The fate of an Arab economic summit, set to be held in Beirut next week, hung in the balance Wednesday after Speaker Nabih Berri suggested the meeting be postponed due to the absence of a fully functioning government.
Berri’s suggestion, which reflected a split among Lebanese leaders on the 2019 Arab Economic and Social Development summit scheduled for Jan. 19-20, came two days after President Michel Aoun said the event would be held on time even if a new government had not been formed by then, dispelling any fears of postponement or cancellation of the meeting under a caretaker Cabinet.
“In the absence of a [new] government, and since Lebanon should be a factor of unity and not a factor of division, and in order for this summit not to be weak, we see the need to postpone it until the government has been formed,” Berri was quoted as saying during his weekly meeting with lawmakers at his Ain al-Tineh residence.
Berri, according to MPs who met with him, again underlined the “need for Syria’s participation in this summit.” Berri’s call for its postponement also appeared to reflect his resentment over the Arab League’s reluctance to invite Syria.
Aoun had said Monday that the summit would be held on time, adding that “the presence of a caretaker government is not a reason to postpone it.”Aoun and Berri’s conflicting positions come amid a lingering Cabinet formation crisis, now in its eighth month, and Lebanese divisions over whether Syria should be invited to attend.
The planned summit also comes as some Arab countries are warming up to Syria, whose membership in the Arab League has been suspended since 2011 after the outbreak of the civil war.
Hezbollah, a key ally of Damascus, has expressed support for inviting Syria to the summit, saying it is in Lebanon’s interest to do so. Hezbollah and its allies have repeatedly called for normalizing ties with the Syrian regime.
But Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and other parties, namely the Lebanese Forces and the Progressive Socialist Party, vehemently oppose any contacts with the regime before a political settlement is reached to end the war in Syria.
A source from Baabda Palace previously told The Daily Star that Syria could rejoin the Arab League if foreign ministers from the member states, which are scheduled to meet in Beirut on Jan. 18, choose to reinstate it.
Berri also remained pessimistic about the Cabinet formation.
“The fate of the Cabinet formation was unknown [Tuesday]. Today it has actually become a thing of the past. The proposals floated recently [to break the Cabinet impasse] did not have a chance of success,” MP Ali Bazzi from Berri’s parliamentary bloc quoted him as saying.
Berri, according to Bazzi, said he has not received any response so far to his proposal that called on Hariri’s caretaker Cabinet to meet and pass the 2019 draft state budget.
A Cabinet meeting to discuss and approve the budget “should not contradict at all with the need to speed up the government formation and to abandon intransigence that is delaying it,” Berri said.
Berri also met with MP Abdel-Rahim Mrad, one of the six Hezbollah-backed Sunni MPs whose demand for representation in the new government has stalled its formation since October.
“One of the essential topics that is preventing the Cabinet formation is the issue of the Consultative Gathering, which must definitely be represented with a representative from within it,” Mrad said after the meeting with Berri, referring to the group of six MPs.
All mediation attempts as well as new proposals floated by caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil designed to end the Cabinet gridlock have so far failed to narrow differences over the issue of representing the six MPs, who are from outside the Future Movement.
Commenting on the Cabinet crisis, Aoun said he was working with Hariri to achieve a wide consensus.
“There is no doubt that Lebanon suffers today from a state of internal stumbling, and from the adverse repercussions of the file of the displaced [Syrians]. As President of the Republic, I am striving hard to preserve the major national choices that have protected the nation for decades and have preserved its formula, its democratic system and the spirit of coexistence among its citizens,” Aoun said, addressing the foreign and Arab diplomatic corps at Baabda Palace at an annual event on the occasion of the New Year.
Noting that the essence of Lebanese democracy is above all based on consensus, he said: “We are, therefore, working to achieve wide and utter consensus in order to resolve the formation of the government-to-be, in partnership with the prime minister-designate.
“The experiments of the past show that this process [Cabinet formation] used to require time and vast consultations because it did not rest upon clear foundations and criteria.
“But today, after the adoption of the proportional law, it should not have taken so long if, from the beginning, the criterion of fair representation, which must be the arbitrator in any dispute, had been adopted.”
“The strenuous circumstances surrounding us, the crises and domestic challenges that we are going through, especially at the economic level, no longer allow any procrastination or tenacious attachment to the interests of the parties at the expense of the nation and the people,” he said.
Aoun said Lebanon should not continue to pay the price for regional peace after already suffering the effects of recent wars.
He added that the Syrian refugee crisis was still weighing heavily on Lebanon’s economy, security, society, education and hospitalization.
The president said the international community should not wait for a political solution to the almost 8-year-old Syrian crisis before encouraging refugees to return to their country.
Meanwhile, Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai said he would invite the leaders of Lebanon’s main Christian parties to a meeting in Bkirki to discuss ways of breaking the Cabinet formation impasse.
“There is an urgent need for a meeting with the Maronite leaders before I travel to the United States on Jan. 21,” Rai told the Voice of Lebanon radio station (100.5).
He was referring to the leaders of the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb Party and the Marada Movement.
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