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Mikati, Hezbollah still at odds over Cabinet policy on STL

BEIRUT: Efforts to bridge the gap between Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Hezbollah over the divisive issue of the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) made no progress Wednesday as a ministerial committee resumed discussion on drafting the government’s policy statement.

The 12-member committee met under Mikati at the Grand Serail to continue debating a draft policy statement presented by the prime minister. It was the third meeting by the committee since Mikati formed a 30-member Cabinet on June 13 dominated by Hezbollah and its March 8 allies, ending a five-month political deadlock.

The ministers were split over the inclusion of an article on the STL. Some said that the draft made no mention of the STL, while others said the STL was mentioned in the draft but was not discussed during the meeting.

Information Minister Walid Daouk told reporters after the meeting that the committee did not discuss, at all, the issue of the STL.

However, contacts made Tuesday and Wednesday involving Mikati and leaders of the parties participating in the government, including Speaker Nabih Berri and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, have failed so far to narrow differences between the prime minister and Hezbollah over the STL, ministerial sources told The Daily Star.

According to the sources, Mikati believes his government cannot disregard the STL in its policy statement in view of current international developments, which would see countries interpret this disregard as shirking Lebanon’s international obligations.

For its part, Hezbollah believes that disregarding the STL in the policy statement was in conformity with the new parliamentary majority’s position on the tribunal, which it considers to be politicized and harms Lebanon, a ministerial source said.

Hezbollah and its March 8 allies have called for an end to Lebanon’s cooperation with the tribunal, which they dismissed as “an American-Israeli project” designed to incite sectarian strife.

Jumblatt supports Mikati’s position, while Berri understands the prime minister’s concerns, and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun is backing Hezbollah’s stance, the source said. He added that the efforts of all the parties would be geared in the next two days toward solving this problem.

The committee will not discuss the STL at its Thursday meeting unless contacts to reconcile the viewpoints between Mikati and Hezbollah reach a satisfactory solution, the source said.

Committee member Hezbollah’s Minister of State for Administrative Reform, Mohammad Fneish, said the article on the STL will be discussed when it is ripe.

Daouk said the committee approved Wednesday a large part of articles related to the government’s economic, financial and developmental policy.

Mikati is coming under heavy pressure from the March 14 coalition and the United States and other Western countries to uphold the STL, which is investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mikati reiterated Wednesday Lebanon’s commitment to respecting U.N. resolutions and implementing Resolution 1701.

He also said Lebanon is committed to having the “best relations” with the international community. He spoke during a meeting with the European Union ambassadors to Lebanon as part of his meetings with Arab and foreign envoys to brief them on the policies of his government.

“The government’s priorities are security, economy and reviving the Lebanese administration because stable security helps boost the economic cycle,” Mikati said.

Following their meeting with Mikati, the EU ambassadors called on Beirut to adopt a policy statement that supports Lebanon’s international obligations and commitment to the STL.

“The Special Tribunal for Lebanon should continue its work without impediments with the cooperation of the Lebanese authorities,” the EU ambassadors said in a statement read by the EU Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst.

“We emphasized the importance of this new government’s support for Lebanon’s international commitments in its policy statement regarding Security Council Resolutions 1701 and 1757,” the statement added.

During his Wednesday’s meeting with MPs in Parliament, Berri underlined the need to quickly draft the policy statement “in order for the government to get to work to confront internal and external challenges.”

“The major challenge facing the new government is to succeed in its work and performance. It t must succeed and it is capable of restoring confidence in Lebanon at the political and economic levels,” Berri was quoted as telling MPs.

Meanwhile, the March 14 coalition pledged to confront by peaceful and political means the Mikati government, which it called “the government of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.”

“The March 14 parties reaffirm that the recently-formed government was the result of a joint coup carried out by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah and was not the result of a sound constitutional and democratic rotation of power,” the March 14 Secretariat General said in a statement after its meeting Wednesday.

It said that the Syrian regime wanted to use the Mikati government as a fortress in confronting domestic, regional and international objections. “Therefore, the March 14 [parties] are dealing with this government as being from the beginning the government of the Syrian regime-Hezbollah in Lebanon,” the statement said.

“The March 14 parties are united in their determination to confront this government with a peaceful, democratic, popular and political opposition,” the statement added.

On Tuesday night, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly met PSP leader Jumblatt at his residence in Clemenceau to discuss the current political developments in Lebanon, the National News Agency reported. The meeting was attended by Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi and Jumblatt hosted a dinner for Connelly.

Aley MP Talal Arslan, head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, who resigned from the new Cabinet, held talks in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad Wednesday on “the situation in Lebanon after the formation of the government and the importance of combining the efforts of all the Lebanese in order to bolster Lebanon’s unity and immunity,” Syria’s official news agency SANA reported. The talks also dealt with the current situation in Syria, it said.

Also, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri contacted Wednesday United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to congratulate him on his re-election for a second term.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 23, 2011, on page 1.
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