BEIRUT: After failed local attempts to break the Cabinet deadlock, attention has been shifted to France’s possible intervention to help in the formation of a new government to enact reforms in line with a French initiative to rescue Lebanon from multiple crises, political sources said Tuesday.
Hopes for reviving the stalled French initiative rose following a statement issued by the Elysee Palace Sunday night saying that the situation in Lebanon was among topics discussed during French President Emmanuel Macron’s first phone conversation with US President Joe Biden.
The statement spoke of “rapprochement and readiness [between Macron and Biden] to work together for the sake of peace and stability in the Near and Middle East, particularly regarding Iran’s nuclear file and the situation in Lebanon.”
“In light of the Elysee statement and after the failure of local mediation efforts to break the impasse in the Cabinet formation process, attention is now focused on France’s possible role to help resolve differences over the formation of a new government,” an official source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.
“There is information about an expected French flurry of activity [to help in the Cabinet formation] before or after Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s visit to Paris,” the source said.
The Elysee statement coincided with reports that Hariri was preparing to visit Paris and might meet with Macron to brief him on the major hurdles he has encountered since Oct. 22 in his attempts to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to implement reforms outlined in the French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of its severe economic and financial crisis, the worst since the 1975-90 Civil War.
Asked whether Hariri, who has already visited the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, would also visit France soon, a source close to the premier-designate told The Daily Star: “Prime Minister Hariri has announced he will make foreign visits in order to restore Lebanon’s ties with Arab and friendly states.”
A political source told The Daily Star that the Elysee statement had “reaffirmed France’s continuing commitment to Lebanon and constituted a new hope underscoring continued international concern with Lebanon.”
Caretaker Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe confirmed that the Lebanese crisis was among issues discussed during the Biden-Macron phone conversation.
‘”We underline the importance of the French role in helping Lebanon. But Lebanese officials must take the initiative into their own hands,” Wehbe said in remarks published by Al-Liwaa newspaper Tuesday. “There is nothing to prevent President Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri, or even Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, from holding a national dialogue session to discuss how to bring the country out of its problems. Outside [powers] can help us, but we must decide on solving our problems ourselves,” he said.
Macron, whose country has emerged as the main power broker in Lebanon since the deadly Aug. 4 explosion that destroyed Beirut Port, presented the French initiative to Lebanon’s political leaders during his second visit to Beirut on Sept. 1. Macron was the first foreign leader to visit Beirut two days after the port blast.
However, the French initiative has remained stalled after rival Lebanese factions failed to agree on the swift formation of a “mission government” to implement a slew of economic and administrative reforms stipulated in the initiative.
Lebanon has been left without a fully functioning government since then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the port blast, although it has been serving in a caretaker capacity.
Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar reaffirmed that the French initiative was still in force and accused President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, of stalling the initiative with their tough conditions for the Cabinet formation.
“The French initiative is not dead in order to resuscitate it. The initiative is still on the table. There is the president’s team that does not want to go with this initiative under the conditions outlined by the initiative,” Hajjar told The Daily Star Tuesday.
He said Bassil voiced to Macron “oral support” for the initiative during the French president’s meeting with Lebanese leaders at the Pine Palace, the French ambassador’s residence in Beirut, on Sept. 1.
“But in reality, they [Aoun and Bassil] want a political and partisan government, or a techno-political government based on quotas with a blocking third [veto power]. Therefore, this is what has prevented the implementation of the French initiative,” Hajjar said.
Referring to the expected French moves, he said: “It’s clear international contacts [on the Lebanese crisis] are underway in tandem with local contacts. Let’s wait for two or three weeks to see where these contacts will lead.”
“Efforts should be geared toward exerting pressure on the team that is obstructing the government formation: President Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil. This team, unfortunately, always gives priority to its private interests at the expense of the national interests,” Hajjar said.
Since his designation on Oct. 22, Hariri has insisted on forming a Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms that excluded representatives of political parties and denied veto power to any party in line with the French initiative.
The talk about reviving the French initiative comes as attempts by mediators, including Diab, Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai and General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, have so far failed to arrange an ice-breaking meeting between Aoun and Hariri to agree on the swift formation of a salvation Cabinet to tackle the country’s crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown that is posing a serious threat to its stability and security.
Ibrahim said in a statement Tuesday that the “efforts and contacts he was making with various parties concerned with the Cabinet formation are still continuing and have not stopped.”
Aoun and Hariri have not met for more than a month since differences emerged between the two over a draft Cabinet lineup made up of 18 nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms the premier-designate presented to the president on Dec. 9.
Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem Tuesday renewed the group’s call for the quick formation of a new government to cope with the country’s “problems and existing challenges.”
Qassem spoke during a meeting with United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis, who has been paying farewell visits to Lebanese officials at the end of his term in Lebanon.
“The meeting discussed the conditions at the local and regional levels, including the efforts aimed at speeding up the formation of a government, in addition to the health and economic conditions amid the wide spread of the coronavirus pandemic and the deteriorating living conditions from which the Lebanese are suffering,” a statement released by Hezbollah’s media office said.
Qassem said Hezbollah was committed to “exercising its responsibilities at all levels alongside its people, especially in these difficult conditions.”