BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman and Hezbollah indirectly engaged in a war of words Thursday over the shape of a new Cabinet, adding further strain to ties already soured between the two sides over the war in Syria.
Speaker Nabih Berri entered the fray over the Cabinet crisis by calling for stepped-up efforts to form a new government ahead of next year’s presidential election.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam intensified his efforts to remove hurdles standing in the way of forming a new Cabinet. He met with caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a political aide to Berri, and Hussein Khalil, a political adviser to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, to discuss ways to break the 9-month-old Cabinet deadlock.
No details emerged of their talks held at Salam’s residence in Moseitbeh Wednesday, but political sources said Berri’s and Nasrallah’s envoys reiterated their parties’ rejection of any Cabinet formula that was not based on consensus.
This was a clear reference to a neutral, nonpartisan government strongly demanded by the March 14 coalition.
Separately, MP Walid Jumblatt met Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea on the sidelines of a dinner hosted by MP Nehme Tohme, a member of Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc, at his home, LBCI TV reported. It said the two leaders discussed the presidential elections and the formation of a new Cabinet, adding that MPs and officials from the two parties would meet next Monday to follow up talks.
Hezbollah and its March 8 allies have warned against forming a neutral or fait accompli government and demanded instead a Cabinet based on a 9-9-6 lineup which would give veto power to both the March 8 and March 14 camps. The March 14 coalition has rejected this Cabinet proposal.
The March 8 parties have voiced concerns that Sleiman was inclined toward forming “a confrontation government” – a March 8 term for a fait accompli government.
Berri said the presidential election, scheduled in May, and the Cabinet formation should remain separate, reiterating his support for a 9-9-6 lineup.
“We are facing two major constitutional events: forming a new government and electing a new president. We do not want one to have a negative effect on the other,” Berri told a delegation from the Press Federation at his Ain al-Tineh residence.
He underlined the need “to intensify efforts to form a new Cabinet,” adding that he would not talk about the presidential vote before March 25, when the two-month constitutional deadline for electing a new head of state begins.
Berri, who has also warned against a fait accompli government, defended his proposal for a 9-9-6 Cabinet lineup, saying it was primarily aimed at achieving “partnership and understanding” between the rival factions.
Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem warned Sleiman Thursday against forming a fait accompli Cabinet before his six-year-term in office expires on May 24, 2014, saying such a government would plunge the country into chaos.
“A neutral government or a fait accompli government are terms for chaos, danger, complications and the unknown,” he said in an interview with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV. “This action might incite strife and destruction of the situation in the country. We consider that the only and exclusive solution is an all-embracing government. We advise the president against shouldering this dangerous responsibility.”
Qassem said the president and the prime minister-designate had a responsibility to offer what was the best for the Lebanese people. “If they are subjected to pressures, then that’s their problem and they must say that the only solution in Lebanon is an all-embracing government,” he said.
Qassem was apparently responding to Sleiman, who hinted a day earlier at the possibility of forming a fait accompli Cabinet.
Speaking to reporters after meeting Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai in Bkirki on Christmas Day Wednesday, Sleiman also indirectly rejected Hezbollah’s argument that a neutral government was not considered a unifying one as opposed to a political government.
Sleiman added that the deadline for announcing a Cabinet lineup was May 25, 2014, when his term ends, urging for a swift formation of a Cabinet.
Asked to comment on Hezbollah’s rejection of a fait accompli government, Sleiman said: “The problem is with these definitions of a type of Cabinet ... Why do we say that a political Cabinet is a unifying one, whereas if it isn’t a political Cabinet then it is not a unifying one? This definition is wrong.”
“What is meant by fait accompli or a government of national interest? There is a dispute over definition and how to apply it on the ground,” Sleiman said. “There is democracy and we have a Constitution, so let’s apply them.”
If a new government fails to gain Parliament’s vote of confidence, Sleiman said, a new premier-designate would be named.
The president warned that time was running out for the election of a new president, which he said needed to be done before the formation of the next Cabinet.
“I consider March 25 to be a red line. A government needs to have been formed by that time and from today there needs to be serious thought about [forming] the Cabinet,” Sleiman said.
“Do not forget that March 25 is the start of the two-month [constitutional] period for the presidential election. A Cabinet needs to be formed,” he said.
For his part, Zghorta MP Suleiman Franjieh said he will run in next year’s presidential election. In an interview with Al-Manar TV, Franjieh said he would not support the extension of Sleiman’s term even for one month, even if his March 8 allies voted for it.
Meanwhile, a Hezbollah delegation met Rai in Bkirki on the occasion of Christmas Day. “Christmas is an occasion for hope and light amid the current situation in which we live,” Hezbollah politburo member Ghaleb Abu Zaynab told reporters after the meeting.
Speaking to well-wishers who visited Bkirki on the occasion of Christmas Day, Rai reiterated his call on lawmakers to attend a Parliament session to elect a new president. “A vacuum in the presidency, if it happens, is an insult to the nation and the presidency,” he said.