Lebanon News

Renewed Cabinet talks make no headway

BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati held a new round of talks on the formation of a government with representatives of the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance over the weekend, but no progress was made, a senior March 8 source said Sunday.

Another round of consultations is expected to be held this week between Mikati and MP Ali Hassan Khalil, a political adviser to Speaker Nabih Berri, and Hussein Khalil, a political aide to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, amid slim chances of reaching an agreement to break the four-month-long Cabinet stalemate that has plunged the country into a power vacuum and paralyzed state institutions.

The March 8 source did not sound optimistic about solving the Cabinet crisis soon, but ruled out a complete breakdown in efforts. “The current stagnation in the Cabinet formation efforts does not reflect a major crisis or a great difficulty. The crisis has not yet reached a breaking point,” the source told The Daily Star.

A source close to the Cabinet formation talks said that Mikati’s contacts with Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun have been broken off as a result of the latter’s scathing verbal attacks on Mikati and President Michel Sleiman in the past few weeks, blaming them for the Cabinet impasse. “The only link between Mikati and Aoun is Hezbollah,” the source said.

The March 8 source said that Friday’s visit to Beirut by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and North African Affairs Jeffrey Feltman did not affect the Cabinet formation process. In his meetings with Lebanese leaders, Feltman did not discuss the Cabinet formation issue, the source said. Feltman had talks with Sleiman, Mikati, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt.

However, in a statement released by the U.S. Embassy after his talks Feltman reiterated the U.S. position that the international community would assess its relationship with any Lebanese government based on the make-up of the next Cabinet, its policy statement and the actions it takes concerning Lebanon’s international obligations, including a U.N.-appointed court probing the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Feltman’s statement was criticized by Hezbollah’s caretaker Agriculture Minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan who said in a statement Sunday: “Isn’t this considered an interference in Lebanese affairs?” He called on the new Parliament majority, or Hezbollah and its March 8 allies, to speed up the government’s formation.

MP Ali Hassan Khalil also called for a swift formation of the government, saying a further delay was no longer permissible. “Our differences must not prevent us from coming up with a political government that ensures the people’s belonging to their country,” he told a rally in the southern village of Meis al-Jabal.

Caretaker Labor Minister Butros Harb from the March 14 coalition said that the only solution for the Cabinet crisis is through the formation of a government of technocrats. “Following the other side’s inability to form a government, we must bring in people who work for the interest of all the Lebanese,” Harb said. However, he expressed doubts that the March 8 alliance would accept a technocrat government. “I think a technocrat government is impossible because those who toppled Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Cabinet will not accept this matter,” Harb said.

Caretaker Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi has said that Aoun held the key to breaking the Cabinet deadlock, stressing that an understanding between Aoun and Mikati would definitely help get the stalled Cabinet formation process off the ground.

Several rounds of talks between Mikati on the one hand, and the two advisers and caretaker Energy Minister Jibran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, on the other, have failed to bridge the wide gap over the distribution of portfolios.

While Mikati is still waiting for parliamentary blocs to provide him with the lists of names they propose for the Cabinet, Aoun upholds his tough demands, including his insistence that his bloc be allotted five Cabinet seats for Maronites out of his share of 10 portfolios, a source close to the formation talks said.

Feltman’s visit coincided with a visit by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Middle East Affairs Mohammad Riza Shibani who held talks with the country’s political leaders. Shibani also met with Nasrallah Friday.

Shibani conveyed a message from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Sleiman inviting him to an international conference to fight terrorism to be held in Tehran June 25-26. He renewed Iran’s support for Lebanon, expressing hope that a new Lebanese government would be formed quickly.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 23, 2011, on page 1.

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