Thursday, March 22, 2007

BEIRUT: The dialogue between Speaker Nabih Berri and parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri was to resume late Wednesday, despite speculation that the talks had reached a dead end, according to local media reports. A day after a gathering of pro-government MPs outside Parliament to protest against a decision by Berri not to convene the legislature, Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt cancelled a news conference to avoid any risk of scuttling the fragile dialogue between Berri and Hariri.


But in an interview with BBC on Wednesday, Jumblatt said Berri was no longer the speaker of Parliament because he had taken sides and was holding Parliament "hostage." Jumblatt said Berri had been assigned by the Syrians to improve their image ahead of the Arab League summit scheduled to take place in Riyadh on March 28-29.

Jumblatt described Berri’s news conference a day earlier as "obscure and filled with political mistakes." He said the speaker had taken sides the moment he asked his ministers to resign from the government.

Jumblatt denied allegations that he had cancelled his own news conference at the request of Hariri or Saudi Ambassador Abdel-Aziz Khoja.

The Central News Agency reported on Wednesday that a positive move was expected from Saudi Arabia within the next "48 hours" to "push toward a breakthrough" and move Lebanon’s political dialogue forward, with the aim of reaching a consensus on a number of pivotal issues prior to the Arab summit.

One of the issues involved is the makeup of the delegation to attend the summit.

Sources at the Grand Serail told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation Premier Fouad Siniora would attend, as would acting Foreign Minister Tareq Mitri.

Khoja told reporters after meeting Siniora Wednesday that there are "ready solutions" to the crisis if the Lebanese indicate a desire to implement these solutions. He expressed his hope that the Lebanese would take advantage of what he called historic opportunities to resolve their differences.

Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh told The Daily Star Wednesday that pressure on Parliament would last until a session is convened, adding that such pressure was not aimed at scuttling the dialogue between Berri and Hariri or at the speaker personally.

"There are many other issues pending for debate in Parliament, not just the matter of the tribunal, other issues of concern to all the Lebanese, including the 2006 budget," Hamadeh said, referring to a tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.

He said the pro-government forces had not yet decided whether MPs would gather next Tuesday at the Parliament.

"As long as the dialogue is continuing and the point of disagreement remains the 19+11 formula, in my view what happened in Parliament [Tuesday] will be repeated, as the chamber must remain under constant pressure to reconvene sessions," Hamadeh told Voice of Lebanon radio early Wednesday, dismissing the opposition’s demand for 11 seats in Cabinet.

Hamadeh said the dialogue between Hariri and Berri had not suffered a setback as a result of the gathering of majority MPs at the Parliament on Tuesday, and said he expected the dialogue to resume.

He went on to address Jumblatt’s decision to cancel his news conference. "Jumblatt did not wish to add to the verbal give-and-take, and decided to leave matters to be discussed between Sheikh Saad and Speaker Berri without intervening at this stage," Hamadeh said.

Sources close to Berri told the Central News Agency Wednesday that the speaker’s only intention in holding a news conference Tuesday was to keep the Lebanese informed of the truth about what is being done to resolve the political crisis.

The source said Berri aimed to push the process forward and hoped the other side would sense the great responsibilities on its shoulders and help resolve the sticking points, especially the national unity government.

Khoja, who described Berri’s statements on Tuesday as "sensible," was asked by reporters Wednesday if he agreed with all that Berri had said.

"Certain points raised concerned meetings I took part in, and what he said concerning these meetings was accurate," Khoja replied.

He said the speaker’s comments that dialogue is the only path to solving the political crisis are very positive, but Khoja declined to give an opinion on "internal Lebanese matters."

Former President Amin Gemayel received at his home Wednesday MP Wael Abou Faour and former MP Fares Soueid, with whom Gemayel discussed the gathering of MPs in Parliament Tuesday. Following the meeting Abou Faour said the gathering of MPs Tuesday had proved effective toward reclaiming the decision making capacity of constitutional institutions.

"March 14 Forces are insisting on dialogue, our confidence in MP Saad Hariri and his discussions with Speaker Berri is absolute, but what Berri said is only half the truth," Abou Faour said, adding the pro-government forces, through Hariri, had presented their proposal for a solution with a five-page document.

"We hoped that in addition to listing his own ideas on the dialogue that he also present March 14 proposals which show a political desire for a settlement to the crisis in the country, but with all the political and constitutional guarantees for such a settlement," Abou Faour said.

In comments to reporters following a meeting Wednesday with Berri, Hizbullah MP Mohammad Raad said Jumblatt had not scuttled the dialogue with his comments.

"If there is a desire, no one can hinder what the Lebanese agree on, as they yearn for dialogue, national unity and a solution to the crisis," he said.

Raad said he hoped a solution would be reached before the summit.