BEIRUT: Prime Minister Najib Mikati disclosed Thursday that he was concentrating his efforts to find the best approach to push through funding for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and highlighted that Lebanon should remain “on the safe side” when it comes to unrest in neighboring Syria.
“I am currently examining the best approach to tackle the issue of STL funding so that it runs smoothly and successfully,” he told The Daily Star. “I can only see Lebanon committing to its obligations … we are formulating an approach.”
Hezbollah, an essential component of Mikati’s 30-member Cabinet, blatantly opposes paying Lebanon’s share to the Netherlands-based court, which has pinned the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on four members of the party.
In October, the group’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah called for a vote within the Cabinet if no agreement was reached among ministers on the controversial issue.
Answering a question on whether he would consider resigning his post if the STL dues are not paid, Mikati said: “I am working out a good and easy approach [on the issue of the funding.]”
Earlier this month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman warned against the “harsh consequences” Lebanese-U.S. ties will suffer in the event Lebanon fails to pay its share to the STL.
But the prime minister, who returned from an official visit to Britain Wednesday evening, explained that international and regional calls for Lebanon to commit to its obligations, namely regarding the U.N.-backed STL, would not necessarily imply imposing sanctions on the country.
“When I hear those calls, the issue of sanctions does not come to mind. Instead, I see two key criteria: the necessity for Lebanon to fulfill its commitments, and for justice to be achieved,” said Mikati, who said a host of pressing matters in Lebanon, equally important to the divisive topic of STL funding, require urgent attention.Commenting on the ongoing turmoil that Lebanon’s biggest neighbor Syria has been witnessing since mid-March, Mikati underlined that the country should remain on the “safe side.”“By safe side I don’t mean neutral,” he said. “It means that we are not concerned with the issue and that we will not deal with it.”
He also warned Lebanese groups of wagering on the outcome of the unrest. “Any bets concerning the situation in Syria will definitely have grave repercussions on Lebanon.”
Speaking at his spacious office at the historic Grand Serail, Mikati hoped that security and stability would once again prevail in Syria and that the necessary reforms would be undertaken, “so that Damascus regains its key role in the region.”
The prime minister dismissed as “totally unfounded” accusations by the March 14 alliance that his Cabinet was answering to the Syrian government and providing it with security information on Syrian dissidents in Lebanon.
He said the kidnapping of the Jassem brothers in February and of Shibli al-Aisami in May happened before his government was formed on June 13, but stressed that security and judicial authorities were meticulously investigating those kidnappings and other ones that happened afterward.
Mikati also slammed claims that he prevented the UNHCR and the Higher Relief Committee from providing assistance to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He said the Lebanese government, through the HRC and the ministries of health, social affairs and education were fully exercising their obligation to help Syrian refugees.
“If we do not announce or publicize those services and aid, this doesn’t mean we are neglecting refugees,” he added. “We are dealing with the issue away from the media and away from politicization because this is the wisest [approach].”
Mikati, who Thursday met U.S. Treasury Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Daniel Glaser, accompanied by Ambassador Maura Connelly, defended Lebanese banks against reports of capital and deposits fleeing Syria to Lebanon, saying that Lebanese banks were abiding by sanctions imposed on Damascus.
Mikati said he advised Glaser, “who is well aware of the integrity of Lebanese bank institutions and the pivotal role they play in the Lebanese economy,” to coordinate all matters related to banks with Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh.
Mikati, however, expressed robust confidence in the ability of the Lebanese banking sector to remain immune to the financial crisis that hit the U.S. and several European countries.
He said that under the supervision of the Central Bank, banks have taken necessary provisions to weather any unforeseen problems. Mikati explained that the Capital Adequacy Ratio for banks in Lebanon was high by international standards, adding that this was “a good sign.”
Touching on the macro economy, Mikati said the finalization of the 2012 budget and its submittal to the Cabinet and Parliament was a forthcoming challenge.
“Before we submit it to either the Cabinet or the Parliament we will hold extensive workshops to scrutinize all the facets of the budget,” he said. “We don’t want the budget to carry wrong signals to any party or to any sector.”
Mikati, however, underlined the need to secure additional revenues to finance various projects, alluding to Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi’s draft budget, which suggested raising the VAT from 10 to 12 percent and increasing taxes on interest rates on customer deposits from 5 to 8 percent in addition to other taxes.
Safadi’s proposal wasn’t well-received by labor unions or the private sector.
Mikati also said a ministerial committee was studying the controversial wage issue to make the right decision, and he reminded citizens to dial the hotline number 1739 to report manipulation of prices.
On a lighter note, Mikati rejected claims that a digital war broke out between him and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who a week ago began hosting live daily question and answer sessions on social media site Twitter.
Mikati, who posted his first tweet back in January, said he would not engage in online debates, adding that everyone was free to express opinions through any means and that Twitter was a means for him to communicate with fans of online and social media.