TUE 26 - 3 - 2019
Date: Nov 5, 2018
Source: The Daily Star
Hezbollah escalation ‘linked to Iran sanctions’
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Hezbollah escalated its position on the issue of representing Sunni lawmakers not affiliated with the Future Movement over the weekend, to the extent of ruling out the formation of a new government without naming one of them as a minister. The remarks by Hezbollah’s deputy head Sheikh Naim Qassem threaten to prolong the Cabinet formation crisis, now in its sixth month, as President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri have strongly rejected a demand by the six so-called “independent” Sunni lawmakers to be represented in the new government.

However, the sudden toughening of Hezbollah’s stance on the representation of those Sunni MPs coincided with U.S. President Donald Trump’s reimposition of all U.S. sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal, raising questions about the Iranian-backed party’s escalatory move and giving rise to speculation that Hezbollah might have acted at Tehran’s behest.

“With the American-Iranian confrontation at its peak following the imposition of new tough U.S. sanctions, Iran, which wields great influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah, might have asked its powerful ally to respond to the sanctions by acting to delay the Cabinet formation as a message to regional and foreign countries that are keen on Lebanon’s stability,” a political source close to the formation process told The Daily Star.

As the Cabinet formation remains at a stalemate over the issue of representing the independent Sunni MPs, French President Emmanuel Macron is sending a special envoy to Lebanon to urge Lebanese leaders on the need to speed up the government formation, the state-run Tele Liban television reported.

Aurelien Lechevallier, Macron’s adviser for diplomatic affairs, is set to arrive in Beirut Monday on a visit during which he will meet with senior Lebanese officials, it said.

The French envoy will also underline the importance of the new government to assume its responsibility toward the implementation of reforms and recommendations adopted at the CEDRE conference, it added.

Macron, whose country hosted the CEDRE conference in April to shore up Lebanon’s ailing economy, is scheduled to visit Beirut in February.

The CEDRE conference raised over $11 billion in grants and soft loans pledged by countries and international organizations to finance investment and infrastructure projects in Lebanon.

Lebanon pledged at the conference to carry out structural reforms to revitalize the sluggish economy.

However, the implementation of the reforms remains depended on the formation of a new government.

Consultations on the Cabinet formation were at a standstill Sunday as Hariri did not return to Beirut over the weekend from a private visit to France as was widely expected.

Hariri will travel again later to France in order to participate in the Paris Peace Forum, which will run from Nov. 11-13, a source close to the premier-designate told The Daily Star.

Sources close to Hariri’s Future Movement reiterated his staunch opposition to the representation of the independent Sunni MPs in the new government.

Al-Jadeed TV quoted the sources as saying that Hariri had accepted allocating the Health Ministry to Hezbollah “despite international threats of sanctions” on Lebanon.

“We accepted retaining the Public Works Ministry with the Marada Movement despite the president’s opposition. What else does the party [Hezbollah] want?” the sources said. “Changing the current balance of power through the representation of [independent] Sunni MPs [in the Cabinet] is rejected and Hariri will not do it,” the sources said.

But Hezbollah’s deputy chief said the next government would not be complete if the Sunni MPs outside the Future Movement were not represented. Qassem said the issue of the MPs’ representation was not raised recently, as claimed by Hezbollah’s critics, but had been there from the start of the Cabinet formation process, along with the problems of the Druze and Lebanese Forces’ representation, which have both been resolved.

“The independent Sunnis represent a large segment of people and are therefore entitled to be represented by a minister,” Qassem said in a speech in Beirut’s southern suburbs Saturday.

“Hezbollah confirms that it supports the formation of the government as soon as possible. But the solution is in the hands of the prime minister. This matter can be solved with little understanding and modesty,” Qassem said.

“We stress the formation of a national unity government. But this government will not be complete unless the independent Sunni [MPs] are represented on the basis that everyone has been represented.”

Speaker Nabih Berri Sunday renewed his support for the representation of the independent Sunni MPs. Visitors at the speaker’s Ain al-Tineh residence quoted Berri as saying he had advised Hariri on the need to represent those six Sunni MPs, even from the prime minister-designate’s share.

Berri, who denied reports that he was mediating to find a solution to the problem of representing the MPs, said he was waiting for Hariri’s return to Beirut to see what he can do about the matter.

“This issue is at least more than 5 months old. Everyone knows that, including those who were surprised by it,” he said.

Berri praised a statement issued by the Higher Islamic Council after its meeting Saturday chaired by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian that, he said, was “balanced” and rejected attempts to inflame Sunni-Shiite tensions over Hezbollah’s support for the six Sunni MPs.

“I am confident that no one will succeed in straining this [Sunni-Shiite] relationship.

“Sunni-Shiite strife happened in the whole world, but not in Lebanon. It did not happen and will not happen,” Berri said.

Hezbollah has refused to hand Hariri the names of its three candidates for the new Cabinet.

In response, Hariri has stood firm on his refusal to cede a seat from the Future Movement’s share in Cabinet to those Sunni parliamentarians who are demanding to be represented in the government.

Aoun has backed Hariri’s position on the issue, saying in a televised interview last week that the six Sunni lawmakers did not have a right to representation because they were not part of a single parliamentary bloc.

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