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Cabinet policy statement talks back to square one

Prime Minister Tammam Salam, center, heads the ministerial committee at the Grand Serail in Beirut, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Discussions within a ministerial committee tasked with drafting a policy statement are back to square one after President Michel Sleiman and March 14 ministers insisted that the Baabda Declaration be adopted as the main document to shield Lebanon against regional turmoil, ministerial sources said Monday.

The development dashed hopes for the seven-member ministerial committee to reach a compromise over the divisive issue of the resistance in the new Cabinet’s policy statement as had been widely expected during its fourth session Monday chaired by Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the Grand Serail.

The committee’s failure to make a breakthrough in the Cabinet’s policy statement prompted it to schedule another session at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The committee, comprising ministers from the March 8 and March 14 parties and centrists, was reported to be close to a deal on the issue of the resistance that would stress “the right of Lebanon and the Lebanese to the resistance against Israel” by all available legitimate means. The resistance refers to the use of Hezbollah’s arms to defend Lebanon against a possible Israeli attack.

However, Monday’s session did not touch on the resistance issue, focusing instead on the Baabda Declaration, which calls for distancing Lebanon from regional and international conflicts, particularly the nearly 3-year-old war in Syria.

Sleiman met Monday separately with Salam and MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s bloc in Parliament, with whom he discussed the Cabinet’s policy statement.

Shortly before the committee convened, Sleiman met at Baabda Palace with committee member Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil from Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc.

During his meetings with Raad and Khalil, Sleiman insisted that the Baabda Declaration be adopted as the main document in the Cabinet’s policy statement, a March 8 ministerial source said.

Sleiman’s stance was swiftly backed by the committee’s March 14 ministers, who have for long demanded that the Baabda Declaration be adopted in the Cabinet’s policy statement, the source said.

“The insistence on the Baabda Declaration being adopted as the main document in the policy statement has brought matters back to square one,” he added.

The March 14 coalition has also called for the abrogation of the controversial tripartite formula of “the Army, the people and the resistance” adopted by previous governments. The formula is upheld by Hezbollah and its March 8 allies as the best means to defend Lebanon against Israeli threats.

Ministers emerging from Monday’s meeting said the committee planned additional talks Tuesday in an attempt to agree on a unified formula for the resistance issue.Committee member Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi said the Cabinet could not disregard the Baabda Declaration.

“The Baabda Declaration has won blessing from the international community. Therefore, the government cannot back off from it because Lebanon had received aid on the basis of the Baabda Declaration,” Azzi, who represents the Kataeb Party in the Cabinet, told reporters.

However, Hezbollah, represented in the committee by Minister of State Mohammad Fneish, will not relinquish the principle of the resistance and the right of Lebanon to this resistance, the March 8 source said. He added that Hezbollah was ready to accept any wording in the policy statement that would espouse the resistance option.

In light of the crisis over the policy statement, Berri and MP Walid Jumblatt are expected to begin contacts aimed at reconciling the conflicting views over the resistance issue between Sleiman and March 14 parties on the one hand and Hezbollah and its allies on the other, the source said.

According to the source, if the committee fails to reach consensus over the resistance issue, the Cabinet will resort to voting on several formulas, a move that could threaten its unity.

March 14 ministers say if agreement is reached on a formula in the policy statement that mentions the resistance but not the Baabda Declaration, they will resign, the source said.

Similarly, March 8 ministers stress that the failure to mention the resistance in the policy statement will prompt them to resign, the source added.

Committee member Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb, from the March 14 alliance, reiterated his support for the Baabda Declaration.

“I hope to see a unified formula [in the policy statement] on whose basis [the Cabinet] can win Parliament’s confidence,” Harb told reporters before entering the committee’s meeting.

“We still uphold our principles regarding the Baabda Declaration. We have viewpoints which we will present.”

Harb, who strongly rejects the tripartite resistance formula, has presented a proposal that calls for placing the resistance under state control or supervision of its authority.

While Hezbollah officials urged the Cabinet to adopt the resistance option in the policy statement, they made no mention of the tripartite formula.

“The least national duty calls on the new Cabinet to confirm in its policy statement the right of resistance by all means to complete the liberation of land in Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shuba hills,” Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, deputy head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, told a memorial ceremony in south Lebanon.

“The resistance strategy is a national necessity that has proved its worthiness in liberation and protecting the nation,” he added.

Hezbollah MP Nawwaf Musawi called for a Cabinet policy statement that would seriously confront and uproot “takfiri terrorism,” which he said is threatening not only Lebanon, but all countries.

“We also expect the Cabinet to adopt a policy statement in which it expresses its commitment to the right of the Lebanese in resisting Israeli occupation, aggression and threats,” Musawi told another memorial ceremony in south Lebanon.

Separately, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri met in Rome with Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi. Hariri offered his condolences to Kahwagi over the death of two soldiers and a civilian who were killed in a suicide car bombing in the Bekaa town of Hermel Saturday, LBCI TV reported.

For his part, Progressive Socialist Party leader Jumblatt called for a compromise over the tripartite “the Army, the resistance and the people” formula, stressing the need to return to the country’s disassociation policy on the Syrian crisis.

“Including this tripartite formula in the policy statement is no longer possible as in previous years, and it is necessary to reach a specific compromise over this issue,” Jumblatt said in his weekly column in his party’s online Al-Anbaa newspaper.

“However, any political debate should not eliminate Lebanon’s right to the resistance against Israel or any Israeli attack against Lebanese territory through the people and institutions.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 25, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

Discussions within a ministerial committee tasked with drafting a policy statement are back to square one after President Michel Sleiman and March 14 ministers insisted that the Baabda Declaration be adopted as the main document to shield Lebanon against regional turmoil, ministerial sources said Monday.

Shortly before the committee convened, Sleiman met at Baabda Palace with committee member Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil from Speaker Nabih Berri's parliamentary bloc.

During his meetings with Raad and Khalil, Sleiman insisted that the Baabda Declaration be adopted as the main document in the Cabinet's policy statement, a March 8 ministerial source said.

Sleiman's stance was swiftly backed by the committee's March 14 ministers, who have for long demanded that the Baabda Declaration be adopted in the Cabinet's policy statement, the source said.

However, Hezbollah, represented in the committee by Minister of State Mohammad Fneish, will not relinquish the principle of the resistance and the right of Lebanon to this resistance, the March 8 source said.

March 14 ministers say if agreement is reached on a formula in the policy statement that mentions the resistance but not the Baabda Declaration, they will resign, the source said.


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