BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman’s visit to Saudi Arabia has been postponed in a development apparently linked to a high-level Saudi-Iranian meeting next month and its positive impact on the Lebanese crisis, March 8 parliamentary sources said Sunday.
Sleiman was scheduled to visit Riyadh Tuesday for talks with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz and other senior Saudi officials on the political crisis in Lebanon as well as security challenges facing the country as a result of the repercussions of the 30-month war in Syria.
A statement released by Sleiman’s office said the president’s visit was postponed to a date to be announced later. The terse statement did not give the reasons for the postponement and sources at Baabda Palace refused to give further details.
The postponement came a day after Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Assiri met Sleiman at Baabda Palace to discuss details of the visit.
A March 8 parliamentary source said the postponement of Sleiman’s visit came from the Saudi side. “The postponement of the visit is linked to the expected Saudi-Iranian rapprochement,” the source told The Daily Star.
He cited Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Saudi Arabia next month to perform the hajj (pilgrimage). During his visit, Rouhani is expected to meet with King Abdullah for talks on regional issues and bilateral relations.
Rouhani’s visit comes against the backdrop of mounting tensions between Riyadh and Tehran over the conflict in Syria, where the two regional heavyweights back opposing sides.
“The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will have a positive impact on the situation in Lebanon,” the March 8 source said.
In an interview with TeleLiban Friday, Sleiman said a Saudi-Iranian understanding would reflect positively on Lebanon and the entire region. He said Saudi Arabia and Iran, which wield great influence on rival Lebanese factions, can help defuse tensions and encourage the parties to cooperate and uphold national unity.
Meanwhile, the six-month-old Cabinet crisis marked time with no solution in sight as regional developments have apparently scuttled Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam’s proposal for a 24-member Cabinet lineup equally shared by the rival parties and centrists.
A member of Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc said the 8-8-8 Cabinet formula has been dropped, while a 9-9-6 proposal gained ground in the hope of resolving the crisis.“The 8-8-8 Cabinet formula has been buried after it was rejected [by Hezbollah and its March 8 allies]. Other proposals, particularly the 9-9-6 formula, is up for discussion,” MP Ali Khreis told The Daily Star.
Asked whether Berri’s parliamentary Development and Liberation bloc, which rejected the 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup, would support the 9-9-6 proposal, Khreis said: “Our bloc does not object to this proposal. We back any formula that can protect the country.”
He added that the 8-8-8 formula had been dropped in light of fast-moving changes and developments in the region.
Khreis was referring to last week’s historic phone conversation between U.S. President Barack Obama and Rouhani, in the first top-level contact between the two countries since 1979, and a U.S.-Russian deal over Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. The tense Saudi-Iranian relations are expected to witness a thaw during Rouhani’s visit to Saudi Arabia next month.
Salam and the Future Movement oppose the 9-9-6 formula.
“Prime Minister-designate Salam, who opposes granting veto power to any party, will not go with the 9-9-6 proposal,” a source close to Salam told The Daily Star.
A senior Future source said while the movement does not oppose the 8-8-8 Cabinet proposal, it rejects a formula that will give veto power to any party.
With his attempts to form a new Cabinet having been stymied by conflicting conditions and demands from the rival factions over the shape of the government, Salam has proposed a 24-member lineup equally shared by March 8 and March 14 parties and centrists, which refer to Sleiman, Salam and MP Walid Jumblatt.
Hezbollah and its March 8 allies have rejected this Cabinet proposal, which denies them veto power and calls for key portfolios to be rotated among major blocs.
Instead, they were reported to have floated the 9-9-6 proposal, which would give veto power to both the March 8 and March 14 camps.
Jumblatt, who had previously backed the 8-8-8 proposal, called for reconsidering this proposal, saying Lebanon was in need of an all-embracing government to confront major issues.
Commenting on last week’s meeting between Berri and former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, the Future source said: “The two men are working on a positive development aimed at breaking the Cabinet deadlock.”
Khreis concurred. “The meeting between Speaker Berri and Siniora was aimed at facilitating the Cabinet formation, in addition to the resumption of National Dialogue.”
A source close to Berri said that discussions focused on the speaker’s initiative to break the monthslong political stalemate in the country.
Berri last month proposed a five-day conclave of Dialogue sessions attended by March 8 and March 14 leaders, in addition to Salam, to address divisive issues, including the makeup and the policy statement of a new Cabinet, a national defense strategy, means to end Lebanese intervention in Syria and talks on a new electoral law.
Some Future Movement and March 14 politicians have rejected Berri’s proposal, arguing that it infringed on the prerogatives of the president and the prime minister-designate who, according to the Constitution, are the two people tasked with the Cabinet formation.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, speaking in Sunday’s sermon, said the tragedy of the Lebanese who died in a boat accident in Indonesia last week should prompt those in power and rival politicians “to do their national unity by forming a new Cabinet.”
For its part, Hezbollah reiterated its demand for a national unity government.
“The only solution in Lebanon is the formation of a national unity Cabinet in which all the [political] components are represented in proportion to their weight and size in Parliament,” said Hezbollah’s caretaker Minister of State for Administrative Reform Mohammad Fneish.
Caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil also called for the formation of an all-embracing national Cabinet comprising all effective political parties “to meet challenges facing Lebanon and the region.”