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Rival ministers spar over issue of resistance in policy statement

Salam heads the ministerial committee at the Grand Serail in Beirut, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: Rival members of a ministerial committee charged with drafting a policy statement dug in their heels Thursday over whether the divisive issue of the resistance should be included in the document.

The seven-member committee’s meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the Grand Serail, witnessed a heated debate between March 8 and March 14 ministers when Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb demanded that the Baabda Declaration be included in the policy statement and rejected the tripartite formula of “The Army, the resistance and the people” upheld by Hezbollah and its allies.

A terse statement issued after the three-hour meeting said the committee discussed a number of topics and would meet again at 5 p.m. Friday.

It was agreed during the meeting that the two opposing sides would present their own proposals Friday in an attempt to reach a unified formula over the policy statement.

But comments made by ministers from the two camps reflected difficulties in reaching an agreement soon on the Cabinet’s policy statement.

“Matters need a lot of discussions. We have not adopted any stances now until discussions are completed tomorrow,” Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Fneish, who represents Hezbollah in the Cabinet, said after the meeting.

Also speaking after the meeting, the second since Salam announced his 24-member Cabinet of “national interest” last Saturday, Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi, who represents the Kataeb Party in the Cabinet, said: “The circumstances have changed and there are no justifications for the return to the tripartite formula of the Army, the people and the resistance.”

The policy statement has been a polarizing issue that could paralyze Cabinet’s work if left unresolved.

The March 14 coalition has insisted the policy statement include the Baabda Declaration, which calls for distancing Lebanon from regional and international conflicts, particularly the war in Syria.

Hezbollah and its March 8 allies want to uphold the “Army, the people and the resistance” formula that has been adopted by previous governments. The clause effectively legitimizes Hezbollah’s arms.

A committee member said he expected the panel to eventually recommend the adoption of policy statements of previous governments as well as the decisions of the National Dialogue Committee, including the Baabda Declaration.

March 8 ministerial sources said the resistance provision should be included in the Cabinet’s policy statement in one way or another, adding that this matter was irreversible.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil from MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement said the policy statement would stress the need to quickly issue licenses for oil and gas exploration in Lebanon’s territorial waters.

A source close to Salam said he expected the committee to wind up its discussions by next week and the Cabinet to seek a vote of confidence in Parliament by the next weekend.

Committee member Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil sounded optimistic agreement on a policy statement would be reached by next week.

Asked if Speaker Nabih Berri would have to intervene to save the committee, Khalil, who belongs to Berri’s parliamentary bloc, told reporters before entering the meeting: “Matters have not yet been complicated in order to reach this stage. It will take one or two more sessions and matters will be finished.”

Salam said Wednesday he was upbeat that parties in his government would come to an agreement over its policy statement. He proposed a draft statement stipulating that Cabinet’s task would be to address the deteriorating security and socioeconomic situation, combat terrorism and prepare for holding a presidential election this spring. According to the proposal, disputed issues would be discussed during National Dialogue sessions.

Hezbollah’s bloc in Parliament expressed hope that the ministerial committee would draft a concise policy statement as soon as possible that “reflects Cabinet’s priorities in politics, security, defense, the resistance and socio-economic conditions.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 21, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

The seven-member committee's meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the Grand Serail, witnessed a heated debate between March 8 and March 14 ministers when Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb demanded that the Baabda Declaration be included in the policy statement and rejected the tripartite formula of "The Army, the resistance and the people" upheld by Hezbollah and its allies.

A terse statement issued after the three-hour meeting said the committee discussed a number of topics and would meet again at 5 p.m. Friday.

Comments made by ministers from the two camps reflected difficulties in reaching an agreement soon on the Cabinet's policy statement.

The policy statement has been a polarizing issue that could paralyze Cabinet's work if left unresolved.

March 8 ministerial sources said the resistance provision should be included in the Cabinet's policy statement in one way or another, adding that this matter was irreversible.


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