x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Lebanon's cabinet meets as Hariri probe date looms

Lebanon's polarised cabinet reconvenes today, after a gap of five weeks caused by rows over the international tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

BEIRUT // Lebanon's polarised cabinet reconvenes today, after five weeks out of session because of disagreements regarding the international tribunal investigating the assassination in 2005 of the country's prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

The cabinet crisis revolved around the issue of so-called "false witnesses", untruthful and misleading statements issued to the tribunal in its early stages, which Hizbollah and its allies, who form the opposition, are demanding be investigated and tried in Lebanon's highest court.

They have asked that the issue be decided in the cabinet by a vote. Cabinet members loyal to Mr Hariri and his majoritarian March 14 alliance refused the proposition, stating it would block the work of the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon. They also said voting on the matter would serve to further divide the fragile cabinet. After reaching an impasse, Hizbollah ministers and their March 8 allies walked out of cabinet on November 10.

Since leaks and rumours surrounding the tribunal emerged months ago suggesting that Hizbollah members will be among the first to be indicted, Hizbollah and its allies have campaigned hard to delegitimise the tribunal, saying it was a US-Israeli ploy to harm the resistance. The opposition alliance began lobbying to have the Lebanese government reject the tribunal before indictments were handed down.

The prime minister, Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri, together with his alliance, refuses to reject the tribunal, saying it is essential for Lebanese sovereignty, democracy, and its relationship with the international community.

Mr Hariri and President Michel Suleiman - a neutral figure in the divided Lebanese political landscape - spent the early days of this week meeting leaders and stakeholders from Lebanon's opposing camps in an effort to pre-empt another walkout from today's session. Three hundred issues are being tabled for discussion by the cabinet today, but the first issue to be broached is that of the "false witnesses", according to the prime minister's office.

In an interview published yesterday in Lebanon's al Liwaa newspaper, Walid Joumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze community and head of Lebanon's Progressive Socialist Party, said the placement of the "false witnesses" issue on the top of the agenda was a positive sign. Mr Joumblatt was once a central pillar of the March 14 coalition until August 2009, when he and his party defected, assuming a neutral position between Lebanon's political camps. He said cabinet decisions on false witnesses must be made by broad consensus.

"I don't like to resort to voting," he said. "Let there be consensus on this file and stop delaying."

Lebanon has little time to waste. The tribunal is an issue that has split the country's political make-up to its core and the ticking clock adds another layer of drama. There is a race on between the arrival of the indictments and a solution being cooked up between Saudi Arabia and Syria, patrons to Lebanon's rival political factions. Yesterday, the Lebanese daily An Nahar quoted a tribunal source, who said the lead prosecutor would hand the indictments to the tribunal's pre-trial judge, Daniel Fransen, on Saturday. Mr Fransen, the source said, would publicly release the identity of those indicted within three weeks.

Little has been disclosed about the "Saudi-Syrian Initiative" that politicians on both sides of Lebanon's political stalemate are pinning their hopes on for salvation from the impasse. Some news reports in Lebanon stated that the initiative was making "serious and real progress", but nothing concrete about what a Saudi-Syrian solution might look like was being communicated from Riyadh or Damascus.