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French Version

'Don't expect any solution' to emerge from national dialogue - analysts

Talks may succeed in calming tensions but are unlikely to produce change

Lebanon's feuding political camps will almost certainly not resolve the nation's most vexing issues during the national dialogue process launched on Tuesday, but the talks might at least calm the fragile security situation until parliamentary elections slated for next year or the shakeout of the regional US-Iranian standoff, a number of analysts told The Daily Star on Tuesday.

March 14 politicians have wanted the conference to focus exclusively on a national defense strategy, as a way to fold the arms of March 8 leader Hizbullah under the aegis of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and President Michel Sleiman called in his speech opening the dialogue for adopting a strategy intertwining the LAF and Hizbullah.

However, the prospects for the US- and Saudi-backed March 14 camp to agree with the Syrian-backed March 8 alliance on such a strategy are "nil," said retired General Elias Hanna, who teaches political science. Hizbullah proved itself to be Lebanon's strongest group militarily during May's civil strife, so it has no incentive to open the assets of its organization to the LAF, Hanna added.

"Hizbullah has its own military agenda," he said. A defense strategy "means you should put in a certain mechanism to share Hizbullah intelligence, as well as arms. Is Hizbullah ready to share all of this now? Why should it do it now?"

Hizbullah has grown so powerful that provisions in UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701 for disarming the group cannot be broached at the talks, a reality acknowledged by parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri on Monday. The Cabinet granted Hizbullah's military wing further legitimacy with its August program statement, which explicitly mentions the resistance as part of the nation's defense strategy, Hanna said. The dynamic of Hizbullah's position represents a situation without historical precedent here, requiring an inventive approach, but Lebanon's political elite are incapable of producing an innovative solution, he added.

"You have to create something for Hizbullah," Hanna said. "You cannot disarm Hizbullah. You cannot implement [Resolution] 1701. You have bypassed 1701 and given the resistance certain cover" with the program statement.

While decisions to make war or peace should ideally rest with state institutions, the issue has become so politicized that it obscures the fact that Lebanon has more frequently been the victim of its neighbors' aggression than the aggressor, said Shafik Masri, professor of international law. Against that backdrop, Hizbullah can easily turn the debate to the right to defend, and March 14 cannot present a better alternative to defend against an Israeli assault than with the military prowess of Hizbullah, Masri added.

"Lebanon is always in a defensive position," Masri said. "It is not a question of declaring war, it's a question of defense. When it comes to defense, no one can say, 'Do not do anything.' Here I expect the Hizbullah attitude will be this: OK, you want us to remain under the patronage of the army - tell us what we can do if there will be an Israeli attack tomorrow."

Because of that logic, Masri said he doubted any defense strategy would emerge from the dialogue. However, his skepticism "does not mean that strategy will never be achieved - but in this meeting, of course not. If we are lucky, we can reach the broad outlines."

While March 14 politicians have concentrated on defense, some March 8 figures have said they want to add other items to the dialogue's agenda, which March 14 representatives have rejected. Beyond the intractability of the defense issue, the two sides also appear to have diverging views on why they are coming to the negotiating table, said Timur Goksel, former senior adviser to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon and a professor of international relations.

"Everybody has a different idea of what the subject matter is," Goksel said. "Don't expect any solution."

Despite March 14 opposition to expanding the agenda, the scope of the dialogue should not be limited to Hizbullah's role, said Oussama Safa, executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. Lebanese people have more real and immediate security concerns than a national defense strategy, as deadly violence in the Bekaa on Tuesday and the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp on Monday underscored, Safa added. In addition, residents of Beirut are still awaiting Sunni-Shiite reconciliation after May's clashes, he said.

Lebanese citizens are plagued by many security issues of vital importance, "and the defense strategy is not one of them," Safa said.

"If the defense strategy is the only item, it would be a big mistake," he added. "The dialogue has to include other issues. These meetings should open the process for the dialogue."

At the same time, the dialogue process should not come at the expense of state authorities, which the Constitution gives exclusive rights to decide on certain policy matters, Safa said.

"I wouldn't want the dialogue ... to replace the work of institutions," he added. "This should be for extra-institutional issues."

"The dialogue is a long-overdue process," he said. "It should be an opportunity for a true, home-grown Lebanese reconciliation process. It's been a long time that people haven't seen their leaders getting together."

On top of security matters, the squabbling factions should also use the dialogue mechanism to agree on how to keep under control the dangers inherent in the coming campaign for the pivotal general elections scheduled for next May, Safa said.

While politicians will undoubtedly spin the outcome of the talks for gain in the already rolling campaign, the ongoing conciliatory atmosphere of the dialogue alone should help to reduce security tensions, Goksel said.

"National dialogue is a good conflict-management technique," he said. "I'm not minimizing the fact that they are getting together. It's going to help cool down the temperature in the country."

Absent any deal on defense strategy, the main benefit of the national dialogue might well be in promoting a more peaceful mood in the country in the run-up to the poll, as well as before the climax of the regional showdown between the US and its allies against Iran and its partners, Masri said. The US and Israel will soon see changes in their political leaders, while Israel continues indirect talks with Syria and the West is locked with Iran in a standoff over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.

"The mere meeting of the different political parties [in Lebanon] is in itself helpful," Masri said. "We are fully convinced that the Lebanese arena will never be in a calm situation in this chaotic regional situation.

"The best we can reach here, pragmatically, is to have that kind of a dialogue which will calm down the internal front. This intention will not lead to reconciliation, I'm sure, but if it will lead to gaining time pending the results of the regional arena, it will be good."

Beirut 17-09-2008
The Daily Star

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