Lebanese President believes municipal elections would represent “gateway for reform”

Lebanese PM Hariri holds important talks with French leadership, Sarkozy stresses Lebanese army’s right to possess weapons

France gives Hariri assurances on fresh Israeli aggression on Lebanon

Arab, regional countries in endeavors to prevent Israeli aggression as Israeli minister says war is “possible”

During his meeting with President Michel Sleiman, Mitchell affirmed that “any solution in the Middle East cannot be made at the expense of Lebanon. In addition, the United States will not approve any initiative likely to impose the implantation of the Palestinian refugees on Lebanese territory”.

Concerning the measures taken by US immigration authorities in regard to Lebanese arriving at American airports, Mitchell said that they were being reconsidered on the basis of the protests made by Beirut.

The US embassy issued the following statement: “On January 19-20, 2010 Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell visited Lebanon as part of a visit to several countries in the region. In Lebanon, Senator Mitchell met with Lebanese government representatives, including President Michel Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and Foreign Minister Ali el-Shami to discuss the status of peace efforts and to solicit the Lebanese perspective. Senator Mitchell conveyed the commitment of President Obama and Secretary Clinton to comprehensive peace in the Middle East, which includes peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Syria, and Israel and Lebanon and the full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states.

He reiterated that Lebanon would play a key role in the long-term effort to build lasting and comprehensive peace and stability in the Middle East region and that there would not be a lasting solution reached at Lebanon’s expense. Senator Mitchell reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to a sovereign and independent Lebanon. As the Special Envoy, Mitchell confirmed to Prime Minister Hariri in their meeting the US will not support the forced naturalization of Palestinians in Lebanon”.

Mitchell’s visit was preceded by one from the US national security advisor, James Jones, who reiterated Washington’s willingness to provide the Lebanese Army and the Internal Security Forces with necessary assistance. He welcomed the presence of Lebanon as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Jones also had talks with Berri, Hariri and the Army commander-in-chief, General Jean Kahwaji.

Another visitor last week was Khalid Meshaal, the Damascus-based supreme leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement, who informed Sleiman of the objectives of his Arab tour and of the situation on the Palestinian scene. The president encouraged Meshaal to work for reconciliation among the various factions of the Palestinian people.

The cabinet meanwhile decided to postpone the municipal elections by one month, from May to June, due to “technical reasons” as a heated debate rose over the issue among various factions regarding discussed reforms to the electoral law, particularly demands to divide Beirut to three districts.

The elections, which according to the Constitution should be held in May, would be rescheduled for June if Parliament passes a law based on Tuesday’s cabinet’s resolution.

The cabinet was scheduled to convene next on January 26 to continue discussing reforms to the municipal electoral law following Premier Saad Hariri’s return from an official visit to France.

Prior to the cabinet meeting, Hariri held closed-door talks with President Sleiman.

Among the major reforms suggested in Interior Minister Ziad Baroud’s proposal to the cabinet, which is on its way to be approved, was the election of mayors heads and their deputies based on a direct majority vote as well as the adoption of closed electoral lists for municipal councils of more than 21 members to be elected on the basis of proportional representation.

The reforms also include the adoption of a 30-percent female quota -- a gradual process to take place in a maximum of four phases -- and shortening the municipal councils’ term from six years to five.

But the government refrained in its meeting on Tuesday from tackling the issue of administrative appointments, another disputed issue between parties when it comes to the adoption of a procedure to choose candidates based on parity between Christians and Muslims.

However, President Sleiman stressed the need to adopt a transparent procedure to choose candidates.

“President Michel Sleiman believes that the Lebanese want the elections to take place on time since stable countries respect deadlines and do not postpone elections”, Information Minister Tarek Mitri said following the cabinet meeting.

Mitri similarly quoted Hariri, saying that no problems necessitated the postponement of the elections beyond the constitutional deadlines.

As for the ongoing debate over the issue of Palestinian armed groups outside refugee camps, Mitri said the state sovereignty was not subject to negotiation, while he stressed the implementation of the national dialogue resolution to put an end to weapons outside camps.

Abou-Moussa, Fateh al-Intifada’s representative in Lebanon, had said Sunday he rejected the disarmament of Palestinian groups outside refugee camps as well as the formation of a Palestinian committee to sort out the issue. But he later conceded that the Palestinians were willing to discuss the matter “with our Lebanese brothers”, and that it could be a topic on the agenda of the national dialogue, chaired by President Sleiman.

In 1983 Abu Moussa broke with the Palestine Liberation Organization headed by Yasser Arafat in 1983 and fought against the PLO in bloody clashes in Tripoli and the Bekaa region.

As for Palestinian weapons in Lebanon, President Sleiman highlighted that Lebanon’s sovereignty must be unquestionably respected and maintained.

“Lebanon’s sovereignty is not a negotiable point”, Sleiman underscored, emphasizing the necessity of implementing decisions of the national dialogue concerning these weapons.

