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--Berri, Jumblat Laud Positive Climate, Say Government Coming Soon

--Hariri, Bassil Consultations Remove Obstacles for Hariri-Aoun Meeting

--Hizbullah, Aoun in Constant Consultation

--Gemayel Accuses Opposition of Pushing for Confederalism

--Geagea Standing by Majority Principles

"The opposition has set the train on the right track by moving government-formation talks to Lebanon rather than abroad," Hizbullah's Al Manar TV said in the introduction to its news coverage Tuesday night. In a hectic political day on Tuesday, Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri met with opposition leader Michel Aoun's envoy Gebran Bassil as part of consultations to form the 2009 government. It was revealed afterwards that Hariri said he would not mind meeting Aoun. House Speaker Nabih Berri and Druze leader Walid Jumblat both agreed that the government "will not be too late" and outlined efforts by President Michel Suleiman and themselves to ease Hariri's task. Hizbullah and its ally Aoun also consulted after Bassil's meeting with Hariri, as anti-Syrian Maronite leader Gemayel accused the opposition of pushing for confederalism. Gemayel's ally, Samir Geagea, in turn said that the ruling majority has so far stood by the principles for which they won the June 7 elections.

A few days into the third week of government-formation talks, Lebanese leaders seemed Tuesday to have moved on to a new phase with the intensified meetings between each other. More bridges were built between the opposition and the majority, and the power-sharing demands of all parties were made clearer. Telecommunications Minister Bassil said that "consultations over the formation of the government are still in preliminary stages," but it was clear that Tuesday's talks had gone an extra step in the direction of forming the 2009 government.

Berri, Jumblat

Berri and Jumblat, who had formed an alliance prior to last month's parliamentary elections despite being on opposing political sides, met Tuesday and highlighted their support for Hariri as the person mandated to form a government, AN NAHAR reported. Berri was quoted as saying after the meeting that talks were held in a "positive atmosphere," adding, "The birth of the government will not be too long anymore." Jumblat reiterated Berri's words and said that the "serious talk" over the formation of the government has begun.

In related information, AN NAHAR, Beirut's influential daily, cited informed sources as saying that three-way efforts on the part of Berri, Jumblat, and Suleiman were underway to "ease and facilitate" Hariri's task. Jumblat said that if the positivity in Lebanon leads to the formation of a government, then it would have a positive effect on regional issues. "It would affect Arab reconciliations positively Jumblat said, "just as Lebanon would be affected by positivity from its regional milieu."

The alliance between Jumblat and Berri has also reflected positively in internal Lebanese politics. On Tuesday, Jumblat was quoted by AN NAHAR as saying that he would not mind meeting Aoun--with whom he has deeply differed at times. Berri was also reported to have played a role in the recent reconciliation between Hizbullah and Jumblat's Progressive Socialist Party. Hizbullah Chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah had previously said that he would only see Jumblat "on Judgment Day". Recent reports suggested, however, that Nasrallah and Jumblat have "fully reconciled."

Hariri, Bassil

Bassil explained in detail what Aoun's demands for proportionality entail, reported AN NAHAR. "When we discuss the possibility of a national unity government, we have to abide by certain scientific standards that end disputes between us and help us overcome talk of an obstructing third or anything as such," Bassil said. He added, "One very positive point in our meeting was that there were no categorical rejections of any idea. We discussed the ideas openly."

When quizzed by reporters over a possible meeting between Hariri and Aoun, Bassil said there were no obstacles preventing such a meeting. "What's important," he said, "is that the meeting gives the government-formation process a push in the right direction."

Aoun has been demanding proportional representation in government. He has said that since his Free Patriotic Movement received half of the votes of Christians in Lebanon, he should be given half of the Christian ministries in government. Majority leaders have categorically rejected such demands.


