BEIRUT: Lawmakers and legal experts are split over the fate of the Cabinet if no agreement is reached over its policy statement within the Constitution’s one-month deadline, which expires on March 17. Speaker Nabih Berri, former Speaker Hussein Husseini and a number of March 8 lawmakers contend that the 24-member Cabinet would be considered resigned if it fails to agree on a policy statement by March 17, after which President Michel Sleiman would be obliged under the Constitution to hold consultations with members of Parliament to name a new prime minister.
However, some March 14 lawmakers and legal experts disagree, arguing that the Cabinet would not be considered resigned if the constitutional deadline ends without an agreement on a policy statement. Rather, they say the Cabinet in this case would stay in office in a caretaker capacity until the row over the policy statement is resolved.
The development comes as a seven-member ministerial committee tasked with drafting the Cabinet’s policy statement is slated to meet Tuesday in yet another attempt to agree on a compromise formula to settle the dispute over the resistance issue, the last obstacle holding up the document.
Tuesday’s will be the 10th meeting of the committee, which includes ministers from the March 8 and March 14 parties and centrists, since the Cabinet was formed on Feb. 15.
The factions remain at odds over whether a clause legitimizing Hezbollah’s armed resistance against Israel should be mentioned in the policy statement.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri might launch an initiative this week aimed at breaking the deadlock over the policy statement before the expiration of the deadline for the ministerial committee, political sources said.
Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil from Berri’s parliamentary bloc tweeted Sunday: “We will deal positively with any idea or draft plan to finalize the policy statement that preserves the right of the Lebanese to resistance to liberate the land and repulse the Israeli aggression.”
Visitors who met Prime Minister Tammam Salam at his Moseitbeh residence Sunday quoted him as voicing hope that some sticking points hindering an agreement over the policy statement could be resolved before Tuesday’s session.
But if no agreement is reached, Salam might refer the issue to the Cabinet, a visitor said.
The failure to reach agreement on a policy statement by March 17 raises questions over the fate of the Cabinet, given the conflicting views of lawmakers and legal experts on both sides of the political spectrum.
Berri, backed by Husseini, has ruled that the Cabinet would be considered resigned if the one-month constitutional deadline ended without an agreement reached on a policy statement.
Salam, in Berri’s view, should announce the resignation of his Cabinet if the deadline expires without an agreement on a policy statement.
Husseini sees that the next step is for the president to begin binding parliamentary consultations to name a new prime minister. Husseini’s opinion is backed by a March 14 minister who is a member of the ministerial committee.
“The Cabinet’s failure to draft a policy statement means that it cannot assume executive authority or agree on a plan of action,” Husseini said.
Future MP Hadi Hobeish disagrees with Berri and Husseini, saying that the Cabinet can still discuss the policy statement even after the expiration of the deadline. Hobeish said a constitutional article does not consider missing the deadline as a reason for the Cabinet’s resignation, but rather as an occasion to urge it to intensify its efforts to agree on a policy statement.
“If the Cabinet presents its policy statement after one month and a half and after winning Parliament’s confidence, it can exercise its full powers,” Hobeish said.
Dr. Issam Ismail, a professor of constitutional and administrative law at the state-run Lebanese University, said that “if the current Cabinet exceeds the 30-day deadline without accomplishing the policy statement, we would be faced with a precedent which Lebanon has not seen before.”
The professor added, “The Constitution did not mention a penalty. Therefore, there can be no penalty without a [constitutional] text.”
In this case, Ismail said, the Cabinet can serve in a caretaker capacity until a solution is found to the policy statement.
“Therefore, the Cabinet cannot be considered resigned immediately because Article 64 in the Constitution has outlined the cases in which the Cabinet is considered resigned, but without mentioning this case,” he added.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, maintained its insistence that the resistance clause be mentioned in the Cabinet’s policy statement.
“The resistance is clearly a solid clause in the policy statement and there is no chance for anyone to sidestep it at all,” Industry Minister Hussein Haj Hasan, one of two ministers who represent Hezbollah in the Cabinet, told a Teachers’ Day ceremony in the Bekaa Valley town of Shmustar.
“We absolutely uphold the resistance clause and the others [March 14 parties] should realize that this matter is in the interests of Lebanon and all the Lebanese,” he said.