Earlier Tuesday, the Future Movement bloc called for holding the municipal elections within the legal deadline while introducing reforms permitted by the current timeframe.

After a meeting chaired by former Prime Minister Fouad Seniora, the bloc also rejected dividing Beirut into three electoral districts, while stressing its commitment to a convention established by former Premier Rafik Hariri in 1998 which equally divided seats between Christians and Muslims.

However, Progressive Socialist Party head MP Walid Jumblatt, a Hariri ally despite withdrawing from the March 14 alliance, disagreed with the Future Movement and called for the division of the capital into three districts similar to large cities worldwide.

Jumblatt also voiced support for holding the elections within the legal time frame, saying no party had any interest in postponing the elections.

For his part, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea questioned the motives behind proposals to introduce major amendments to the municipal electoral law as a pretext to postpone the process. He too underscored the importance of respecting constitutional deadlines.

“Amending the municipal electoral law is a necessary issue as we always support re-evaluating all laws, but I do not understand introducing major amendments which required long discussions before a close deadline”, Geagea said.

Conversely, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader MP Michel Aoun questioned those who claimed that reform proposals to the electoral law aimed to delay the municipal elections.

Everyone is looking for a formula to dominate Beirut”, Aoun said.

The FPM leader added that not amending the law would mean “deliberate negligence”, and demanded clarifications with regard to the outcome of the proposed reforms and the timing of the elections.

Tackling the issue of administrative appointments, the Future Movement called for choosing candidates based on merit rather than political affiliations. Meanwhile, Aoun said that the formation of a committee to discuss procedures to be adopted during the selection of candidates would contradict the constitutional prerogatives of the cabinet if not passed as a law by Parliament.

House Speaker Nabih Berri had earlier proposed the formation of a judicial committee to choose nominees for state positions. For his part, Geagea said his party supported the adoption of a transparent procedure to choose nominees by the cabinet.

On another note, Aoun said the abolition of political sectarianism should be the outcome of abolishing sectarianism as a whole.

Geagea, also challenging Berri, said the speaker’s insistence on forming a commission tasked with the abolition of political sectarianism was aimed at provoking the majority of Lebanese and raised tensions in the absence of any hope of reaching his goal.

“With all due respect to the speaker, the majority of parliamentary blocs stated clearly that the circumstances and timing of the proposal was inconvenient”, Geagea said.

However, Jumblatt reiterated support for Berri’s call, adding that the issue was a topic of consensus in the Taef Agreement.

The previous week Berri said that the abolition of political sectarianism was not optional but rather mandatory in accordance with the Taef Agreement.

President Sarkozy received Prime Minister Hariri and discussed the situation in Lebanon thoroughly. The meeting was followed by a luncheon at the Elysée Palace hosted in Hariri’s honor. Upon leaving the palace Hariri told reporters that the “Lebanese government is applying UN Resolution 1701 and the recent discovery of explosives in the South is a concrete example of that…”.

Hariri called on Israel to do the same. He stressed that France had played a big role in easing Lebanese-Syrian relations. He added that President Sarkozy reiterated France’s “support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the application of justice in Lebanon…”

The choice of France for Hariri’s first visit as prime minister reflected the historic relationship between France and Lebanon, said French Prime Minister François Fillon, adding that Lebanon had France’s “full support”.

Hariri had arrived in Paris last Wednesday leading an official and ministerial delegation comprising Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Elias Murr, Foreign Minister Ali el-Shami, State Minister Adnan Kassar, Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar, Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, Social Affairs Minister Salim Sayegh, and Finance Minister Raya Hassan.

Greeting Hariri and his delegation at Orly Airport were Minister of Spatial Planning and Rural Areas Michel Mercier, Lebanon’s Ambassador to France Boutros Assaker, and French Ambassador to Lebanon Denis Pietton.

He met with Arab ambassadors to France, then at the end of the day he and his delegation were warmly received at the Palais du Luxembourg by the president of the Senate, Gérard Larcher.

Hariri was also received by Bernard Accoyer, president of the National Assembly, and Finance Minister Christine Lagarde.

At the Hôtel Matignon, official residence of the French prime minister, François Fillon. There, following a working lunch grouping the Lebanese and French premiers and their delegations, several agreements were signed. One, signed by the two prime ministers, dealt with matters of internal security, civil security and administration. It thus puts in place cooperation both technical and operational in the fields of combating organized crime -- drugs, people-trafficking, money-laundering -- and terrorism. It also provides for the dispatch of specialized support team in civil security and natural or other disasters.

Another accord, signed by Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar and his French counterpart, Michèle Alliot-Marie, provides for mutual judicial assistance in penal matters, which should facilitate cooperation and exchanges of information between the two ministries.

Also signed by Finance Minister Raya Hassan was an agreement to support cooperation between Lebanon’s Finance Ministry and France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies. Hassan also signed a separate agreement with France’s Agency for Technical and International Cooperation to support the development of public schools and colleges. An agreement was also signed on cooperation between the Lebanese National Council for Scientific Research and its French counterpart.

