BEIRUT: The Cabinet will meet again Friday in an eleventh-hour attempt to avert a government crisis over its policy statement in the shadow of a threat by Prime Minister Tammam Salam to resign.
The 24-member body failed to agree over the controversial resistance issue at a marathon session Thursday evening, but President Michel Sleiman and ministers convinced Salam to defer his decision to quit to give more talks a chance.
A brief statement after the six-hour meeting said the Cabinet would meet again Friday afternoon in an open session in an attempt to break the one-month stalemate over the policy statement that has been stymied by the parties’ dispute over how to mention the resistance in the document.
Officials said that several compromise proposals made by rival March 8 and March 14 ministers during the Cabinet meeting chaired by Sleiman at Baabda Palace failed to bridge the gap over the resistance issue.
Head of the Future Movement parliamentary bloc former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told The Daily Star Salam was determined to resign if no deal was reached Friday.
He said the Future bloc and its March 14 allies would again name Salam for premier in any new round of parliamentary consultations.
Information Minister Ramzi Joreige said Salam offered to resign during the meeting if the dispute over the policy statement was not resolved. A political source said Salam had the resignation letter in his pocket.
“The ministers discussed various formulas to resolve the sticking point in the policy statement. Salam expressed his wish to resign but Sleiman and several ministers pleaded with him to wait before taking such a decision,” Joreige told reporters after the meeting. He added that Salam complied with the plea to give time for more contacts over the policy statement.
Rival ministers held side talks outside the Cabinet session and consulted by phone with their leaders on the resistance row.
Despite holding 10 sessions since the 24-member Cabinet was formed on Feb.15, rival March 8 and March 14 ministers comprising a seven-member committee tasked with drafting a policy statement remained deadlocked over how to address the thorny 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 should be under state authority, arguing that other formulas would legitimize Hezbollah’s arms, something which 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.
Addressing the Cabinet session, Sleiman decried that the policy statement got bogged down over “one sentence,” a clear reference to the dispute over the resistance. He said international support for stability in Lebanon required the presence of a Cabinet.
Ahead of the Cabinet session, Sleiman and Salam had a closed meeting to discuss the deadlock over the policy statement.
Salam also discussed the deadlock with Berri who was at Baabda Palace to attend the luncheon hosted by Sleiman for the Finnish president.
The prime minister also conferred on the crisis before the Cabinet session with Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, Health Minister Wael Abu Faour and Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk.
Sleiman also met with a number of legal experts and former lawmakers to seek their advice on how to approach the Cabinet issue if the one-month constitutional deadline to agree a policy statement expired on March 17 without a deal. He met separately with former Parliament Speaker Hussein Husseini, former ministers Salim Jreissati, Mikhail Daher and Naji Boustani, Professor Fayez Haj Shahin, Shafik Masri, a professor of international law, and lawyer Michel Klimos with whom he discussed the interpretation of Article 64 in the Constitution which outlined the cases in which the Cabinet is considered resigned.
Berri, Husseini and a number of March 8 lawmakers contend that the 24-member Cabinet would be considered resigned if it failed to agree on a policy statement by March 17 after which Sleiman would be obligated under the Constitution to hold bindings 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 one-month 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.
Meanwhile, the parliamentary Future bloc rejected Hezbollah’s demand for legitimizing the party’s arsenal in the government policy statement, insisting that the right to resistance against Israel should be confined to the Lebanese state.
The bloc also scoffed at the theory that the Cabinet would be considered resigned if it failed to draft a policy statement within the one-month constitutional deadline. “The Future bloc considers that the one-month deadline set by the Constitution for the Cabinet to finalize its policy statement is a period to urge it to accomplish the statement and begin its work rather than a deadline after which it is considered a resigned Cabinet,” the bloc said in a statement issued after its weekly meeting chaired by Siniora.