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The Daily Star
FRIDAY, 18 APR 2014
07:06 PM Beirut time
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Cabinet formation? Not so fast
File - Sleiman and Salam conferred about portfolios for two hours at the Baabda Palace. (The Daily Star/Dalati&Nohra,HO)
File - Sleiman and Salam conferred about portfolios for two hours at the Baabda Palace. (The Daily Star/Dalati&Nohra,HO)
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An Arab diplomat in Beirut said the birth of a government that would satisfy various political factions in the country was still possible, expressing hope that obstacles hindering the process would be resolved this week.

Speaking to The Daily Star, the diplomat said Speaker Nabih Berri and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt had urged President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam to wait for few more days before issuing the decrees to form a new government, so that Berri and Jumblatt could continue their efforts to remove the remaining hurdles. The diplomat said this indicated that Berri and Jumblatt had concrete information that a consensus was still possible.

According to the diplomat, one should watch Saudi Arabia’s changing stance on regional issues, including the situation in Lebanon, a shift that would help to begin the implementation of solutions to the Middle East’s conflicts, especially prior to U.S. President Barack Obama’s expected visit to Riyadh in the middle of March. Obama is set to discuss regional, economic, security and trade issues with Saudi officials along with developments in Syria and Lebanon.

The diplomat said Saudi King Abdullah’s royal decree punishing citizens who fight in foreign conflicts and those funding terrorist activities indicated that the kingdom had surpassed some Western states in the struggle to combat terrorism.

The diplomat said this was a positive indicator, adding that Saudi Arabia would likely continue to demonstrate a positive attitude by supporting a settlement to the political crisis in Lebanon and helping to break the Cabinet deadlock by making its allies support a government lineup backed by all political parties. He said that such a positive attitude was clear when former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the Future Movement leader, dropped his condition that Hezbollah should withdraw from Syria before his party could sit alongside it in the new government.

The diplomat wondered whether Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, whose stance against rotation of key ministerial portfolios among sects is blocking the Cabinet formation, could visit Riyadh if invited, or whether Berri and Hariri could meet outside Lebanon.

Separately, sources familiar with the Cabinet formation talks said that the latest contacts, including those between former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Salam, focused on who would be the interior minister in the new Cabinet.

The post has been the subject of dispute between the Future Movement and Hezbollah, with the latter opposing it being given to the former.

A March 14 leader said that March 8’s position on this was aimed at diverting attention from the main obstacle hindering the Cabinet formation: Aoun’s insistence that the Energy Ministry continue to be held by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil.

The sources refused to divulge the name of the person that the Future Movement, Salam and Berri were trying to agree on as the new interior minister, saying only that he was a prominent lawyer.

The sources added that caretaker Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour was also making efforts to resolve the dispute over the Interior ministry post and to negotiate an agreement on a fair distribution of ministerial portfolios between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions and the centrists.

Progressive Socialist Party official Abu Faour has been shuttling between Salam, Sleiman and other officials in a bid to facilitate the birth of the national unity government.

The sources said a final decision was made to grant the Defense Ministry to a minister loyal to Sleiman, as there was a local and international consensus that Sleiman would be in charge of providing the Lebanese Army with weapons and equipment at a time when fundamentalist groups were on the rise in the region and at home.

The sources added that, for the moment, the March 14 coalition would not return to calling for the formation of neutral Cabinet, as Hariri was still committed to sharing power with Hezbollah in the new government, reflecting an Iranian–Saudi rapprochement over Lebanon.

The sources said this latest statement by the Future parliamentary bloc indicated that the group was not willing to escalate its stances and test Salam’s patience, which could help an all-embracing government finally see the light of day.

Sources close to Jumblatt said the PSP leader had yet to make a final decision on whether to join a government that did not have the support of Hezbollah, Amal and the FPM, adding that his stance would mirror that of Berri.

However, a senior Western official told a Lebanese official that local and international information indicated that the birth of a government remained unlikely for the foreseeable future due to the difficulty of the situation and its links to regional conflicts, including the civil war in Syria. The official said he believed the Cabinet formation was linked to the Geneva II peace conference on Syria, the second round of which began Monday.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 11, 2014, on page 3.
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Story Summary
Speaking to The Daily Star, the diplomat said Speaker Nabih Berri and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt had urged President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam to wait for few more days before issuing the decrees to form a new government, so that Berri and Jumblatt could continue their efforts to remove the remaining hurdles.

The diplomat wondered whether Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, whose stance against rotation of key ministerial portfolios among sects is blocking the Cabinet formation, could visit Riyadh if invited, or whether Berri and Hariri could meet outside Lebanon.

Separately, sources familiar with the Cabinet formation talks said that the latest contacts, including those between former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Salam, focused on who would be the interior minister in the new Cabinet.

The sources added that, for the moment, the March 14 coalition would not return to calling for the formation of neutral Cabinet, as Hariri was still committed to sharing power with Hezbollah in the new government, reflecting an Iranian–Saudi rapprochement over Lebanon.
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