|Berri quells criticism that dialogue doomed to fail
|'Jumblatt's remarks on Shebaa farms will have no affect on talks'
"The general consensus inside the meeting is 'No to failure,'" Speaker Nabih Berri announced at the end of the fourth day of a national dialogue here, quelling criticism that the country's national dialogue is doomed to fail.
Addressing concerns that comments made by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in Washington, in addition to leaked information during the first three days of the dialogue, could threaten the course of the talks, Berri said: "The dialogue is still going on as usual, and Jumblatt's comments will not affect the course of the dialogue."
Moments before he met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Jumblatt said from the U.S. capital that the Shebaa Farms were not Lebanese.
The Chouf MP's comments raised fears that the as-of-yet easy-going dialogue might be shaken due to the sensitivity of the issue and Jumblatt's absence.
But Berri said "this is not the first time Jumblatt has made such statements, and he made it clear during the country's first day of national dialogue."
The national dialogue resumed Monday after a 24-hour break that allowed the participants to re-evaluate their positions and gave some space for further local and Arab discussions to push the talks forward.
Berri also scolded unidentified politicians for leaking news of the dialogue to the media, saying he had asked them to stop.
"This is hurting the national dialogue because many things are being reported inaccurately."
The speaker was referring to an article published in local daily As-Safir displaying minutes of Saturday's dialogue sessions, which sparked the ire of several politicians.
Berri said Monday's session was "normal," and that despite the fact participants "had not reached any final decisions, the situation was positive." He also said he had received a memo from the PLO welcoming a discussion on the humanitarian and social status of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and offering assistance on the issue of disarming Palestinian militant factions outside of the country's refugee camps.
Meanwhile, participants in the talks refused to comment on Jumblatt's comments as they entered Monday's second session.
"I don't think Jumblatt's statements will affect the dialogue," said Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun.
"We have to read carefully what he said before commenting," he said, adding jokingly that Jumblatt had "a 12-hour flight home, giving him enough time to change his mind."
Hizbullah MP Mohammad Raad evaded comment by saying: "I didn't hear, I didn't read. I didn't see" the comments.
Asked whether he had been put in a difficult position by Jumblatt's statements, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi - who is filling in for Jumblatt at the dialogue - said: "Jumblatt always opens the doors to solutions and not problems."
A brief closed-door meeting was held immediately before the evening session between Berri, majority leader MP Saad Hariri and Aridi.
A second closed-door meeting was held between Berri and LF leader Samir Geagea, who said after the evening session the discussion was "very normal." Berri and Geagea also held an earlier 10-minute meeting before the morning session.
The morning session had kicked off with Aridi slamming the repeated media leaks.
"We were surprised yesterday and today with very detailed information being leaked to the media, with a lot of accuracy on some issues, and some alteration on other issues. This is why I decided to brief the media on all what happens inside the session to avoid such alterations," he said. All participants then agreed to end the leaks.
However, a source close to the March 14 Forces told The Daily Star discussions on Monday tackled all of the major issues facing Lebanon in general.
"UN Resolution 1559 and its stipulations - from Palestinian weapons, to Hizbullah's arms and ousting the president - were discussed altogether and not one issue at a time," the source said.
Participants in the dialogue all said the atmosphere at the roundtable remained positive.
Hariri offered a very positive outlook of the dialogue. "Until now we have been discussing every issue in a very positive way and trying to find solutions for every point," he said. "We should take our time because if we rush things we will make mistakes. This is why it's going to take time before we reach an agreement over everything."
Geagea also voiced satisfaction with the course of the dialogue so far, saying following the end of the morning session the atmosphere "remained positive."
He refused, however, to comment on Jumblatt's statement.
Meanwhile, Premier Fouad Siniora informed Arab League chief Amr Moussa by phone of the dialogue's progress. Moussa informed Siniora of discussions between Arab states and their support for Lebanon and satisfaction with the ongoing talks.
Jumblatt 'seeks U.S. help' to liberate Lebanon from Syria
By Hussain Abdul-Hussain
One of Lebanon's leading politicians, March 14 Forces MP Walid Jumblatt said Monday that he had been in the U.S. "asking for help" to liberate Lebanon from the Syrian regime, "which killed Kamal Jumblatt." Jumblatt's comments came during a panel discussion at the Saban Center in Brookings Institute Monday. The March 14 leader is on a one-week trip to the U.S. in which he met Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and is scheduled to meet UN Secretary General Kofi Annan later this week.
Following their meeting, Rice assured Jumblatt of "ongoing U.S. support for the path of democracy and reform" in the Middle Eastern country, a U.S. spokesman said.
