x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Cabinet meets but deadlock over Hariri tribunal remains

First session in more than a month ends after just three hours without resolving a dispute over evidence given to a United Nations tribunal into the assassination of the former prime minister.

BEIRUT // After a hiatus of five weeks, Lebanon's cabinet met late yesterday for just three hours without resolving a dispute over evidence given to a United Nations tribunal into the assassination of the former prime minister.

The cabinet has been paralysed over the issue of alleged "false witnesses" - people accused of giving false and misleading testimony to international investigators working to identify who was behind the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri.

But yesterday's session was adjourned by President Michel Suleiman shortly after it begin, without a vote on the controversial issue, according to local news reports.

Hizbollah and its allies are demanding a cabinet vote on whether to launch an inquiry by the nation's highest court into what it claims was bogus testimony given to the investigators.

Since rumours, floated months ago, suggested that Hizbollah members will be among the first to be indicted by the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Hizbollah and its political allies, who form the opposition March 8 alliance, have lobbied hard to discredit the tribunal, calling it a US-Israeli design aiming to harm the resistance.

Prime Minster Saad Hariri, son and political heir to Rafiq Hariri, and his March 14 alliance, are standing firmly by the tribunal and refusing March 8 calls to reject it, saying the tribunal is vital for Lebanese justice, sovereignty and its credibility on the international stage.

The much-awaited cabinet session finally began at around 5pm yesterday after a closed door meeting between President Suleiman and Mr Hariri.

While the cabinet session was scheduled to continue into the night, with about 300 issues on its agenda, the session ended quickly, as many analysts predicted.

"The president will dismiss the session as he won't allow for a vote to happen," said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University Beirut before the cabinet went to session. "The two sides' position on the matter is polar. I don't think they are capable of resolving it."

The larger political animosity regarding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has crystallised around the issue of "false witnesses". Hizbollah wants them to be tried in Lebanon's highest court, the Judicial Council, and they say this motion should be decided upon by the cabinet through a simple vote.

Mr Hariri and his alliance refuse having any trials happen in the Judicial Council, saying such a move would be unconstitutional - the Judicial Council is only for trying people accused of compromising national security. It would also block the future work of the tribunal, Mr Hariri and his allies say. They also reject the proposal that the cabinet makes its decision on this issue by a simple vote. Lebanon's cabinet is a power-sharing one and Mr Hariri and his coalition argue that a simple vote would further split the already polarised cabinet.

They may also be concerned that their coalition might lose such a vote. The political landscape has altered considerably since the March 14 won alliance won a majority in the June 2009 governmental election. In the meantime, some of Lebanon's political actors, chief among them the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and his Progressive Socialist Party, have abandoned the March 14/March 8 rivalry, opting instead to occupy an ill-defined "middle ground". In the case of Mr Jumblatt, he maintains his neutrality, yet many of his current actions - an imminent private visit to Syria and a meeting with Iran's ambassador to Lebanon, Ghadanfar Rokn Abadi - are provoking analysts to view him as closer to March 8 than to March 14.

Prior to yesterday's cabinet meeting, high-level players on both sides of Lebanon's political divide held meetings and sent compromise proposals back and forth in a bid to pre-empt another cabinet walk-out.

The Speaker of the House, Nabih Berri, the leader of the March 8-allied Shiite Amal party, proposed removing the "false witnesses" issue from the cabinet table for the moment and asking the Judicial Council to vote on whether trying the issue lies within its jurisdiction.

"My proposal is all Lebanese," he said, according to Lebanese daily An Nahar.

Mr Hariri and his coalition rejected the proposal, and sent back another one to Mr Berri - establishing a judicial commission of six judges including one judge appointed by Mr Berri himself, a Hizbollah ally, and one nominated by President Suleiman, a neutral consensus figure.

"We, too, proposed not only a Lebanon-made solution, but a constitutional one," retorted Mr Hariri.

"Hariri is trying to buy time," says Professor Khashan. "He has been travelling and he's received advice from the Americans to delay this issue until after [indictments are issued]. But there are so many pressing issues. There has been flooding and brush fires in recent weeks and the public is upset so [the cabinet] needs to meet."