Monday, October 22, 2007

Feuding Lebanese factions show signs of progress

Feuding Lebanese factions show signs of progress
Aoun and gemayel hold late-night talks at home of mutual friend

By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader MP Michel Aoun and former President Amin Gemayel held talks on Sunday at the residence of a common friend in Rabweh. The meeting between Aoun, a key opposition player, and Gemayel, a stalwart of the ruling March 14 coalition, was still under way when The Daily Star went to press, but the talks were believed to be aimed at breaking the impasse over the election of Lebanon's next president. The relationship between the two men suffered a downturn in the aftermath of the Metn by-election in August, when Gemayel lost to FPM candidate Camille Khoury for the seat made vacant by the assassination of the former president's son, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. In another sign of a possible rapprochement, the National News Agency reported late Sunday that Lebanese Forces (LF) MP Georges Adwan had visited Aoun at the latter's residence in Rabieh earlier in the day. Meanwhile, the diplomatic weight of three European foreign ministers, as well as a positive meeting between Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri, failed to settle the presidential issue. Amal Movement MP Ali Hassan Khalil told New TV that the Parliament session scheduled for Tuesday to elect a new president would almost certainly fail to take place because either opposition MPs would boycott it or Berri would postpone it. Both camps have said more time is needed to build consensus on a candidate, and Berri and Hariri at their Friday meeting progressed to the stage of discussing names. Gemayel, speaking to Voice of Lebanon radio on Sunday, said Tuesday's session would be postponed for 10-15 days. "We can consider it postponed. Speaker Berri was informed after consulting with all parliamentary blocs that it is better to postpone the session for several weeks," while Berri's and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir's initiatives proceed, he said. Gemayel said he hoped the extra time would be used wisely and lead to a consensus on a president capable of protecting the country or a choice of two or three suitable candidates who can be nominated for a vote by MPs.

Parliamentary sources told the Naharnet Web site on Sunday that Berri was considering rescheduling the session for November 6 or 13. The foreign ministers of France, Italy and Spain - Bernard Kouchner, Massimo D'Alema and Miguel Angel Moratinos, respectively - left Beirut with the distinct impression that matters concerning presidential election were "moving forward and in the right direction," Kouchner said. "It's a very strong sign that the three countries come at a very timely moment," Moratinos said at a news conference at UN Interim Force in Lebanon headquarters in South Lebanon on Saturday, calling the visit "historic." Gemayel in his radio interview said that international backing for Lebanon was unwavering and that the EU had proved it by sending the foreign ministers to Lebanon. "They do not have a magic wand to impose their will on Lebanese MPs," he said, "but this does not prevent their visit from being one of support and encouragement and a way for sending messages." Gemayel said a meeting of opposition and majority leaders with the three ministers at the French ambassador's residence on Saturday evening was simply an opportunity to meet and talk. "I cannot say that anything new happened, as each side merely restated their fixed positions. March 14 stressed the need to hold elections within the constitutional timeframe and rejected the emergence of a constitutional vacuum, while March 8 stressed the need for a two-thirds quorum," Gemayel said. Apart from Gemayel, those in attendance included LF leader Samir Geagea, Aoun and resigned Energy Minister Mohammad Fneish of Hizbullah. The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation reported that during the meeting Geagea rejected the idea of a agreeing on a president ahead of an electoral session, while Fneish warned that the country would face great difficulties if the majority elected a president by a simple majority. Geagea wondered why the country should face difficulties when there were constitutional institutions through which matters can be settled. Fneish said opposition MPs have the constitutional right not to attend an electoral session.

Kouchner, meanwhile, told reporters that the EU foreign ministers came out of the meeting "with the feeling that things are getting better." "It seems to us that there is some movement forward," the French official added. March 14 presidential candidate and MP Butros Harb said a constitutional vacuum at the pinnacle of the state threatened the country with disintegration. "Whoever thinks he is capable of managing a vacuum while ensuring security and unity is mistaken. We have to avoid a vacuum," Harb said, adding that MPs might have a constitutional right not to attend a parliamentary session, but not if the action leads to a constitutional vacuum. Harb said Sfeir's and Berri's initiatives complemented one another, adding that both camps would try to agree on a president who met Sfeir's specifications. "I will not participate is selecting a president who does not meet these criteria," Harb said, adding that it was unacceptable for Lebanon to have a weak, subservient president who lacks experience and the required character to lead the country.

Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad, who met US Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington on Saturday, repeated frequent government accusations of Syrian interference in Lebanon and argued that the best defense was Christian accord on a new president. "We will do our utmost to make sure [Sfeir's] initiative succeeds," she said, "as we believe what [Sfeir] said - failing to elect a new president before November 24 would place Christians' existence in Lebanon at risk." Cheney told Mouawad that the US would protect Lebanon's current government. Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said the majority would not accept an "interim" president elected for a two-year term, as some have suggested. He said while consensus was the "preferred path," the election will proceed in any case. "We will not leave Lebanon without a president," he said.

For his part, Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Rida Shibani said that all "foreign and domestic conspiracies" to hold Lebanon hostage to US and Israeli aims would fail. "Iran will always remain supportive of the rights of Lebanese people in rejecting oppression and resisting the occupier," he said at a ceremony on Sunday to honor him and Iran's reconstruction efforts in the South after last year's war with Israel. Hizbullah's number two, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said a strategic partnership between Lebanon and the US was impossible and those seeking it aimed to crush the resistance in favor of Israel. He made the comments at memorial ceremony on Sunday for a resistance fighter whose remains were among those returned by Israel in an October 14 prisoner exchange. "Holding elections with half plus one of MPs, if you think of it, means you choose strife, and are thus responsible for your choice," Qassem said, adding that reaching a consensus on the presidency would put an end to US tutelage over Lebanon.

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