Another attempt at dialogue
Lebanese leaders began another attempt at dialogue this week, but were poles apart on the only real item on the agenda: Hizbullah's arms, Raed Rafei and Lucy Fielder report from Beirut
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Palestinian Fatah gunmen take position during clashes in the Ain Al-Helwe Palestinian refugee camp in the southern port city of Sidon.
"Who is trying to assassinate the dialogue?" asked the headline of French-language Beirut newspaper Orient le Jour after Sheikh Saleh Al-Aridi, a Druze politician close to Syria, was killed by a car bomb a week before Lebanon's divided leaders were slated to sit around the discussion table.
Al-Aridi was an aide to opposition figure Talal Arslan but had played a key role in reconciliation between Arslan and rival Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt after clashes spread in May. He was the first pro- Syrian politician to fall prey to a chain of assassinations that have shaken Lebanon since October 2004.
Some blamed Israel. Jumblatt darkly alluded to "foreign intelligence apparatuses and all kinds of projects". But there was less open finger pointing than usual ahead of the scheduled national dialogue. The tiny Druze minority has closed ranks since May, and neither side seemed to want to escalate matters.
"Jumblatt is reaching out to the opposition because he understood after the May incidents that Hizbullah won," said Karim Makdissi, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "He is making peace with this."
According to Makdissi, as the mainstream parties in the country move towards consensus, it is normal to see resistance to a comprehensive agreement from minor, extremist elements, that were left out by the process of reconciliations. "Obviously, there is still instability in the country and no interest in total reconciliation," he said.
Nonetheless, reconciliation was breaking out all over Lebanon this week before the talks, with Arslan hosting talks between representatives from Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party and Hizbullah, the former foes' first meeting in two years. Meanwhile, Saad Al-Hariri has shuttled around Lebanon to bring his Sunni Future Movement together with its rivals in the tinderbox northern city of Tripoli and mixed Sunni-Shia areas of the eastern Bekaa Valley.
As the country awaits a high-profile meeting between Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and Al-Hariri to appease ongoing tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, especially in Beirut, observers worry that security incidents will recur. Aside from the killing of Aridi, tensions were also recorded after a shooting in Taalbaya and Saadnayel in the Bekaa Valley. In a separate incident, deadly fighting broke out Monday evening in the Ain El-Helwe Palestinian Refugee Camp in South Lebanon between an Islamist group and the mainstream Fatah movement.
"I don't want to make any accusations, but there are regional and local players who have not been brought into the system yet. These elements are apparently not favourable for short-term stability," Makdissi said. He further pointed out that parties seeking to disrupt the current status quo could include elements within Saudi Arabia, militant elements of the Future Movement and Islamist entities who have their own agendas.
As the dialogue opened Tuesday, a gulf yawned between the main two sides -- Hizbullah and the parliamentary majority -- on what was widely seen as the only issue on the table: Hizbullah's arms. The dialogue was agreed upon as part of the May Doha deal, which ended a political crisis that had endured for 18 months and descended into severe clashes that same month. Hizbullah's swift seizure of parts of Beirut, with the help of its allies, intensified debate on its arms, with the group's critics perceiving that it broke its promise never to turn its weapons inwards.
"We must make sacrifices... for the nation," said President Michel Suleiman at the opening of the dialogue. President Suleiman, elected as part of the Doha package after a six-month vacuum in the Baabda Palace, surprised some in Lebanon by calling for the dialogue during the month of Ramadan instead of shortly after it. Previous attempts at dialogue have not touched on the weapons issue.
Timur Goksel, a strategic analyst and adviser to the southern UNIFIL peacekeeping force, said the agenda had not officially been set yet and expected the first day of talks to be a formality. "This will be like the first day of school, to decide the syllabus -- what they're going to discuss and when they'll meet etc," he said. The dialogue is expected to resume in October, after Suleiman's return from a visit to the US. "The positions are at two extremes," Goksel added.
So far talk has focussed on a "defence strategy" that will define the Syrian and Iranian-backed group's relationship with the largely supportive army. "The defense strategy is a general concept... We must create a strategy in which the state's powers are integrated -- the army, resistance and people," said President Suleiman. Hizbullah and its allies say its weapons are necessary to fight Israel, given the absence of a strong army and agreement on who constitutes Lebanon's enemy.
"Hizbullah would like to further legitimise its weapons with the official sanctioning of the state. Its definition of a defence strategy is broad, including such issues as the strength of the economy and national institutions," Goksel said. "The parliamentary majority simply sees this in terms of disarming Hizbullah and how it fits in with the army," he added.
Few expect a breakthrough from the talks. Hizbullah has long been Lebanon's most powerful faction and in effect it imposed its terms on the Doha deal. It now wields a veto in the new cabinet, enabling it to block any attempts to disarm it. Makdissi noted that Hizbullah was magnanimous enough to give rope to Al-Hariri so he could reassure his constituency that he is still politically relevant and managed to put Hizbullah's weapons on the table.
"There is a psychological element involved in the dialogue. After the humiliation in May on the ground and in Doha, Al-Hariri needs the appearance of a diplomatic victory," Makdissi said. "Hizbullah does not have any interest in weakening Al-Hariri's position as the main Sunni leader," Makdissi added, "because they see that this would fortify extremist Sunni elements. For the long-term, they also want to give an impression that the Lebanese system works by consensus."
Given universal expectations there will be no serious change to the status quo, many Lebanese see the dialogue as little more than a time-killing exercise. "At a time when all the participants in the dialogue know that the margin for reaching practical results is slim, they insist on sitting around the dialogue table because they are incapable of amending the internal balances of power until the parliamentary elections next summer," Hossam Itani wrote in the leftist As-Safir newspaper.
With all eyes on those elections, due in May, few expect their largely sectarian leaders to stick their necks out for any major policy changes before then, let alone concerning the resistance's weapons, which are at the heart of Lebanon's national defence and identity. Further, Lebanon, like the rest of the region, is holding its breath to see what the US presidential elections in November will bring. Any change in US policy towards Iran or Syria could have a direct bearing on Hizbullah and its relationship to the state.
But any attempt to settle differences through talks rather than projections of force on the street is generally welcomed. The six small explosions in Beirut's mixed Sunni-Shia Corniche Al-Mazraa district the day before the dialogue started, causing material damage but no casualties, were reminders, if any were needed, that as always in Lebanon the street could ignite at any minute.
Lebanese leaders began another attempt at dialogue this week, but were poles apart on the only real item on the agenda: Hizbullah's arms,
Raed Rafei and Lucy Fielder report from Beirut