Attempt to elect Lebanese president ends in farce with half of MPs casting blank ballots

Update Attempt to elect Lebanese president ends in farce with half of MPs casting blank ballots
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In the 45-minute session, 122 MPs out of 128 attended it. Six were not present during the vote. (AFP)
Update Attempt to elect Lebanese president ends in farce with half of MPs casting blank ballots
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Updated 30 September 2022

Attempt to elect Lebanese president ends in farce with half of MPs casting blank ballots

Attempt to elect Lebanese president ends in farce with half of MPs casting blank ballots
  • Hezbollah and allies cast blank ballot papers then halt proceedings by walking ou
  • President Michel Aoun’s term ends on Oct. 31, so the post is likely to be left vacant

BEIRUT: An attempt to elect a new president of Lebanon ended in farce on Thursday when Hezbollah MPs and their allies cast blank ballots, then walked out of the parliamentary session.

In a 45-minute session, the powerful Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah cast blank ballots, as did its allies the Shiite Amal Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement of outgoing President Michel Aoun, totalling 63 of the 122 lawmakers who attended.

Thirty-six voted for MP Michel Moawad, the son of a former president and staunch opponent of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.

Eleven MPs voted for Salim Edde, a businessman and son of the late Michel Edde who held ministerial positions from 1966 to 1998.

Ten MPs voted for the state of Lebanon and one voted for Mahsa Amini, the young Iranian woman who died after being arrested by Iran’s morality police for not wearing hijab “appropriately,” to express solidarity with protesters against the regime in Iran.

One MP voted for “the approach of Rashid Karami,” the former premier who was assassinated in a helicopter explosion during the civil war in 1987.

When Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called for a recount, dozens of Hezbolla lawmakers and allies left, breaking the session’s required quorum.

Hezbollah’s sway over parliament has diminished since the group and its allies lost their majority in a May election which left an even more splintered legislature.

Berri did not announce the date of a new session. He said he would call a new session only once he saw consensus on a candidate.

“If there is no consensus, and if the next president does not receive 128 votes, we will not be able to save either parliament or Lebanon. When I sense consensus, I will call for a session,” he said. He said the quorum must be 86 MPs in order to hold any future election session.

“The country is in a deep and hard crisis...which requires agreement on a consensus president, not a president of confrontation,” said Hezbollah MP Ibrahim Moussawi.

But independent MP Firas Hamdan said the consensus sought by Berri was to blame for Lebanon’s troubles. “We are spinning in the same circle. This poses a danger to us, to the country and to the economy,” he said.

Fragile system

Incumbent President Michel Aoun’s six-year term ends on Oct. 31, so the post is likely to be left vacant as Lebanon plunges further into economic chaos.

Under Lebanon’s fragile sectarian power-sharing system, the office of president is reserved for a Maronite Christian.

The failure pointed out deep political divisions that threaten prolonged political paralysis and a leadership void at time where Lebanon is suffering an economic meltdown and has struggled to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.

Parliament’s deep divisions between Iran-backed Hezbollah and allies, traditional political adversaries, and a dozen reformist legislators continues to intensify. In recent months, no majority or consensus candidate in Parliament has emerged.

Lebanon has also been without a full-fledged government since May, and currently functions in a limited caretaker capacity under Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

How the MPs voted

The Democratic Gathering parliamentary bloc, headed by Taymour Jumblatt, voted for Michel Moawad as he “believes in the Taif Agreement” according to the bloc’s member Hadi Abu Al-Hosn.

Independent MPs voted for “Lebanon” and independent MP Karim Kabbara said that he voted for “the approach of Rashid Karami who was a statesman who believed in the law, institutions and coexistence.”

Anti-Hezbollah MP Moawad said that he did not expect a new president to be elected in the first session. He stressed that consensus “cannot be built with arms outside the (control of) state nor by imposing ideologies.”

Lebanese Forces Deputy Chief George Adwan said that “casting a blank vote shows the ruling political class is in disarray and the opposition did not have a sovereign candidate; Some opposition MPs also cast a blank vote.”