It was Rice's second meeting with the anti-Syria leader of the Progressive Socialist Party in two weeks, symbolically ensuring that Syria and its supporters are made aware of the U.S. determination to terminate Syrian influence in Lebanon.
The demise of the Syrian regime will not cause any havoc or destruction in Syria or the region, according to Jumblatt. "But it's not for me to say, I leave it up to the Syrian opposition to decide," Jumblatt said.
He added: "I met with (former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim) Khaddam in Paris before heading for Washington, and seeing him before the international investigation committee is very important to the case of former Premier Rafik Hariri's assassination; but I don't know what he is planning."
Jumblatt's past relations with the U.S. saw an all-time low two years ago when his harsh criticism of the U.S. policies made the U.S. consider him persona non-grata. "I criticized the U.S. policy in the past. I don't regret it. I said it," he said. But the U.S. too has erred in the past, according to Jumblatt.
"The U.S. said that over the past 60 years its policy was wrong for [the Americans] supported dictators."
"It took me a long political trip to come to the U.S. and ask for help against the [Syrian] dictator," the head of the Democratic Gathering bloc said. He added that he was finally able to confront the Syrian regime because when in 1977 this regime killed his father, who "was much more courageous, I was weak back then."
Jumblatt described his trip as an effort to rally international support for the independence of Lebanon against the Syrian regime that is trying to undermine this independence. "The Syrian president was offensive in his speech some days ago. [The Syrian regime and its Lebanese allies] are launching a counteroffensive now," he said.
If the U.S. fails in Lebanon, its whole initiative for democracy in the Middle East will fail, "and we'll go back to dictatorships."
Speaking of the ongoing dialogue in Lebanon, Jumblatt said: "Dialogue should be based on the Lebanese presidency. We need a president that can protect the Cedars' Revolution and convince the Syrians to acknowledge Lebanon's independence. The president should be able to deploy the army in the South and implement the Taif Accord and UN Security Council Resolution 1559."
"As for the others, they want the Shebaa Farms, they want the permanent presence of the Palestinian weapons outside the camps and other non-Lebanese agendas," Jumblatt said.
Jumblatt argued that Hizbullah was trying to use the Shebaa Farms issue as an alibi to keep
Lebanon connected to what he described as the Iranian-Syrian axis. He said the Shebaa Farms area may be "Lebanese property but has historically been under Syrian sovereignty. The Shebaa Farms are not Lebanese," Jumblatt reiterated, unless the Syrian government proves it.
March 14 Forces have requested that either Syria provides enough evidence of the Lebanese identity of this land or that Lebanon considers Resolution 425, stipulating that Israel withdraw from Lebanese territories it occupied in 1978, has been fully implemented and that there was no reason for further aggression between Lebanon and Israel. Pro-Syrians reject such a scheme.
Speaker Nabih Berri's sponsored dialogue has reached a deadlock because the sides disagree on Shebaa and disarming Hizbullah, Jumblatt added.
Jumblatt insisted, however, that he did not intend to undermine this dialogue. "If we accept a trade of [March 14 naming] a president [in return] for Shebaa Farms ... it's better to keep [President Emile] Lahoud."
But "if the process of dialogue will stay in deadlock, we have to stick to the street," Jumblatt added.
Jumblatt accused the Syrian regime of creating a police state in Lebanon, saying it is not easy to "de-Syrianize the security apparatus" after 30 years of Syrian control.
Accordingly, Jumblatt said his mission was to generate political, economic and diplomatic pressure on Syria and Emile Lahoud, and look into ways the U.S. might influence Saudi Arabia and Egypt to play a role.
He said that the U.S. could help the Lebanese Army consolidate its power and be deployed to the South. "But we don't think there should be a military action against Hizbullah. They are Lebanese and their disarmament should be through dialogue."
The Chouf MP said that the Lebanese impasse can be ended by electing a president who should act as an arbitrator, unlike Lahoud, and who should be able to negotiate with Syria over the issue of the Shebaa Farms.
According to Jumblatt, the March 14 parliamentary bloc cannot constitute a majority to impeach Lahoud. "We have 71 MPs out of the 86 needed for impeachment. But we have the simple majority that would elect the coming president."
Jumblatt also accused the Syrian regime of sending into Lebanon the same terrorists and weapons that it sends in-to Iraq.
Speaking about regional issues, Jumblatt said the war in Iraq started off well, but then the U.S. committed a mistake by disbanding the secular Baath Party which gave way to the rise of fundamental groups.
He also spoke hopefully of the extremist Palestinian group Hamas changing its anti-Israel policy once it is in power.
But Jumblatt took a low-key approach on that volatile issue and said: "I am not here to defend Hamas."
"I know many of you here disagree with me, but let them rule, as long as there is a democracy."
The Daily Star