x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Lebanon's political elite meet amid calls for unity

President faces biggest challenge over peace initiatives.

BEIRUT // Facing a country as well as a political scene deeply divided by regional politics, Lebanon's new president yesterday convened a national reconciliation dialogue aimed at preventing the sectarian tensions that have frequently spilt over into violence in the past two years. Michel Suleiman, the president, led the meeting of 14 representatives from Lebanon's fractious political and ethnic spheres to encourage the pro-western government to negotiate with the Hizbollah-led opposition over the right of the militant Shiite group to remain autonomous and armed. The talks are also designed to help keep a political and military ceasefire between the rival camps in place after widespread political violence broke out in May between the primarily Shiite opposition and Sunni government supporters.

"Agreeing to dialogue in and of itself means that all subjects are open to discussion," Mr Suleiman said as he opened the talks. "The only thing banned here is failure or a reaching a dead end." Many Lebanese believe that keeping the peace between the Future Movement - a Sunni group led by Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq Hariri, the late prime minister - and the Hizbollah-dominated opposition continues to be the biggest challenge faced by Mr Suleiman in his first few months in office.

A former army commander, Mr Suleiman continues to be seen as a trusted broker between both sides, although his influence could be badly damaged by a failure in the dialogue attempts, according to most Lebanese political observers. With the government alliance of Sunnis, Druze and Christians closely aligned with the United States, and Hizbollah considered a close ally of Iran, the spat often takes on regional political elements.

"A faulty or incomplete approach to such a dialogue could backfire and pose a threat to Lebanon's stability. It might also mortally weaken the Lebanese presidency, which is a necessary unifying institution in today's polarized environment," wrote Paul Salem, a political analyst with the Carnegie Institute, in a local commentary piece. Officials described yesterday's talks as a first organisational step towards discussing Lebanon's most difficult issue: whether Hizbollah should remain armed and able to conduct military operations autonomously from the Lebanese government.Walid Jumblatt, who heads the Druze-dominated Progressive Socialist Party and is a Hizbollah critic and opposed to any Syrian influence, met Hizbollah officials before the talks yesterday and offered an olive branch to his rivals after years of bombastic rhetoric.

"[Any] national defence strategy should employ Hizbollah's military capabilities. The defence strategy must make use of Hizbollah's military power, while stressing that the state is the sole authority when it comes to war and peace decisions," he said just before the meeting, which took place in the Presidential Palace complex outside Beirut. Mr Jumblatt typically calls the group illegal and says it is in need of disarming.

Sayyed Hashim Safieddine, a senior Hizbollah official, said the Lebanese should see the group's weapons as "an asset and not a liability. It would be a fatal mistake to go into dialogue with the concept that weapons are a burden on the Lebanese state." As is often the case, the Lebanese seem unable to agree on what they should be discussing. The pro-western government of Fouad Siniora, the prime minister - who is aligned with Mr Hariri - has repeatedly denounced Hizbollah for running a "state within a state" and argues the group should disarm or be integrated into the Lebanese army. Even organising a series of public discussions between the factions required weeks of definitions and arguments over the agenda, as the Future Movement and its Christian and Druze allies have pushed for a package of discussions that would define Lebanon's borders and relationship with Syria.

Although Hizbollah refuses to actually discuss disarming - knowing that the Lebanese government is not powerful enough to make them give up weapons - one key opposition ally said the talks should determine the need for an armed resistance in the south to protect against Israel. Michel Aoun, a former army commander and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, said: "The dialogue will determine if the resistance is necessary to protect Lebanon. It will also determine who would pull the trigger."

Even as the political elites of Lebanon met amid calls for unity, the country continues to be rattled by small outbursts of sectarian - mostly Sunni versus Shiite - violence. As the dialogue successfully ended with a call to reconvene on Nov 5 (after Mr Suleiman visits both the United Nations and the United States), a sniper opened fire on the funeral in the outlying Beqaa Valley of a man killed overnight in sectarian clashes.