BEIRUT: During an ice-breaking meeting at Baabda Palace, the country’s top leaders agreed Tuesday to revive the work of the Cabinet and Parliament and create a favorable political and security climate for Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections in nine years, set for May. President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri also agreed on a resolution to the 2-month-old standoff between the president and the speaker over a decree promoting a number of Army officers that was at the root of heightened political tensions between the two leaders, a political source told The Daily Star.
The three leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the 1989 Taif Accord that provided for equal power-sharing between Christians and Muslims, and they agreed not to allow any political dispute to threaten civil peace and stability in the country, according to an official statement issued after the meeting.
They also agreed on a series of measures to prevent Israel from building a concrete wall on Lebanese territory on the Lebanese-Israeli border and a possible Israeli encroachment on Lebanon’s oil and gas wealth in Lebanese territorial waters.
Both Berri and Hariri expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the Baabda meeting which addressed,
among other things, the officers’ decree dispute between Aoun and Berri and aimed to de-escalate political tensions and bolster stability in the face of Israel’s threats against Lebanon’s offshore oil and gas exploration.The reconciliation meeting by the three leaders was called by Aoun following a telephone conversation with the speaker last week in the wake of a wave of street protests by Berri’s supporters, who blocked main roads in Beirut and other areas with burning tires and dumpsters in response to a video in which Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil was shown calling Berri a “thug.” The street protests culminated in a push by Berri’s supporters into the Christian town of Hadath in a serious incident that put the country on the verge of renewed sectarian violence.
Later in the evening, speaking to visitors at his Ain al-Tineh residence, Berri praised the outcome of the Baabda talks as “very positive.”
“You will see a practical translation of what we have agreed on soon,” Berri said. “We have agreed on a solution to the officers’ promotion and seniority decree that calls for resorting to the Constitution.”
A political source told The Daily Star that the crisis over the officers’ decree was on its way to resolution. “Hariri is working to promote a solution based on a proposal by Berri,” the source said.
Berri’s proposal calls essentially for combining the controversial decree that seeks to promote around 200 Army officers – all Christians except for 15 Muslims – who served under Aoun in the late 1980s, advancing their seniority and rank by one year, along with other decrees securing promotions for all officers in the military corps, into one decree to be signed by the relevant ministers – that is, the defense, interior and finance ministers – before presenting it to the prime minister and the president for their signature.
Berri said he stressed during the Baabda meeting the need for the Cabinet to speed up the approval of the 2018 draft state budget and send it to Parliament so as to avoid the delays in the ratification of budgets that had happened in the past.
The speaker said the Baabda talks did not touch on Bassil’s remarks against him. Noting that he had apologized to the Lebanese people over the street protests in Beirut by his supporters, Berri said: “I did not ask him [Bassil] to apologize to me. He must apologize to the Lebanese because they have been offended.”
Hariri echoed a similarly optimistic tone on the Baabda talks. “The meeting was very fruitful and results, God willing, will be positive. The atmosphere was very positive,” Hariri said after the meeting. He added that the three leaders agreed to cooperate to serve the citizens’ interests.
“All contentious matters have been resolved,” Hariri said, without elaborating. A political source said the leaders agreed on opening a new parliamentary cycle to allow MPs to endorse urgent draft laws, including the 2018 state budget.
They also agreed to a one-time suspension of an item in the new proportional voting law relating to the use of magnetic or biometric voting cards in the upcoming parliamentary polls in order to prevent a legal challenge of the election results, the source said.
“If good intentions exist, this will lead to the prolongation of consensus [among the leaders]. But [Berri’s] dispute with Bassil poses a time bomb that could set off differences again,” the source said.
Before the three leaders met, Aoun’s official Twitter announced a Cabinet session would take place at Baabda Palace Thursday. The Cabinet has not met over the past two weeks due to the political atmosphere.
The Cabinet agenda includes 93 items, including requests by some ministers for allocations from extrabudgetary spending.
A statement released by the presidency’s media office said the three leaders’ meeting had focused on Israeli threats against Lebanon’s “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity,” which were manifested in Israel’s intention to build a concrete wall along the Blue Line that marks the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, in addition to Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s claims that a southern Lebanese oil block belonged to Israel.
The three leaders agreed to work through a series of measures regionally and internationally to prevent Israel’s construction of the wall and its possible encroachment on oil and gas wealth in Lebanese territorial waters, the statement said. It added that the measures would be examined during an extraordinary meeting of the Higher Defense Council to be chaired by Aoun at Baabda Palace Wednesday in the presence of Hariri, relevant ministers and chiefs of security apparatuses.
In discussing the reasons for political tensions and street protests, the three leaders agreed to tackle “what happened through constitutional institutions ... regulations and laws.”
“They stressed the need to abide by the National Accord Document [Taif Accord] that has been accepted by the Lebanese with the aim of maintaining their national unity and the unique coexistence formula. They agreed not to allow any political dispute to threaten the civil peace and stability enjoyed by the country,” the statement said.
The leaders also agreed on the need to “reactivate the work of all constitutional institutions, especially Parliament and the Cabinet, and to ensure a favorable political and security climate to hold parliamentary elections on May 6 in a climate of democracy,” the statement said.
The Baabda meeting won praise from the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc.
“This meeting is a step in the right direction to address political differences and keep the campaigns under the ceiling of dialogue and the work of constitutional institutions with full commitment to the Taif Accord,” the bloc said in a statement issued after its weekly meeting chaired by Hariri.