BEIRUT - Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Thursday night he would resign if the Cabinet failed next week to approve the payment of Lebanon’s share to the funding of a U.N.-backed court, in a dramatic move that would plunge the divided country into further political turmoil.
Mikati warned that failure to fund the Special Tribunal for Lebanon would lead to the imposition of U.N. sanctions and the country’s isolation by the international community.
His threat to step down came as Mikati was racing against time to meet a Dec. 15 deadline for the funding of the STL or face the possibility of a confrontation with the international community. The Netherlands-based STL is probing the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Asked what he would do if the Cabinet failed to approve paying Lebanon’s more than $30 million share to the STL’s annual budget, Mikati said in an interview with LBCI television: “The criterion is the Lebanese interest. I cannot imagine myself as prime minister with Lebanon under my mandate failing to honor its international obligations or is isolated by the international community. Simply, with the resignation I would be protecting Lebanon if the [STL’s] funding was not approved. My dream has been to protect Lebanon.”
“I think with my resignation, I will be protecting Lebanon if the Cabinet decided not to approve the funding. If I stayed in the government, sanctions will be imposed on Lebanon,” he said.
Mikati added that his resignation would be neutralizing Lebanon from possible sanctions.
“My concern is Lebanon. I cannot be a prime minister and expose Lebanon to any risk. My advice to all the ministers and [parliamentary] blocs is that they should take the funding [issue] seriously because it is related to Lebanon,” said Mikati, who appeared tense at times.
“I don’t want to expose the Resistance [Hizbullah] or Lebanon to danger. What matters is to send a signal that Lebanon is committed to international resolutions. This is very important,” Mikati said.
He urged those opposing the STL’s funding, mainly Hizbullah, the Amal Movement led by Speaker Nabih Berri and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement to consider the funding of the tribunal as “an insurance policy against the storms in the region.”
Mikati said the divisive issue of the tribunal’s funding would be put up for a vote at a crucial Cabinet meeting scheduled on Nov. 30 after Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi sent a letter to the Cabinet demanding a loan from the treasury to pay Lebanon’s dues to the STL.
“This is a very important and very sensitive matter. Let everyone bear his responsibility,” he said.
Hizbullah and its March 8 allies, which reject the STL altogether, let alone funding it, have a majority in Mikati’s 30-member Cabinet and can block any decision.
As matters stand now, Mikati said there are 12 ministers who support the STL’s funding: six ministers for Mikati, three for President Michel Sleiman and three for Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt.
Mikati said he is betting on a change in the attitudes of some March 8 ministers to tilt voting in favor the STL’s funding. He added that he did not expect Hizbullah to change its tough stance on the tribunal’s funding.
“We are today 12 ministers [supporting the funding]. We can talk with three or four other ministers. What matters is Lebanon,” he said.
“If Lebanon decided to finance the tribunal, it would be fulfilling its obligations. We would be opening all the doors for cooperation with the West which could stop if we do not finance the tribunal,” Mikati said. “If I financed the tribunal, I would be committed to protecting the Resistance. If Lebanon is strong, the Resistance will be strong,” he added.
Asked to comment on repeated calls by the opposition March 14 parties for him to resign, Mikati said: “I will resign when Lebanon’s interest requires this.”
He said that since he was named prime minister in January to replace former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Cabinet which was toppled by the Hizbullah-led March 8 alliance, he has prevented Sunni-Shi'a strife.
He defended his government’s policy to dissociate Lebanon from Arab or U.N. resolutions condemning Syria over its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. Mikati’s interview came a day after the new STL president, Sir David Baragwanath, held talks with him, Sleiman and Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour on cooperation between Lebanon and the tribunal.
Baragwanath, on his first visit to Lebanon, met Thursday with Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi and Prosecutor General Saeed Mirza to discuss matters related to the STL’s work, the state-run National News Agency reported. Baragwanath was accompanied by STL Vice President Judge Ralph Riachy. The STL chief did speak to reporters after the two meetings. Mirza said it was an introductory meeting.
Meanwhile, the STL denied local media reports Thursday that Baragwanath had warned Lebanese officials of U.N. action if the government failed to approve Lebanon’s share to the tribunal’s budget. “Contrary to media reports, the STL president absolutely did not discuss Security Council action against Lebanon, which is outside our jurisdiction,” the STL said on the social networking site Twitter.
Earlier Thursday, Mikati reiterated Lebanon’s commitment to U.N. resolutions, including the STL’s funding, saying this was in the country’s national interest. “The Lebanese government renews its confirmation that Lebanon, which has always implemented all international resolutions and respected its financial pledges, will continue in this policy in order to serve its national interest,” Mikati said in an opening speech at the Arab Banking Conference.
Aley MP Akram Chehayeb from Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc denied reports that the bloc’s three ministers would resign if the Cabinet failed to approve the payment of Lebanon’s share to the STL’s funding. Jumblatt has repeatedly voiced his support for the tribunal’s funding, urging Hizbullah to drop its opposition.
“The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is the cornerstone to put an end to the cycle of assassinations in this country which has been tortured too much,” Chehayeb told the Voice of Lebanon radio station. “We will not resign from the government. We are for searching for a solution for the funding [issue]. We have said that any government is better than no government.”
MP Ammar Houri from Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc predicted the resignation of the Mikati government on Nov. 30 when the Cabinet is scheduled to meet to discuss the issue of the STL’s funding.
“The Cabinet session on Nov. 30, during which the issue of the funding for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will be brought up, will be the last session for the present government because the other side [Hizbullah and its March 8 allies] is adamant on rejecting the [tribunal’s] funding. The prime minister cannot convince them of his viewpoint,” Houri told the Voice of Lebanon radio station.