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Efforts intensify for STL solution in policy statement quest

BEIRUT: A ministerial committee assigned to draft the government’s policy statement resumes its meetings Monday amid intensified efforts to find a solution to the dispute between Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Hezbollah over a U.N.-backed court probing the 2005 assassination of statesman Rafik Hariri, ministerial sources said.

Hezbollah’s Minister of State for Administrative Reform Mohammad Fneish, part of the 12-member ministerial committee, said the committee has not yet discussed the divisive issue of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon during the four sessions it has held in the past two weeks.

However, Fneish acknowledged that there are at least two or three different viewpoints inside Mikati’s 30-member Cabinet on the STL.

Asked how Hezbollah, which entirely rejects the STL, is going to bridge the gap with Mikati, who has voiced support for the tribunal, Fneish told The Daily Star Sunday night: “Our position on the tribunal is well-known. We have not yet reached the issue of the tribunal in the committee’s discussions. We do not want to anticipate things. Let’s see what Prime Minister Mikati will propose in his draft policy statement.”

“We will decide how to approach the tribunal issue after seeing Prime Minister Mikati’s draft proposal,” he said.

The committee, headed by Mikati, has held four meetings since Mikati announced the formation of a 30-member Cabinet on June 13 dominated by Hezbollah and its March 8 allies.

Although the committee has not yet approached the STL, backstage contacts have been launched in a bid to narrow differences between Mikati and Hezbollah over the tribunal which is supported by the March14 coalition and rejected by the Hezbollah-led March 8 camp.

“Contacts are taking place from outside the committee between Prime Minister Mikati and the concerned parties with a view to adopting a joint stance on how to address the issue of the tribunal in the policy statement,” a source close to the committee talks told The Daily Star.

“Once it is done with economic and political issues, the committee is expected to discuss Mikati’s draft proposal on the tribunal based on the prime minister’s announced policy constants,” the 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.

Mikati is coming under heavy pressure from the March 14 coalition and the U.S. and other Western countries to uphold the STL as the only means to uncover Hariri’s killers. Mikati, seeking to avoid a confrontation with the international community, was trying to find a formula acceptable to all the parties participating in the government.

Mikati has reiterated Lebanon’s commitment to international obligations, including the STL and U.N. Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, even before he formed his Cabinet.

In an interview with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite channel Friday night, Mikati said Lebanon cannot unilaterally annul a U.N. Security Council decision that established the STL.

Asked to comment on the sensitive issue of the STL, Mikati said: “No matter what is being said, Lebanon cannot abolish the decision to form the tribunal because it is an international decision. We respect international legitimacy. There is no ambiguity in this issue.”

In a televised speech Friday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said: “We are not concerned with the issue of the tribunal.”

Meanwhile, Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai said Sunday that he hoped the ministerial committee would finish the policy statement soon so that the government could get to work and meet the challenges facing the country at all levels.

Speaking to reporters at Beirut airport on his return from a one-week visit to the Vatican during which he met with Pope Benedict XVI, Rai said the pontiff congratulated him on the formation of a new government in Lebanon, wishing it success.

“We too are looking forward because there are big challenges at all levels. We all hope that this government will fulfill the aspirations of the Lebanese despite the difficulties. But we trust it and we trust each other,” Rai said.

Rai, who voiced support for Mikati’s Cabinet before leaving for the Vatican, said: “We hope that this government will actually assume comprehensive responsibility and work in a comprehensive manner, rather than in an individual or vengeful manner as they say. This is a big challenge.” March 14 parties have accused the government of planning to take vengeful measures against its political opponents in the March 14 camp.

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc, said the March 14 parties are determined to launch popular and democratic opposition against the government.

“In Lebanon, we are adamant on our positions and uphold the values and principles for which we have struggled,” Siniora told a student graduation ceremony in the southern port city of Sidon.

“In confronting the coup and those who staged a coup against the democratic system with the force of arms and intimidation, we will not be dragged to seeking force as a means or as a goal. Rather, we will rely on democracy and the popular and parliamentary opposition in order to remain in harmony with ourselves and our aspirations,” Siniora said.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and its March 14 allies have accused Hezbollah and its March 8 of staging a coup after Hariri’s Cabinet was toppled on Jan. 12 following the resignation of March 8 ministers in a long-simmering dispute with the STL.

Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi, from MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, told the Voice of Lebanon radio station that the opposition has the right “to fight the government with all democratic and legitimate means.”

But the opposition must wait and not issue judgments before seeing the new government’s work, he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 27, 2011, on page 1.

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