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Sleiman, Hezbollah still at odds over Cabinet, presidential vote and Syria war
President Michel Sleiman, left, meets with Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad in Baabda, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)
President Michel Sleiman, left, meets with Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad in Baabda, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)
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BEIRUT: MP Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s bloc in Parliament, held an ice-breaking meeting with President Michel Sleiman Monday following tension caused by the war in Syria.

But the two sides remained poles apart on crucial issues such as the Syrian crisis, the Cabinet formation efforts and next year’s presidential elections.

“It was a cordial meeting between the president and MP Raad, affirming the continued normal ties between the two sides,” a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star.

“Despite divergent views on the crisis in Syria and the Cabinet formation, the two sides maintain contacts,” the source said. “MP Raad’s visit to Baabda Palace has confirmed that there is no break in ties between Hezbollah and President Sleiman,” he added.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said Raad discussed three topics with Sleiman, including the nine-month Cabinet deadlock, during which the Hezbollah MP reaffirmed his party’s support for the formation of a new government based on the 9-9-6 formula.

The 32-month war in Syria and its repercussions on Lebanon’s security and next month’s Geneva II peace conference on Syria figured high in the talks, the source said. He added that Sleiman told Raad that if Lebanon was invited, it would attend the conference scheduled on Jan. 22.

The third topic was next year’s presidential elections during which Raad restated Hezbollah’s stance that it is against a presidential vacuum and supported the election of a new head of state on time, the source said.

On Sleiman’s position on conflicting proposals for the Cabinet, the source said: “The president reiterated his call for forming a government in which all the parties participated.”

However, Raad was reported to have warned of the consequences of forming a fait accompli government on the country’s security.

In addition to discussing with Sleiman the need for holding the presidential elections on time, Raad advised against forming a fait accompli government because of the risks it entails to the country, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV reported in its evening news bulletin.

A political source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sleiman was ready to approve the March 8 alliance’s demand for a 9-9-6 Cabinet should Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam present such a formula to him.

Salam, supported by the March 14 coalition, has kept mum on the 9-9-6 Cabinet proposal. But the Future Movement and its March 14 allies have rejected outright the 9-9-6 Cabinet formula, which would grant veto power to both the March 8 and March 14 camps. Instead, they have demanded the formation of a neutral, nonpartisan government to oversee the presidential vote scheduled in May.A statement from the president’s office said Sleiman discussed with Raad the Cabinet crisis and political developments in Lebanon, in addition to regional issues and “the importance of preserving internal stability to face the upcoming constitutional deadlines with solidarity and calm.”

Sleiman, apprehensive that Lebanon might slip into a presidential vacuum when his term in office expires on May 25, 2014, plans to consult with the country’s rival political factions early next year in a bid to facilitate the formation of a new Cabinet.

In a televised speech Friday, Nasrallah implicitly rejected any bid to extend Sleiman’s mandate, by calling for the election of a new president. He also warned against forming a fait accompli government.

Sleiman himself has said he opposed the extension of his term and vowed to challenge it if Parliament voted for the move.

In remarks published by An-Nahar newspaper Monday, Sleiman said he would talk frankly about all key issues during a meeting with reporters at Baabda Palace on Dec. 29.

Responding to his political opponents who accuse him of seeking to have his mandate extended, he said: “They accuse me of seeking to have my term extended. This is the last thing I am thinking of. I don’t care if the skeptics believe me or not.”

Sleiman’s ties with Hezbollah were strained by the conflict in Syria as the president has kept up his harsh criticism of the party’s military intervention in the neighboring country. He also urged Hezbollah to abide by the Baabda Declaration, which calls for distancing Lebanon from regional and international conflicts, particularly the conflict in Syria.

The Future Movement and its March 14 allies have vowed not to join Hezbollah in a new government before the party withdraws its fighters from Syria and abides by the Baabda Declaration.

Sleiman’s critical stance on Hezbollah’s arms has also irked the party. In a speech in August marking the 68th anniversary of the founding of the Army, Sleiman said that the nation needed a national defense strategy to control Hezbollah’s arms because of the party’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. Sleiman stressed the use of arms should be exclusive to the state.

For his part, Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt also warned against forming a fait accompli government.

He said the latest security incidents in the country, including “terrorist bombings” that struck Beirut’s southern suburbs and the northern city of Tripoli, should push the rival leaders to help facilitate the formation of a political government in which all the parties are represented.

“Political differences can be contained through the formation of an all-embracing national political government that includes all the parties and can win the biggest deal of political consensus,” Jumblatt said in his weekly editorial in the PSP’s online Al-Anbaa newspaper.

He urged the rival Lebanese factions to stop wagering on developments of the war in Syria to improve their political chances at home and to avoid “forming a so-called fait accompli government because it would aggravate complications at the political, constitutional and security levels.”

Earlier Monday, Raad urged March 8 and March 14 factions to engage in Dialogue to resolve the deepening political crisis that has left the country without a functioning government for nearly nine months and a paralyzed Parliament.

He warned that Lebanon’s institutions were falling apart because of “competition and ambitions” by the feuding parties.

Addressing March 14 politicians, Raad told a Hezbollah-hosted lunch on the occasion of Christmas attended by Christian religious figures in the southern village of Jarjou, “I would like to call on our brothers and partners in the nation to be careful that time is running out and we need to restore life to all institutions in this country.”

“But the gateway to this is to listen to each other. Let us engage in Dialogue and understanding. If you do not like the shape of the Dialogue table or the agenda of the Dialogue, we can agree on another agenda,” he added.

“But with your silence, you are taking yourselves to the abyss and dragging all your partners to big dangers,” Raad warned.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 24, 2013, on page 1.
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