Senior Hezbollah legislator Mohammad Raad said the crisis-hit country’s parliamentary blocs are in the “early stages” of finding a president who would “bring stability to the country.”

“The blocs need to discuss and develop an understanding over a possible consensus candidate,” Raad told the press.

Independent lawmaker Halime Kaakour, meanwhile, blasted lawmakers for what she called a “negative calm with no consensus,” fearing a prolonged delay in electing a new president.

“The Constitution says it’s the majority of votes,” she told reporters. “I think it’s no longer a logical approach to try to reach a consensus in a country that continues to collapse.”

Most candidates who were tipped to be among the frontrunners did not receive any votes, most notably Sleiman Frangieh of the Marada Party, an ally of Hezbollah who calls Syrian President Bashar Assad a “friend and brother.”

Over the past three years, three-quarters of the tiny Mediterranean nation’s population slipped into poverty, as the country’s infrastructure and public institutions continue to crumble. The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar, decimating the purchasing power of millions struggling to cope with rampant inflation rates.

Lebanon has been scrambling for over two years to reform its inefficient and wasteful economy, combat corruption, and restructure its demolished banking sector to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program. The IMF has recently criticized Lebanon for its slow progress.

Last week’s joint statement of Saudi Arabia, the US and France on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York stressed that it was “critical to elect a president who can unite the Lebanese people.”

(With Reuters,  AP and AFP)


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Israelis rapped for blocking Christian permits to visit Bethlehem

Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank village of Tuqua, south-east of Bethlehem. (AFP)
Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank village of Tuqua, south-east of Bethlehem. (AFP)
Updated 10 December 2022

Israelis rapped for blocking Christian permits to visit Bethlehem

Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank village of Tuqua, south-east of Bethlehem. (AFP)
  • Blockade does not differentiate between Muslims and Christians, says YMCA secretary-general

GAZA CITY: Christians in the Gaza Strip hope to celebrate Christmas each year and reunite with their families, but Israeli restrictions on movement are preventing thousands from taking part in the occasion.

Israel has been accused of strictly limiting permits to pray in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to a limited number of worshipers.

The Palestinian Civil Affairs Authority — the body responsible for communicating with Israeli officials at Erez crossing — said that Israel rejected more than 260 applications.

An anonymous source told Arab News that the authority received approval for only about 640 people from the more than 900 applications submitted.

A Palestinian man, dressed as Santa Claus, distributes gifts to children outside a church during Christmas celebrations in Gaza City on Dec. 24, 2021. (AFP)

A senior Israeli security official told journalists in a phone briefing that about 200 people were denied access to Israel after being denied security clearances.

About 1,100 Christians live in the Gaza Strip, according to statistics issued by the Latin Monastery Church in Gaza.

The number of Christians in Gaza has fallen in past years as a result of migration, owing to the dire economic situation, siege and successive Israeli offensives.

Many have moved to the West Bank or emigrated abroad.

“We feel very sorry that not all Christians were granted the necessary permits,” Kamel Ayad, director of public relations at the Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza, told Arab News.

“It is our right as Christians to witness Christmas celebrations in the birthplace of Christ in Bethlehem as it is available to all Christians of the world to travel to,” said Ayad.

Ayad added that the usual practice every year was to send a list of the names of Christians who wish to obtain a permit to travel during the Christmas period.

In most cases the issuance of permits is random, meaning that only some members of Christian families can visit Bethlehem, said Ayad.

The YMCA in Gaza lights up a large Christmas tree each year at the association square with participation of Christians and Muslims.

Israel has imposed a strict blockade on the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control of the area by the armed force in mid-2007.

Hani Farah, secretary-general of Gaza’s YMCA, said that Israel “practices all forms of repression and violations against the Palestinians, regardless of their religion or gender.”

He added: “Just as Israeli bombs and missiles do not differentiate between the Palestinian and the Palestinian, the blockade and its repressive measures do not differentiate between a Muslim and a Christian. We are all trapped in Gaza and we share pain and suffering.”

Sanaa, a Gaza Strip Christian, received approval for a permit, but her husband and her three children did not.

