BEIRUT: Rival ministers failed Monday to make any breakthrough over the thorny issue of the resistance, the remaining obstacle delaying the Cabinet’s draft policy statement, and suspended their talks for three days due to some ministers’ travel plans.
Monday’s was the eighth meeting held by the seven-member ministerial committee tasked with drafting a policy statement since Prime Minister Tammam Salam announced a 24-member Cabinet on Feb. 15.
A terse statement issued after the meeting said the committee, which includes ministers from the March 8 and March 14 camps and centrists, will meet again at 3 p.m. Friday.
The meeting was held against the backdrop of tension between President Michel Sleiman and Hezbollah over whether a resistance clause should be included in the Cabinet’s policy statement. The spat between the two sides has cast a pall of gloom over the committee’s mandate.
Despite the wide gap between the rival factions over whether a clause legitimizing Hezbollah’s armed resistance against Israel should be mentioned in the policy statement, a March 8 ministerial source did not rule out the possibility of a comprehensive deal at Friday’s session.
“It is still possible for committee members to reach agreement on a full-fledged formula for the policy statement at Friday’s meeting,” the source told The Daily Star.
Committee member Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil from Speaker Nabih Berri also sounded optimistic despite several failed attempts to break the deadlock.
“I think we will reach understanding. The atmosphere was positive and discussions were serious, but we did not reach an agreement. But in my opinion, we will eventually reach an agreement,” Khalil told reporters after the committee’s meeting.
A similar view was echoed by committee member Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who told said before the meeting: “We have no other choice but to reach agreement. We will continue to try [to reach agreement] until the last minute.”
However, committee member Health Minister Wael Abu Faour said more discussions were needed before any deal over the resistance issue could be reached. “The matter needs more political deliberations by committee members and the political forces making up this Cabinet,” he said after the meeting chaired by Salam at the Grand Serail.
Abu Faour, from MP Walid Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc, said the committee’s discussions centered on finding an alternative to the controversial formula of “The Army, the people and the resistance,” which has been rejected by the March 14 coalition. “So far, we have not reached any results. Agreement was reached by committee members to continue [discussions] in the same positive atmosphere at the political and media levels.”
He added that the reason for putting off the committee’s meeting until Friday was because Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil was traveling with Sleiman to attend the International Support Group for Lebanon’s meeting in Paris set for Wednesday.
Machnouk and Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi are also due to leave Beirut on trips abroad this week.
Sleiman, who leaves for Paris Tuesday, met Monday with Salam, who briefed him on the results of the committee’s discussions concerning the drafting of the policy statement.
The resistance issue, or the use of Hezbollah’s arms to protect Lebanon against a possible Israeli attack, is holding up the Cabinet’s draft policy statement after the rival ministers had agreed on “a satisfactory formula” over the Baabda Declaration.
March 14 ministers demand that the issue of the resistance be placed under state authority, thus denying Hezbollah the right to use its arms at will against any Israeli attack as has happened in the past. However, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies reject this demand.
Berri and Hezbollah have vowed not to budge on the inclusion of the resistance clause in the Cabinet’s policy statement.
Berri told visitors Monday that resistance against Israel is “a red line” that cannot be excluded from the Cabinet’s policy statement. He said he was ready to offer alternative proposals to help break the impasse over the divisive issue.
Jumblatt entered the fray over the policy statement by urging rival parties to seek a consensus formula over the contentious issues of the Baabda Declaration and the resistance.
Referring to tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the Ukraine crisis, Jumblatt said in his weekly article published in the PSP’s online Al-Anbaa newspaper: “With the revival of cold wars abroad, Lebanon has had enough of hot and cold wars and there is no escape from searching for a formula that reconciles the Baabda Declaration ... and Lebanon’s right to protect its borders and resist any possible Israeli aggression.”
Kataeb Party MP Sami Gemayel defended Sleiman in his row with Hezbollah over the controversial tripartite defense formula. He also said Hezbollah had lost legitimacy over its arms following its military intervention in Syria.“Attacking Sleiman is unacceptable and we will place our MPs and ministers in the current government under his disposal,” Gemayel told a news conference. “We insist on not granting this resistance [Hezbollah] any legitimacy by recognizing the tripartite formula.”