After Bassil's meeting with Hariri, Aoun and Hizbullah held talks in Bassil's presence, AN NAHAR reported Wednesday. Hizbullah leader Nasrallah's chief political aide, Hussein Khalil said after the meeting that the opposition can either "participate actively" in the government, or be a "witness to the government's dealings." Khalil pointed out that the opposition "has not heard Hariri publicly reject granting the opposition veto power." The ruling March 14 coalition, led by Hariri, has repeatedly stated that it will not grant the opposition veto power in government. Hariri, however, has not said anything on the matter since his appointment as prime minister-designate.

Khalil also eased lingering fears among Lebanese citizens of renewed clashes among supporters of the opposition and the majority. He was quoted by the paper as saying, "What Saad Hariri has told us does not place Lebanon's security under any sort of threat. The security situation is very relaxed currently." His comments eased fears among the Lebanese people of a repeat of clashes between Berri's Amal Movement forces and Hariri's supporters. Three weeks ago, when Berri was reelected for a fifth term as house speaker and days later Hariri was appointed prime minister designate, celebratory gunfire resulted in clashes among the supporters of the two leaders. The clashes resulted in the death of a mother of five, raising the number of deaths from celebratory gunfire to two in three days.

While Aoun did not give any comments to the media about the meeting with Hizbullah, Bassil was quoted by AN NAHAR as saying that it was normal for Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement to consult. "Consultations between us and Hizbullah are natural. They only consolidate the unity of the opposition," Bassil said. He added that consultations over the formation of the government are still in "preliminary stages," calling for "more consultations in order to come up with a final picture of the situation."


Meanwhile, Gemayel, leader of the anti-Syrian Phalange party and Aoun's rival, accused the opposition of pushing for confederalism, according to AN NAHAR Wednesday. During a late-night television interview, Gemayel said, "The March 8 [opposition] coalition has been pushing for confederalism in Lebanon. Their insistence on the obstructing third [veto power in the government] is basically the implementation of sectarian confederalism." The impetus behind the opposition's demands for veto power, or "active participation" as opposition leaders call it, is to veto any proposal in government that tends to the issue of Hizbullah's military presence in Lebanon. Lebanese leaders have proposed over five national defense strategies which provide a mechanism for Hizbullah's disarmament or for its dissolution into the Lebanese army. Hizbullah, however, despite saying it is ready to discuss the issue of its arms, has yet to provide an official stance on the proposals. Gemayel, a former Lebanese president, said that the majority would be "willing to provide Hizbullah with certain guarantees should they decide to give up their arms."

Gemayel also spoke about Lebanon's relations with Syria. Reports suggesting that a recent Syrian-Saudi rapprochement has pushed Hariri to visit Syria to normalize ties have increased in number over the past few weeks, due to Hariri's closeness to the Saudi royal family. Gemayel said that the majority "prefers for Hariri to go to Syria with the backing of a strong Lebanese government." His comments expressed opposition among majority leaders for Hariri to visit Syria before the formation of the government. Hariri has also said that he would be willing to visit Damascus after the government is formed. The ruling March 14 coalition, including Hariri, accuse Syria of involvement in the 2005 assassination of Saad's father, ex-Premier Rafik al-Hariri in a massive truck bomb explosion. Syria, however, categorically denies any involvement.


Meanwhile, Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF), said that the majority remains loyal to the principles that allowed it to win parliamentary elections last month, AN NAHAR reported. "The fact that we don't have a government three weeks after a prime minister-designate was appointed shows that we are holding on to our principles," Geagea said. "We [March 14] all agree on not granting the opposition veto power ... And I know for a fact that the LF will not participate in a government in which the minority has veto power." Geagea's comments came amidst fears among the majority's Christian leaders that Hariri has backed out of his commitment not to grant the opposition veto power--due to the latter's silence on the matter.

Geagea also criticized his rival Aoun and his demands for proportional representation. "All he [Aoun] wants is to get the biggest number of ministries as possible," Geagea said, "while Hizbullah still wants to make sure nobody talks about its military presence in Lebanon."
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Title Annotation:Today's News Highlights
Publication:The Daily Middle East Reporter (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Jul 15, 2009
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