She said: “What should I do with the permit alone without my family?”

Sanaa told Arab News: “The spirit of Christmas is for all family members to gather in one place. I cannot attend the Christmas celebration in Bethlehem alone. This happens every year. One or two members of the family only get a permit.”

Israel controls the entry and exit of Palestinians through the Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip, and grants permits only to humanitarian cases and several thousand daily workers, in addition to some aid workers in international organizations.

Hamas condemned the Israeli ban of Christians from traveling to the West Bank during Christmas.

“We condemn the Israeli occupation’s banning of Christian Gazans from accessing sacred places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem on religious holidays,” said a statement.

“As the Israeli move restricts the Palestinian Christians’ access to holy places, we deem it a flagrant violation of the right to worship.”


Bassil turns to Maronite patriarch for support amid Lebanon stalemate

Bassil turns to Maronite patriarch for support amid Lebanon stalemate
Updated 09 December 2022

Bassil turns to Maronite patriarch for support amid Lebanon stalemate

Bassil turns to Maronite patriarch for support amid Lebanon stalemate
  • ‘Some obstacles hindering dialogue,’ Al-Rahi says in meeting with FPM leader
  • In light of the political dispute with Hezbollah, Bassil turned to Al-Rahi in an attempt to strengthen his position.

BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi hinted on Friday that some obstacles were hindering dialogue aimed at ending the political stalemate over the presidential vacuum.
Al-Rahi’s remarks came as he received Lebanese MP Gebran Bassil, son-in-law of outgoing President Michel Aoun and head of the Free Patriotic Movement party.
In light of the political dispute with Hezbollah, Bassil turned to Al-Rahi in an attempt to strengthen his position.
Bassil also rejects the holding of Cabinet sessions by a caretaker government amid the presidential vacuum.
“The decrees issued by the caretaker government constitute a harsh blow to the president’s position,” Bassil said following the meeting.
“Over 10 decrees were issued harming this position. The mechanism for signing these decrees strikes down the partnership formula.”
Bassil raised the issue of how to approach the presidential election with Al-Rahi in Bkerke hours before Aoun headed there in his non-presidential capacity.
The FPM and other Christian forces are apprehensive about any political step that contradicts their positions because they believe that this could threaten their existence, as highlighted by the FPM, as well as the Lebanese Forces Party, repeatedly.
The FPM disagreed with Hezbollah’s approaches regarding presidential candidates.
The dispute recently emerged after Hezbollah showed its support for Suleiman Franjieh, whom it considers an ally.
The FPM rejects Franjieh while it seeks to be the decision-maker in the presidential race since its bloc has the most Christian representation in parliament.
Bassil said: “I completed with Al-Rahi what we started with the issue of the presidency, to find a figure who enjoys the support of two-thirds of the votes of parliament.”
Bassil also underlined the need for Christian-Christian dialogue to reach an understanding on one or several candidates to run for the elections.
“The FPM is open to dialogue, regardless of the positions of other forces, and if others are not open, we cannot force them,” he said.
The call for Christian dialogue came the day after Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called the parliamentary blocs that represent all sects to hold talks, starting next Thursday, in a bid to bridge points of view and produce a consensual president.
So far, Hezbollah and its allies are sticking to the blank vote, and the FPM no longer wants to do so.
FPM’s votes went to several candidates in the latest voting session in an attempt to send a political message to Hezbollah.
After meeting Bassil, Al-Rahi stressed that he had been calling for dialogue since 2009.
He supported Bassil’s position that the Cabinet session should not have taken place, especially in the absence of many ministers.
“We have always been advocates of dialogue, and there is no solution except through dialogue between the parties, either through a bilateral dialogue between myself and each party, or through an inclusive dialogue, but some obstacles hinder this option.”
LF head Samir Geagea indirectly commented on Bassil’s call in a tweet, saying: “Dialogue requires people suitable for dialogue.”
Richard Kouyoumjian, LF’s head of foreign relations unit and former minister, questioned Bassil’s departure from the Hezbollah axis, despite the dispute between them.
He said: “If his attack on the party and his defense of Christianity are sincere, then he ought to let Geagea be a presidential candidate.”
Dialogue is unnecessary because our positions as LF are clear, said Kouyoumjian.
“We have preserved as much as possible our reconciliation with the FPM but they are the ones who ruined it.”
Caretaker Information Minister Ziad Makari, who is affiliated to Franjieh, said that Bassil knew that there was no consensus on him as a candidate, even by his allies.
“His chances are zero, while Franjieh has more chances than Bassil,” he said.

