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Optimism high for Cabinet policy talks

Prime Minister Tammam Salam shakes hands with an officer after reviewing honor guards upon his arrival at the Grand Serail in Beirut, Monday, Feb. 17, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: The new Cabinet holds its first meeting at Baabda Palace Tuesday as signs emerged that the rival factions are ready to compromise over the policy statement, a contentious issue that could paralyze the government’s work if left unresolved, political sources said Monday.

Prime Minister Tammam Salam Monday officially assumed his duties at the Grand Serail, where he met separately with U.S. Ambassador David Hale and British Ambassador Tom Fletcher, both of whom expressed their countries’ support for Salam’s 24-member Cabinet.

Salam announced a 24-member Cabinet of “national interest” Saturday, equally divided between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions and centrists, after 10 months of political deadlock, the longest in Lebanon’s history.

“Like their compromise that led to the formation of an 8-8-8 Cabinet, the March 8 and March 14 camps will probably compromise over the wording of the policy statement in a bid to prevent the thorny issue from posing a major obstacle in the way of the government’s work,” a political source said.

A source close to Salam concurred, telling The Daily Star: “No trouble is expected in drafting the Cabinet’s policy statement.”

To be chaired by President Michel Sleiman, the Cabinet session, slated to begin at 11 a.m., will focus on the formation of a committee to draft the government’s policy statement.

The committee is expected to include ministers from the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and the March 14 coalition, which are poles apart over what policy statement the Cabinet should adopt. The committee will also include representatives from the centrist bloc, which refers to ministers loyal to Sleiman, Salam and Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt.

The Future Movement and its March 14 allies are pressing for the Baabda Declaration to be adopted as the new Cabinet’s policy statement. They have called for abolishing altogether Hezbollah’s tripartite formula of “the Army, the people and the resistance” that has been adopted by previous governments as a way of legitimizing the group’s armed resistance against Israel’s threats to Lebanon. Hezbollah, backed by Speaker Nabih Berri and March 8 allies, insists that the tripartite formula remain in the new Cabinet’s policy statement.

As a way out of the stalemate, the ministerial committee is expected to recommend the adoption of policy statements of previous governments as well as the decisions of the National Dialogue Committee, including the Baabda Declaration, the political source said.

The endorsement of a policy statement is essential before the Cabinet can go to Parliament to seek a vote of confidence. With the majority of parties represented in it, the Cabinet is assured of easily winning a confidence vote from Parliament’s 128 members.

March 14 parties accuse Hezbollah of violating the Baabda Declaration with its military intervention in Syria. The declaration calls for distancing Lebanon from regional and international conflicts, particularly the conflict in Syria.

March 14 MP Boutros Harb, the new telecommunications minister, threatened to withdraw from the Cabinet unless the Baabda Declaration was adopted in the policy statement.

In remarks published by An-Nahar newspaper Monday, Harb said it was totally out of the question for the March 14 coalition to accept “the Army, the people and the resistance” formula following Hezbollah’s military involvement in the war in Syria.

“We will only accept the Baabda Declaration in the [Cabinet’s] policy statement,” he said.

Sleiman and Berri called for a swift resolution to the policy statement in order for the Cabinet to begin addressing security threats and a worsening economic crisis arising from the repercussions of the three-year war in Syria.

Sleiman expressed hope the new Cabinet would waste no time in drafting its policy statement. He said the Cabinet should begin its duties immediately to compensate for the long delay in forming the government.

“I think the unified efforts that contributed to the [Cabinet] formation will continue throughout the next phase, because [these efforts] presented the country in a positive image, especially when leaders reach a consensus,” Sleiman, said.

For his part, Berri said the formation of the Cabinet was bound to reduce political tensions and open the door for reviving National Dialogue.

He called on the Cabinet to finalize its policy statement in order for it to win Parliament’s confidence vote and begin confronting economic and security challenges, including the threat of terrorism.

“The Cabinet must confront terrorism which will not stop despite the arrest of some of its symbols and the thwarting of some [car bomb] attempts,” Berri said during a Sunday dinner in Kuwait hosted by the Lebanese ambassador in his honor.

Speaking after his first meeting with Salam as prime minister, Hale described the talks as positive, reiterating U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in welcoming the formation of the government, which has yet to win a vote of confidence in Parliament.

The U.S. ambassador also said Washington was ready to work with Salam, advance bilateral relations and help Lebanon face its many challenges, including maintaining neutrality in the face of the war in Syria and addressing issue of more than 1 million Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011.

“Foremost among the challenges are promoting Lebanon’s policy of dissociation from the conflict in Syria, ending terrorist acts and violence, helping Lebanese communities cope with the refugees from Syria, and protecting the opportunity for the Lebanese to choose their own leaders, as president and in Parliament, freely, fairly, on time, and in accordance with Lebanon’s constitution,” the ambassador said in a statement released by the U.S. Embassy.

Speaking to reporters after meeting Salam at the Grand Serail, Fletcher said he conveyed British Prime Minister David Cameron’s personal congratulations to the premier, saying agreement among rival politicians was a sign that the leaders aim at confronting division and extremism.

“There is no time to waste, and we should all work to achieve what the Lebanese aspire to: stability, independence and a bright future,” he said.

Jumblatt said he hoped the new Cabinet would be able to defuse tensions in Lebanon and set the stage for the presidential election.

“We hope the government will help organize political disputes by taking them from the tense streets to the Cabinet table,” Jumblatt said in his weekly column published by the PSP-affiliated online Al-Anbaa newspaper.

He said the government should work to hold the presidential election on time and to confront the security risks facing the country.

“One of the main missions of the new Cabinet is to create the right atmosphere for holding the presidential election on time in order to prevent the country [from] falling into a vacuum,” Jumblatt added.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 18, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

The new Cabinet holds its first meeting at Baabda Palace Tuesday as signs emerged that the rival factions are ready to compromise over the policy statement, a contentious issue that could paralyze the government's work if left unresolved, political sources said Monday.

The Future Movement and its March 14 allies are pressing for the Baabda Declaration to be adopted as the new Cabinet's policy statement.

March 14 MP Boutros Harb, the new telecommunications minister, threatened to withdraw from the Cabinet unless the Baabda Declaration was adopted in the policy statement.

Sleiman and Berri called for a swift resolution to the policy statement in order for the Cabinet to begin addressing security threats and a worsening economic crisis arising from the repercussions of the three-year war in Syria.

Sleiman expressed hope the new Cabinet would waste no time in drafting its policy statement.


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