TUE 25 - 2 - 2020
Date: Aug 21, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Aoun denies U-turn on defense; Hariri vows ‘hard work’
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun Tuesday dismissed suggestions that he was backtracking on his commitment to devise a national defense strategy designed to protect Lebanon against a possible Israeli attack, and eventually integrate Hezbollah’s arsenal into the Army’s weapons.

Aoun’s denial came after his comments the day before on a national defense strategy were interpreted as a retreat from this commitment, and subsequently drew criticism from the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc and other politicians.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Saad Hariri promised shortly after his return to Beirut from a visit to the United Sates that the government would “work hard” in the coming weeks to make up for lost time during the six-week hiatus caused by the aftermath of the deadly Aley clashes.

A statement from Hariri’s media office said the Cabinet would meet at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at Beiteddine Palace in the Chouf district, the president’s summer residence, to tackle a 46-item agenda. The session will be chaired by Aoun.

“The government will work hard in the coming days. Things are back to normal and even better, God willing,” Hariri told a news conference after inaugurating new security measures at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport.

Thursday’s will be the second Cabinet session since the reconciliation meeting hosted by Aoun at Baabda Palace on Aug. 9 between the leaders of the two main Druze parties: Walid Joumblatt of the Progressive Socialist Party and MP Talal Arslan of the Lebanese Democratic Party. The reconciliation meeting led to resuming Cabinet sessions and also cleared the way for a resolution to the aftermath of the June 30 Qabr Shmoun incident that had crippled the government for more than a month over which court to handle the incident. Information Minister Jamal Jarrah had told The Daily Star that Hariri was determined to intensify Cabinet sessions to make up for lost time and address economic financial problems, as Lebanon was coming under mounting international pressure to carry out key fiscal and economic reforms recommended at last year’s CEDRE conference.

Top leaders’ calls for accelerating the implementation of economic reforms coincided with media reports that the global rating agency, Standard & Poor’s, was likely to downgrade Lebanon from B- to CCC+ in its report expected Friday.

A statement released by Aoun’s office said media outlets and websites carried comments and analyses that gave “wrong interpretations” of the president’s position on the defense strategy issue which he talked about during his meeting with reporters at Beiteddine Palace Monday.

The president’s comments were “a description of the situation that arose 10 years after this issue was brought up at the national dialogue conference sessions, particularly the military developments that occurred in Lebanon’s neighboring country [Syria] in past years, which required a new approach to the defense strategy issue, taking into account these developments, especially after major powers and terrorist organizations had joined the wars witnessed by several countries neighboring Lebanon,” the statement said.

“The presidency’s media office, while confirming that the president is committed to the stances he had previously announced on the defense strategy issue and the need to discuss it in a conciliatory climate, calls for not interpreting the president’s stances in a wrong or premeditated manner that might raise confusion,” the statement added.

The presidency’s statement came a few hours after the Future bloc criticized Aoun’s earlier comments on the defense strategy, stressing that this issue should be “a permanent item” on the agenda of any national dialogue conference. “Sessions were devoted in dialogue conferences to discussing proposals presented by participant leaders, including a plan presented by President Michel Aoun in the name of the Free Patriotic Movement, and a plan presented by [former] President Michel Sleiman,” the bloc said in a statement after its weekly meeting chaired by Sidon MP Bahia Hariri.

Recalling that Lebanon’s friends had welcomed Aoun’s previous declaration to renew a national dialogue on a defense strategy, the bloc said: “It will be useful for the national interest to send positive messages to Lebanon’s partners and friends, asserting commitment to the state’s role in bolstering legitimate institutions and protecting lines of support decided [at the Rome conference] to the Lebanese Army and security institutions.”

MP Wehbi Qatisha, from the Lebanese Forces’ parliamentary bloc, also criticized Aoun’s comments.

“There is no state in the world that does not have a defense strategy. Or else, how it builds its army?” he tweeted.

Asked by a reporter Monday on his call for a national dialogue on a defense strategy, Aoun said: “At present, all strategic defensive criteria which we must draw up have changed. On what [this strategy] will be based today? Even, the spheres of influence have changed. I was the first to draft a plan for a defense strategy. But is it still valid today?”

The adoption of a national defense strategy has long been demanded by Hezbollah’s political opponents with the aim of integrating the party’s arms into the Lebanese Army Command.

Speaking at the news conference at Beirut airport, Hariri addressed sanctions against Hezbollah, after being asked about media reports that new U.S. sanctions on Hezbollah officials might also target Christian figures in Lebanon allied with the Iran-backed party.

“First, I am not the one who determines the U.S. sanctions. These are some of the accusations I have been hearing of since the beginning but I do not think this will happen. The U.S. administration is very clear in its approach to this issue, and the sanctions it imposes on some states, figures, institutions or associations are clear,” Hariri said, adding: “Is Lebanon targeted? We have a very good relationship with the U.S. Treasury Department and we are following it closely. I went there and so did the Association of Banks and a parliamentary delegation. Everyone followed up this issue and I think it will not happen, but I cannot confirm it.”

Asked to comment on fears of downgrading Lebanon’s ranking, Hariri said: “We have been working on the subject of ranking for some time ... The figures of the 2019 budget were good and now we are working to finish the 2020 budget within the constitutional deadlines.

This gives the impression to the international financial institutions that Lebanon is serious. Our problem in the past was that we said something and did another. But now we are showing the institutions that we carry out our promises, whether in the laws, budgets or the figures we want to reach. So I hope things will be positive.”

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