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Sleiman-Hezbollah spat clouds policy talks

File - President Michel Sleiman, left, meets with Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad in Baabda, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: Long-simmering tension between President Michel Sleiman and Hezbollah burst out into the open at the weekend, as the two sides engaged in harsh rhetoric over whether a resistance clause should be included in the Cabinet’s policy statement.

The unprecedented level of tension between Sleiman and Hezbollah, whose ties have already been strained over the conflict in Syria, has cast a pall of gloom over the tough job of a seven-member ministerial committee tasked with drafting a policy statement.

The committee, which includes March 8 and March 14 ministers, will hold its eighth session Monday, but is still bogged down over the resistance issue as the rival factions remained at odds over whether a clause legitimizing Hezbollah’s armed resistance against Israel should be mentioned in the document.

Now, the Sleiman-Hezbollah diatribe is expected to further complicate the committee’s mission and deepen political divisions after the party’s harsh criticism of the president’s stance on the controversial tripartite formula of “The Army, the people and the resistance” Sunday sparked an outpouring of support from the March 14 coalition for Sleiman.

The crisis began Friday when Sleiman implicitly blamed Hezbollah’s support for the tripartite resistance formula for the delay in approving the Cabinet’s policy statement, an essential move before the government can go to Parliament to seek a vote of confidence.

In an address at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, the president said: “All sides should not cling to wooden [inflexible] equations that hinder the release of the [Cabinet’s] policy statement.”

Hezbollah hit back at Sleiman, saying the president needed “specialized care” because he could no longer differentiate between gold and wood.

“With all due respect to the presidency’s position and what it represents, the speech we heard yesterday [Friday] makes us believe that the Baabda Palace in the days left [of the president’s term] needs a specialized care because its occupant can no longer differentiate between gold and wood,” Hezbollah said in a terse statement Saturday.

Hezbollah officials have long described the tripartite formula as a “golden” one, arguing that the formula was the best defense strategy to protect Lebanon against a possible Israeli attack.

Sleiman used his Twitter account to swiftly retort to Hezbollah’s response by underlining the need for all the parties to adhere to the Baabda Declaration.

“The Baabda Palace needs to recognize the decisions that have been taken unanimously at its headquarters, namely the Baabda Declaration,” Sleiman tweeted.

Hezbollah’s criticism of Sleiman drew a deluge of support for the president mainly from March 14 ministers and politicians.Deputy Speaker Farid Makari slammed Hezbollah’s “provocative statement” and praised Sleiman as a man made of gold.

“Such [Hezbollah’s] statements are not only offensive to the president and the post of the president, but also to the positive, calm atmosphere that led to the birth of the Cabinet,” Makari said in a statement. “What we have in Baabda Palace today is a president made of gold.”

Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi condemned Hezbollah’s verbal attack on Sleiman and the presidency post. Rifi said in a Twitter post that he had contacted Sleiman to express support for his “national principles.”

Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb said he was surprised by Hezbollah’s statement which, he said, contained “remarks offensive and humiliating for the presidency post and the president.”

“It is not permissible to refer to the president as the occupant of Baabda Palace because President Michel Sleiman is the president of all Lebanon,” Harb said in a statement. “[Hezbollah’s] statement indicates that Hezbollah has lost the spirit of democracy.”

Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi, who represents the Kataeb Party in the Cabinet, called on the Lebanese to rally behind Sleiman in the face of Hezbollah’s campaign against him.

Azzi said Sleiman’s remarks on the “wooden equations” did not mean the tripartite formula of “The Army, the people and the resistance,” but all formulas that have obstructed political life in Lebanon since 1960, such as “veto power” and the “king minister.”

Responding to Hezbollah’s statement that Baabda Palace needed specialized care,” Azzi told LBCI TV: “Baabda Palace really needs care and support because this palace symbolizes the highest constitutional authority in Lebanon.”

“President Sleiman’s speech conforms with the Constitution and his constitutional oath. Therefore, we must respect him more instead of challenging his stances,” he said.

Azzi, a member of the ministerial committee, warned that failure to reach agreement on the policy statement would plunge the country into “a political crisis.”

The ministerial committee charged with drafting a policy statement is slated to meet again at 6:30 p.m. Monday in yet another attempt to narrow differences over the thorny issue of the resistance. The committee, which had agreed on “a satisfactory formula” over the Baabda Declaration, has failed in seven sessions to reach a compromise over the resistance issue.

March 14 ministers demand that the issue of the resistance be placed under state authority, thus denying Hezbollah the right to use its weapons at will against any Israeli attack as had happened in the past. However, this demand has been rejected by Hezbollah and its March 8 allies.

Committee member Health Minister Wael Abu Faour from MP Walid Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc called for a very concise policy statement, saying the resistance’s relationship with the state was the remaining contentious issue.

“The main point that is still raising debate in the ministerial committee is the stance on the resistance’s arms and its relationship with the state,” Abou Faour said.

Noting that the right to the resistance has been agreed upon by all the parties, he said: “What remains is the relationship of this resistance with the state and the formula under which the resistance will be given freedom of movement.”

Hezbollah vowed not to budge on the resistance clause to be included in the Cabinet’s policy statement.

Hezbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah said since the 1989 Taif Accord, the right of the resistance against “the Israeli enemy to liberate the land and defend the country” has been consecrated in policy statements of previous governments.

“We have a national deep-rooted equation whose slogan is the resistance ... We cannot be lenient or discuss any of the letters in this resistance in the policy statement,” Fadlallah told a rally in south Lebanon.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 03, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

Long-simmering tension between President Michel Sleiman and Hezbollah burst out into the open at the weekend, as the two sides engaged in harsh rhetoric over whether a resistance clause should be included in the Cabinet's policy statement.

Hezbollah hit back at Sleiman, saying the president needed "specialized care" because he could no longer differentiate between gold and wood.

Hezbollah's criticism of Sleiman drew a deluge of support for the president mainly from March 14 ministers and politicians.Deputy Speaker Farid Makari slammed Hezbollah's "provocative statement" and praised Sleiman as a man made of gold.

Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi condemned Hezbollah's verbal attack on Sleiman and the presidency post.

Hezbollah vowed not to budge on the resistance clause to be included in the Cabinet's policy statement.


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