Speaking at a joint news conference, Fillon described as “an opportunity” the normalization of diplomatic relations between Beirut and Damascus, announcing that “it is in this spirit” that he would be going to Damascus in February.

“This normalization of relations between the two countries is an opportunity for the region and for Lebanon. In particular it will enable the two countries to progress on several important issues like those of frontiers, their security, Lebanese who have disappeared, on the basis of equality and mutual respect”.

Hariri welcomed the efforts of Paris to bring about this normalization, affirming that France had “played and continues to play a positive role in the development of our relations with Syria”. But he added that existing problems would take time to resolve.

Hariri also stressed Lebanon’s determination to strengthen its national army and voiced hope that France would play a role in this. He also indicated that any Arab-Israeli peace accord should lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, guarantee the right of return for Palestinian refugees and restore to Lebanon the Shebaa Farms, the Ghajar hills, and restore the Golan Heights to Syria.

The Lebanese premier added that he had informed Fillon of the outcome of his recent visit to Syria, which was part of an inter-Arab reconciliation initiative launched by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

For his part Fillon said France would help efforts to boost the Lebanese Army, while highlighting his country’s keenness to push the Middle East peace process forward.

Fillon added that “Lebanon’s [two-year] membership of the UN Security Council is a major responsibility as Lebanon continues to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1701”, while stressing the importance of cooperation in South Lebanon between the Lebanese Army and all parties.

During the press conference, Hariri stressed “the need to put an end to Israel’s daily violations” of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which called for a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. “Last week, Israeli planes made 25 flyovers in Lebanese air space in a single day,” Hariri said.

Hariri also had talks with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in the presence of his Lebanese counterpart, Ali el-Shami.

Kouchner was asked whether he shared Hariri’s fear of an Israeli attack on Lebanon, and he responded by saying he feared the situation in Iran might prompt officials in Teheran to behave unpredictably, which could prove dangerous given Hezbollah’s weapons, and could lead to unfortunate consequences.

“Israeli guarantees can be given only by Israel, and we will discuss the matter with them”, Kouchner said in response to a query about Hariri’s request that France provide guarantees against Israeli aggression.

Kouchner said Lebanese mounting concerns amid Israeli threats of another war were “not justified”.

“Israel is our friend, and if there was a threat to Lebanon, it will only come from a military adventure carried out by Hezbollah in the interests of Iran”, Kouchner indicated.

Touching on the non-stop Israeli threats against Lebanon, Kouchner expressed hope that the pressure would remain strictly limited within the frame of “mere threats”.

In an interview with France Info, Hariri reiterated his position towards Israel, “which refuses to make peace”. Hariri confirmed that his visit to Damascus was important to Lebanon and that the Lebanese-Syrian reconciliation was a part of inter-Arab reconciliation efforts by Saudi Arabia.

Hariri added “Saudi-Syrian, Saudi-Libyan reconciliations had taken place. In that context I went to Syria to open a new page with Damascus and build ties based on mutual respect between both countries and their common interests”.

“Washington wants peace, as well as Europe”, Hariri told the station, “and France calls for an international peace conference. All countries want peace except Israel”.

Finally, the prime minister confirmed that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon would continue its work to find the criminals involved in the killing of Rafik Hariri, “since all Lebanese demand truth and justice”.

In another interview, with the daily Le Monde, the prime minister indicated that the Lebanese parliamentarian majority had achieved great gains, including the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and winning the June 2009 elections. Hariri stressed the importance of preserving and fortifying these gains and of enhancing Lebanon’s unity, sovereignty and independence.

He noted that the present cabinet had included in the policy statement it presented to Parliament a clause on Palestinian civil and human rights. He recalled the fact that participants in the Lebanese national dialogue agreed on the need to disarm Palestinians outside the camps.

On Syrian-Lebanese relations, Hariri said, “We have found common ground, to the benefit of mutual Syrian-Lebanese interests”.

Replying to a question, the prime minister commented that “Israel is of all the countries involved in the region the least interested in peace, and it has taken no initiatives to push the peace process forward”.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday sought to calm regional nerves over fears of an imminent conflict with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas by saying Israel sought peace with its neighbors.

In an unusual move, Netanyahu's office issued a statement quoting him saying that the Jewish state was not planning any imminent attack on Lebanon, from where Hezbollah launched some 4,000 rockets at it during a 2006 war.

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clarifies that Israel is not seeking any conflict with Lebanon ... Israel seeks peace with its neighbors," the statement read.

An official at Netanyahu's office said the prime minister's statement came in response to fears expressed recently in Lebanon that Israel might launch an attack on Hezbollah.

Earlier on Saturday, Israeli minister Yossi Peled, a former army general with past experience of the conflict on the northern border, said that another confrontation with Hezbollah was almost inevitable but he could not say when it might happen.

"In my estimation, understanding and knowledge it is almost clear to me that it is a matter of time before there is a military clash in the north," Peled said.