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Officials struggle to keep Kataeb ministers in Cabinet ahead of vote

Former President Amin Gemayel speaks during a press conference at the Kataeb headquarters in Beirut, Saturday, March 15, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Officials scrambled Sunday to avert a crisis over the Cabinet’s policy statement following a threat by the Kataeb Party to withdraw its ministers unless a clause on the state’s authority in defending Lebanon was amended.

“Top leaders are in contact with the Kataeb in order to give the party guarantees over the role, responsibility and authority of the state in liberating the land,” Information Minister Ramzi Joreige told The Daily Star.

Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai voiced support for the Kataeb stance, urging government officials to resolve the ambiguity in the policy statement over the state’s role in defending Lebanon.

“We hope that officials will act to correct what is necessary and clarify what is ambiguous [in the policy statement] and grant confidence to the government,” Rai said in Sunday’s sermon in Bkirki.

Joreige is one of three ministers representing the Kataeb Party in the 24-member Cabinet, which was jolted by an internal crisis shortly after it approved a compromise formula over the controversial resistance clause early Saturday.

Three Kataeb ministers along with Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi from the Future Movement have voiced reservations over a clause in the policy statement that fails to put Hezbollah’s armed resistance against Israeli occupation under state authority as demanded by the March 14 coalition.

Following an extraordinary meeting chaired by its leader former President Amine Gemayel Saturday night, the Kataeb Party threatened to withdraw its ministers from the Cabinet unless the “dangerous ambiguity” over the state’s role and authority in national decision-making was resolved.

The party’s Political Bureau decried that the policy statement’s clause pertaining to the resistance “undermined the state sovereignty.”

“The Political Bureau has decided to link the resignation of the party’s ministers to an official resolution of the dangerous ambiguity [surrounding] the role, standing, sovereignty and authority of the state with regard to national decision-making,” it said in a statement after the meeting.

“The [Kataeb] ministers will officially resign before [Parliament] begins debating the policy statement [Wednesday] if the necessary modification is not made to preserve the state’s authority and responsibility in the country’s general policy,” said the statement, read to reporters by Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi.

Azzi reiterated the Kataeb’s stance on the resistance’s role.

“We want the resistance’s role confined to Lebanese territories and put under the supervision of the Lebanese state,” Azzi told Al-Jadeed TV Sunday night.

However, sources close to Prime Minister Tammam Salam ruled out the possibility of any amendment to the Cabinet’s policy statement as demanded by the Kataeb Party.

“It is not possible to change any word in the policy statement after it had been approved by the Cabinet and after it had been sent to Speaker Nabih Berri and distributed to lawmakers and sessions have been scheduled to debate it and seek a vote of confidence on its basis,” a source close to Salam told The Daily Star.

Hasan Rifai, a veteran legal expert, said he expected the Cabinet to amend the policy statement with “two words” to appease the Kataeb.

“The policy statement will be modified with two words, Lebanese-style, with the aim of satisfying the Kataeb,” Rifai, a former minister, told The Daily Star. Rifai slammed the policy statement, saying it legitimized armed resistance to all the Lebanese.

Berri has called Parliament to meet Wednesday and Thursday at 10:30 a.m. to debate the government policy statement ahead of a vote of confidence, which is essential for the 24-member Cabinet to begin its work.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri praised the agreement over the policy statement, saying that Hezbollah’s controversial formula was “gone forever.”

“There will be many explanations on the agreement reached in Cabinet over the policy statement, but a single unambiguous fact will remain at the end: The tripartite formula of ‘the Army, the people and the resistance’ is gone forever,” Hariri said in a statement Saturday.

Hariri, along with his allies in the March 14 coalition, insisted on eliminating the tripartite formula, arguing that Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria invalidated such a strategy.

“The agreement does not give any party or group any right above the authority and sovereignty of the state,” he said. “It does not legitimize the use of arms by any party outside the authority of the state, its Army, or its security and military institutions, nor does it involve Lebanon in foreign wars.”

Following two marathon sessions at Baabda Palace, the Cabinet approved the policy statement early Saturday after a monthlong stalemate over how the role of the resistance should be mentioned in the document.

The Kataeb ministers and Rifi voiced reservations on the clause that “stressed the right of Lebanese citizens to resist Israeli occupation, repulse its attacks and recover occupied territories.” Rifi and other March 14 ministers have demanded that the use of Hezbollah’s arms be put under state control.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 17, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

Officials scrambled Sunday to avert a crisis over the Cabinet's policy statement following a threat by the Kataeb Party to withdraw its ministers unless a clause on the state's authority in defending Lebanon was amended.

Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai voiced support for the Kataeb stance, urging government officials to resolve the ambiguity in the policy statement over the state's role in defending Lebanon.

Joreige is one of three ministers representing the Kataeb Party in the 24-member Cabinet, which was jolted by an internal crisis shortly after it approved a compromise formula over the controversial resistance clause early Saturday.

Three Kataeb ministers along with Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi from the Future Movement have voiced reservations over a clause in the policy statement that fails to put Hezbollah's armed resistance against Israeli occupation under state authority as demanded by the March 14 coalition.

Hasan Rifai, a veteran legal expert, said he expected the Cabinet to amend the policy statement with "two words" to appease the Kataeb.


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