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Cabinet precarious after policy panel flop

  • President Michel Sleiman speaks during the Lebanese Excellency Awards ceremony in Baabda, Tuesday, March 11, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: The fate of the nearly month-old government hangs in the balance as a ministerial committee tasked with drafting a policy statement failed Tuesday to resolve the dispute over the resistance clause and referred the issue to the Cabinet.

With time running out before the constitutional deadline expires on March 17, Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who chaired the panel’s discussions Tuesday, called for a Cabinet meeting at Baabda Palace Thursday to take an “appropriate decision” on the row over the resistance that is threatening to break up the Cabinet.

“Thursday’s Cabinet session on the policy statement is crucial because it will subsequently decide its fate if no agreement is reached over the resistance issue,” a political source told The Daily Star. He was referring to the wide gap between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions over how to address the thorny issue of the resistance in the Cabinet’s policy statement.

Salam’s decision to convene the Cabinet came shortly after the committee announced its failure to reach an agreement on mentioning the resistance in the policy statement.

It is the first time in the history of Lebanese governments that a ministerial committee has failed to agree on a policy statement, an essential move before the Cabinet can seek a vote of confidence in Parliament.

In a terse statement issued by his office, Salam said the ministerial committee’s 10th session did not reach an agreement on a final version of the draft policy statement.

“Based on this and after consulting with the president, Salam has called the Cabinet to meet on March 13 to review the results of the ministerial committee’s meetings and make an appropriate decision,” the statement said.

Chaired by Salam, the seven-member committee, which includes ministers from the March 8 and March 14 camps and centrists, constitutionally has 30 days from its formation to present its policy statement to Parliament for approval.

If it fails to accomplish this task by March 17, the Cabinet would be considered resigned and President Michel Sleiman would be obligated under the Constitution to hold binding consultations with lawmakers to name a new prime minister, according to most legal experts. Although March 14 ministers have a majority in the Cabinet, voting on the draft policy statement is viewed as unconstitutional by legal experts, who argue that the Cabinet’s blueprint should be approved unanimously.

Statements made by rival ministers after Tuesday’s meeting showed that the two sides remained poles apart over the issue of the resistance, or the use of Hezbollah’s arms to defend Lebanon against a possible Israeli attack.

March 14 coalition ministers demand that the resistance be under state authority, arguing that other formulas would legitimize Hezbollah’s arms, something that they staunchly oppose.

Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies insist on a clause in the policy statement that stresses the right of the Lebanese to liberate remaining Lebanese territories by Israel and resist any Israeli attack. This effectively legitimizes Hezbollah’s arms.

March 14 committee member Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb said that he presented a formula calling for the state to have the right to resistance backed by the Lebanese people, but it was rejected by March 8 ministers.

“My initiative was based on the authority of the state, which has the right to resist all kinds of occupation with the support of the Lebanese people,” Harb told reporters after meeting Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea in Maarab.

Committee member Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil from Berri’s parliamentary bloc said the joint proposal drafted by Berri and MP Walid Jumblatt to resolve the dispute over the resistance clause was not presented during the committee meeting.

“The atmosphere was not amenable to discussing the proposal,” Khalil said told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar Television.

Committee member Health Minister Wael Abu Faour from Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc told Al-Manar TV: “The ministerial committee has reached a dead end.”

Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi, a committee member, said it was up to Sleiman and Salam to decide the fate of the Cabinet if the row over the policy statement was not resolved.

He said Hezbollah’s rejection of placing the resistance against Israel under state authority was delaying an agreement on the policy statement.

“Discussions were like previous sessions: objective and calm. Every party expressed their viewpoint but we are still stuck over the main issue [resistance],” Azzi told reporters after the committee meeting at the Grand Serail.

“As a March 14 group, we think that the resistance, be it popular, official or institutionalized, should be put under the authority of the Lebanese state regardless of the presence of a defense strategy. The other group [March 8], particularly Hezbollah, insists that the resistance should be free in its movement and actions.”

Asked what would happen if the committee failed to draft a policy statement, Azzi said: “The Cabinet will decide to ask [the committee] to meet again if positive signs emerged. Or else the president, in consultation with the prime minister, will take the appropriate stance on the Cabinet.”

Meanwhile, Sleiman reiterated that the controversial policy statement should be drafted in the same spirit as the Baabda Declaration, an agreement between rival Lebanese leaders to distance Lebanon from regional and international conflicts, particularly the war in Syria.

“The policy statement should be written with the ink of national consensus and the same ink with which the Baabda Declaration was drafted,” Sleiman said during a ceremony at Baabda Palace.

“Some parties had agreed to the Baabda Declaration but then retreated from it,” he added in a clear reference to Hezbollah.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 12, 2014, on page 1.
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Summary

The fate of the nearly month-old government hangs in the balance as a ministerial committee tasked with drafting a policy statement failed Tuesday to resolve the dispute over the resistance clause and referred the issue to the Cabinet.

Salam's decision to convene the Cabinet came shortly after the committee announced its failure to reach an agreement on mentioning the resistance in the policy statement.

It is the first time in the history of Lebanese governments that a ministerial committee has failed to agree on a policy statement, an essential move before the Cabinet can seek a vote of confidence in Parliament.

In a terse statement issued by his office, Salam said the ministerial committee's 10th session did not reach an agreement on a final version of the draft policy statement.

Chaired by Salam, the seven-member committee, which includes ministers from the March 8 and March 14 camps and centrists, constitutionally has 30 days from its formation to present its policy statement to Parliament for approval.

Although March 14 ministers have a majority in the Cabinet, voting on the draft policy statement is viewed as unconstitutional by legal experts, who argue that the Cabinet's blueprint should be approved unanimously.


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