can so that the elections can be held on time under the 1960 law or other laws. I want proportional representation.”

The 1960 law, which adopted the qada as an electoral district and is based on a winner-take-all system, has been rejected by officials on both sides of the political divide, as well as the Maronite Church. The 1960 law was used in the 2009 parliamentary elections.

Responding to the March 14 demand for the government’s resignation, a source close to Sleiman said that the opposition cannot link this demand to dialogue.

“The president is not in a position to force the government to resign. The government’s resignation is stipulated by the Constitution: Either the prime minister or one-third of the government’s members resign, or Parliament withdraws its confidence,” the source told The Daily Star.

Meanwhile, Siniora responded to Sleiman’s call for Dialogue by reiterating the opposition’s demand for the government’s resignation and the formation of a neutral salvation Cabinet to oversee the 2013 polls.

Siniora, who heads the Future parliamentary bloc, added a new condition for the March 14 parties to attend any dialogue session: putting Hezbollah’s arsenal under the authority of the Lebanese state.

Praising Sleiman’s contacts with the feuding parties in an attempt to explore a solution for the current political crisis, Siniora said in an interview with his own official website: “We also say that the alternative to dialogue is dialogue. There is no other language for us except dialogue. We believe only in dialogue on the grounds that dialogue is useful, fruitful, productive and leads to results, rather than a photo-op dialogue whose decisions remain ink on paper.”

He recalled actions by Hezbollah which, he said, undermined all decisions of previous dialogue sessions, especially the so-called “Baabda Declaration,” which called for distancing Lebanon from regional conflicts, particularly the 21-month-old uprising in Syria. Siniora cited Hezbollah’s dispatching of an Iranian-made reconnaissance drone over Israel in October, and a declaration by Nasrallah that the party was “sending fighters to participate in jihadist operations in Syria” as violations of Dialogue decisions.

“After what Hezbollah has done, it was normal to ask questions about the usefulness of dialogue sessions and why we go to dialogue and then agree on things that are violated the next day,” Siniora said.

He added that the Oct. 19 assassination of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan, who headed the police’s Information Branch, had destroyed all dialogue efforts.

Siniora said the March 14 parties did not trust the government, Hezbollah and other March 8 parties.

Among steps needed to restore confidence, Siniora said Hezbollah should hand over four party members indicted in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

He added that Hezbollah also must also hand over a man suspected of participating in the assassination attempt against March 14 MP Butros Harb.

Siniora’s remarks came a day after Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, in an open letter to Sleiman, said that the alternative to dialogue was the government’s resignation and the formation of a new Cabinet to supervise the elections.

Also Friday, Mikati struck an upbeat note about the prospects for the upcoming year and voiced confidence that the 2013 elections would be held on time.

“I am very optimistic about 2013: The elections will be held on time and everyone will convene to agree on a new, modern [electoral] law which we are in need of,” Mikati said, speaking to employees and journalists at the Grand Serail.



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