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Policy statement rift threatens to delay Cabinet formation
President Michel Sleiman, left, receives Prime Minister designate Tammam Salam at the Presidential Palace in  Beirut, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. (The Daily Star/Baabda)
President Michel Sleiman, left, receives Prime Minister designate Tammam Salam at the Presidential Palace in Beirut, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. (The Daily Star/Baabda)
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BEIRUT: Despite stepped up political activity aimed at hastening the Cabinet formation, differences between the rival factions over the policy statement threaten to delay the birth of a new government, a senior March 8 source said Wednesday.

“The policy statement is posing a major obstacle toward the formation of the Cabinet. While Speaker Nabih Berri and the March 8 parties want the policy statement to be discussed after the Cabinet formation, the March 14 coalition insists that agreement on the policy statement be reached before the formation,” the source told The Daily Star.

According to the source, President Michel Sleiman, Berri, Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam and MP Walid Jumblatt call for constitutional steps, that is, the formation of a new Cabinet, to be taken first before deciding on its policy statement.

“Once a Cabinet is formed, a small ministerial committee will be formed to draft the policy statement,” the source said.

A source close to Salam told The Daily Star Tuesday that the Cabinet’s policy statement was undergoing “fine-tuning” after the problems of a blocking third [veto power] and the rotation of ministerial portfolios have been solved.

At the root of the problem holding up the Cabinet formation is Hezbollah’s insistence the tripartite equation “The Army, the people and the Resistance” be mentioned in the Cabinet’s policy statement as had been the case with previous governments.

But the March 14 coalition, which opposes Hezbollah’s arsenal and its military intervention in Syria, has called for this equation to be replaced with the Baabda Declaration in the policy statement of any Cabinet.

The Baabda Declaration, reached by rival March 8 and March 14 leaders in June 2012, calls for distancing Lebanon from regional and international conflicts, particularly the 34-month war in Syria.

Sleiman, the Future Movement and its March 14 allies have accused Hezbollah of violating the declaration with its participation in the war in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad’s forces.

As part of the ongoing talks on the Cabinet formation, former minister Khalil Hrawi, a political adviser to Sleiman, met former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc. Siniora reportedly held firm on his insistence the old policy statement be replaced.

Hrawi asked Siniora for some time to convey this demand to Berri, the sources said. Meanwhile, Berri insisted the policy statement should be discussed after the Cabinet formation in comments published by As-Safir Wednesday.

“The horse is usually put in front of the cart not behind it,” he was quoted as saying.

The speaker also said he would continue to support the “Army, the people and the Resistance” formula even if Hezbollah were to drop it.

“Even if Hezbollah agreed not to include this equation in the policy statement, I will uphold it because we [the Amal Movement] have 1,000 martyrs [who fell in the fight] against Israel,” Berri said.

Wednesday witnessed a series of meetings and phone calls aimed at facilitating the government formation following a major breakthrough in the 10-month deadlock when the March 8 and March 14 parties finally agreed on an 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup. Sleiman met separately with Salam, former President Amine Gemayel, caretaker Social Minister Wael Abu Faour and March 14 MP Butros Harb to discuss the ongoing consultations on the Cabinet formation.

Sleiman urged the rival parties to benefit from the current opportunity to quickly reach an understanding on “a balanced government” that can assume responsibility for “confronting challenges and coping with internal and external developments.”

“The current positive atmosphere helps accelerate the Cabinet formation,” a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star.

Abu Faour, from Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc, who returned Tuesday from a two-day visit to Riyadh, met separately with Berri and Salam to brief them on the outcome of his talks with senior Saudi officials on the Cabinet formation efforts.

Salam also met with caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a political aide to Berri.

Speaking to reporters after the weekly meeting of lawmakers at Berri’s residence in Ain al-Tineh, Hezbollah MP Ali Fayyad said Abu Faour informed the speaker that Saudi Arabia did not object to Hezbollah’s participation in the Cabinet.

During his weekly meeting with lawmakers, Berri said he would exhaust all efforts to overcome obstacles impeding the Cabinet formation.

“If intentions [on the Cabinet formation] are good, we will spare no means to resolve contentious issues,” Berri was quoted by the MPs as saying.

Berri and Jumblatt have spearheaded the political drive to promote an 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup, in which the March 8 and March 14 parties would each get eight ministers, with “decisive ministers” allotted for each side among the remaining eight ministerial portfolios set for centrists. This would effectively grant the rival camps veto power in the government.

Metn Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel said what matters for his party was the Cabinet’s policy statement. “The shape of the Cabinet does not concern us. What matters is the Cabinet’s program of action, its policy statement and its project for Lebanon,” he said in a statement.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 16, 2014, on page 1.
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Story Summary
Despite stepped up political activity aimed at hastening the Cabinet formation, differences between the rival factions over the policy statement threaten to delay the birth of a new government, a senior March 8 source said Wednesday.

According to the source, President Michel Sleiman, Berri, Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam and MP Walid Jumblatt call for constitutional steps, that is, the formation of a new Cabinet, to be taken first before deciding on its policy statement.

At the root of the problem holding up the Cabinet formation is Hezbollah's insistence the tripartite equation "The Army, the people and the Resistance" be mentioned in the Cabinet's policy statement as had been the case with previous governments.

But the March 14 coalition, which opposes Hezbollah's arsenal and its military intervention in Syria, has called for this equation to be replaced with the Baabda Declaration in the policy statement of any Cabinet.

Berri insisted the policy statement should be discussed after the Cabinet formation in comments published by As-Safir Wednesday.

Sleiman met separately with Salam, former President Amine Gemayel, caretaker Social Minister Wael Abu Faour and March 14 MP Butros Harb to discuss the ongoing consultations on the Cabinet formation.
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