Sleiman rules out direct peace talks with Jewish state

Posted in Broader Middle East | 19-Mar-09 | Source: Daily Star

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman (R) poses with French President Nicolas Sarkozy after their meeting at the Elysee palace in Paris.

Lebanon's president ruled out direct peace talks with Israel Wednesday, saying the best way to resolve the conflict was to hold a regional peace conference instead. Speaking during a state visit to France, which has repeatedly said it hopes Lebanon would follow Syria in holding peace talks with Israel, President Michel Sleiman said: "We have always refused to hold direct talks with the Israelis. We have always said we would be prepared to accept a peace conference based on the Madrid conference and also on the international legal texts," referring to a 1991 peace conference in Madrid.

Sleiman said he had asked French President Nicolas Sarkozy to help resolve disputes with Israel such as obtaining a map of the land mines left by the Israeli forces during their 2006 war on Lebanon, and obtaining Israel's withdrawal from the disputed Shebaa Farms in accordance with UN resolutions.

"I also invited President Sarkozy to work toward a global approach for the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And we have also called for that to happen within the framework of an international conference to which all the parties involved would be invited," he said.

Sarkozy has forged closer ties with Syria in order to solve a political crisis in Lebanon and help broker peace in the Middle East. He has praised Syria for helping reach a political deal in Lebanon which led to Sleiman's election in May.

Sleiman gave a wide-ranging press conference at the end of a three-day official visit to France, where he met with Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon in addition to addressing both houses of Parliament.

Asked about Hizbullah's weapons, Sleiman said: "We, in Lebanon, do not talk about disarming Hizbullah, because the Lebanese resistance played a major role in protecting the country during the time when the government was absent."

"We are seeking to find a formula that would allow us to benefit from the resistance force in defending the country. That is why we use the expression 'handing over the weapons,' which must be achieved through a consensual agreement between the different political parties," he added.

Asked about the delay in appointing a Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, after the opening of the two embassies in Beirut and Damascus, Sleiman said the delay was due to purely administrative reasons.

"I know that the name will be announced soon," he said.

He added that relations between Lebanon and Syria were progressing "on the right track."

Commenting on the upcoming parliamentary elections, Sleiman said they would be held on time.

The Lebanese president added that France expressed its readiness to send a special committee to monitor the elections.

Sleiman said June 8, the day that follows the elections, "will be a good day for Lebanon and the Lebanese will know for sure they enjoy a unique system of democracy in the Middle East."

As for the formation of the new Cabinet following the elections, Sleiman said: "The president should preserve the spirit of the Constitution when forming the Cabinet."

Sleiman also said he invited Sarkozy on a state-visit to Lebanon. He added that France pledged to offer Lebanese military equipment as part of its support of the Lebanese Army.

"France has helped the Lebanese Army with what it can. Yesterday, the premier promised to fulfill requests related to ground-to-air missiles of Gazelle warplanes," Sleiman added.

France has 1,900 troops serving as part of a UN force in south Lebanon, although it announced in January plans to withdraw two warships monitoring waters off the Lebanese coast.

Sarkozy said on Tuesday that he was following up on Lebanon's defense-strategy dialogue and warned that safeguarding the public was a fundamental mission of the Lebanese government.

Sleiman, who was accompanied on his visit by Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud, Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh and Economy Minister Mohammad Safadi, returned to Beirut Wednesday night.