UN concerned after Israel refuses to grant staff visas

UN concerned after Israel refuses to grant staff visas
Updated 09 December 2022

UN concerned after Israel refuses to grant staff visas

UN concerned after Israel refuses to grant staff visas
  • Decision impacts humanitarian community's ability to support Palestinians, spokesperson says

RAMALLAH: The UN has expressed concern about an Israeli decision to refuse entry visas to its staff.

The organization warned that that the move may affect humanitarian work in Palestine and the ability of the humanitarian community to support Palestinians.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that the decision significantly impacts the humanitarian community’s ability to support Palestinians.

“We are, of course, still in contact with the Israeli authorities on this matter, and we hope it will be resolved,” Dujarric said.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry refused to issue visas to officials from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, accusing employees from the aid agency of “undercounting” the number of Israeli civilians who are killed or injured in Palestinian attacks.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed — as reported by the Israeli Ynet website — that OCHA employees constantly count Israelis killed in Palestinian operations but fail to categorize them as “terrorist attacks.”

The ministry said: “OCHA is accused of reporting the killing or harming of Israeli civilians under disputed circumstances while taking reports of Palestinian casualties at face value and assigning blame to Israel, including in clashes between IDF forces and Palestinian militants.”

Arab News reached out to the UN, OCHA officials and Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment, but did not receive a response.

Shawan Jabarin, director general of Al-Haq Palestinian Human Rights organization, told Arab News that he blames the UN for its inaction and negligence in protesting the previous bans of international commissions of inquiry and special rapporteurs who were prevented by Israel from entering the Palestinian territories, even though Israel is required to cooperate with the UN.

Jabarin said it was “no longer surprising” that Israel refuses to grant entry visas to the OCHA team because of its lack of protest over past Israeli actions.

“OCHA is a body concerned with humanitarian issues, and this denial of granting entry visas to its team is an Israeli message to the UN that your previous complacency will lead to a day when no UN official will be allowed to enter the Palestinian territories unless Israel approves of their presence,” Jabarin told Arab News.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense Coordinator of the Government Activities in the Palestinian territories had changed the procedures for foreigners entering the territories, stipulating that they obtain an entry visa outside Israel a month before the date of their arrival.

This Israeli policy was described by Jabarin as an attempt to “silence and prevent the work” of international institutions that criticize Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian Territories.

“Israel wants, through this policy, to re-engineer the international community so that it does not criticize it, and the silence of the UN gave Israel a ladder to climb on its back,” said Jabarin.

Meanwhile, on the 35th anniversary of the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada (1987-1993) that fell on Dec. 9, Israeli security and military circles warned of their fears of a third intifada in the West Bank.

The deteriorating security situation in the West Bank constitutes challenge number two after the Iranian threat.

Egypt has also expressed deep concern regarding the security deterioration in the West Bank and the continuation and escalation of Israeli killings of Palestinians.

Since the beginning of the year, 165 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, and another 54 were killed in the Gaza Strip.

In a related development, Israeli designated National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has warned that Palestinians could soon face unprecedented punitive measures.

He threatened in an interview with an Israeli channel on Friday to annex Palestinian lands that contain Israeli settlements, leaving Palestinians to manage their affairs without authority or privileges.

Ben-Gvir said that he does not differentiate between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the Palestinians who live in Israel.

He said that everyone who is disloyal to the state of Israel must be expelled and that he will divide Al-Aqsa Mosque between Muslims and Jews.

Dana Ben Shimon, a prominent Israeli correspondent for Israel Today newspaper, told Arab News that the expectations and estimates of the Israeli security services regarding the possibility of a third intifada have nothing to do with the election of the new Israeli government.

“It is not important whether you call it a third intifada or a wave of violence, but the problem is that the Israeli security services are concerned about the quantity, quality and development of the attacks, especially as we witnessed the double bombing attack in Jerusalem at the end of last month,” he added.


Israeli aggression against Palestinians threatens new wave of violence, warns Jordan

Israeli aggression against Palestinians threatens new wave of violence, warns Jordan
Updated 09 December 2022

Israeli aggression against Palestinians threatens new wave of violence, warns Jordan

Israeli aggression against Palestinians threatens new wave of violence, warns Jordan
  • Foreign ministry spokesman says violence only generates more violence
  • Urges international community to renew efforts for a just peace and a two-state solution

AMMAN: Jordan has warned that military escalation by Israel against Palestinians threatens to trigger a new wave of violence where everyone will pay.
The ministry of foreign affairs and expatriates denounced ongoing Israeli incursions and repeated attacks on Palestinian cities, the latest of which was in Jenin early Thursday.
Sinan Majali, the ministry’s spokesman, said that violence will only generate more violence, reported Jordan’s News Agency on Friday.
He added that Israeli incursions perpetuate the occupation, and that the stalemate in the peace process pushes the region toward a dangerous escalation for which Israel would bear the responsibility.
Majali urged Israel to stop all its military operations against the Palestinians and all its illegal measures that undermine the two-state solution and chances of achieving peace.
He called on the international community to immediately provide protection for the Palestinian people and to launch a renewed push for a just peace that ends the occupation and allows for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, in accordance with the relevant resolutions of international legitimacy and the Arab peace initiative.

Ankara expects US ‘green light’ for F-16 sale

Ankara expects US ‘green light’ for F-16 sale
Updated 09 December 2022

Ankara expects US ‘green light’ for F-16 sale

Ankara expects US ‘green light’ for F-16 sale
  • Turkiye’s regional rivals, including Greece, are rapidly modernizing their air forces, analyst tells Arab News
  • The Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act is set to pass by the Senate and House of Representatives this month before being sent to the White House

ANKARA: Turkiye is confident its long-awaited $6 billion deal to buy F-16 fighter jets will go ahead after the US House of Representatives introduced an amendment to the annual defense budget bill removing a series of hurdles to the sale.
On Tuesday, lawmakers in the US Senate and House reached an agreement on the annual defense policy bill.
The Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act is set to pass by the Senate and House of Representatives this month before being sent to the White House.
In October 2021, Turkiye made a request to the US to buy 40 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets and about 80 modernization kits to update its existing fleet. However, Washington so far has refused to give a “green light” on the sale, saying that it needs to follow the standard process.
“The removal of articles that tied the sale of fighter jets to Ankara with restrictive conditions from the NDAA draft eliminated an important roadblock for Turkiye’s purchase of 40 new F-16s and 80 F-16 modernization kits from the US,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of German Marshall Fund of the US, told Arab News.
In a letter written to Congress in March, the State Department said the potential sale of the jets and modernization kits to Turkiye would strengthen bilateral ties and NATO’s long-term unity.
“The administration believes that there are nonetheless compelling long-term NATO alliance unity and capability interests, as well as US national security, economic and commercial interests that are supported by appropriate US defense trade ties with Turkiye,” the letter said.
Sentiment toward Turkiye in the administration of US President Joe Biden had softened after Ankara’s mediation efforts during the Ukrainian conflict and thanks to its normalization policy with former rivals, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt.
In an interview with the CNN Turk broadcaster last month, Turkiye’s presidential spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, said that US approval for the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkiye could be completed in a month or two.
In August, a Turkish technical delegation met in Washington with experts and authorities from Lockheed Martin, while another political delegation along with Turkish diplomats also conducted lobbying activities in the US.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met two US senators — Lindsey Graham and Chris Coons — in New York in September to seek their potential support for the sale.
However, the proposed sale of US weapons to Turkiye has been subject to intense debate after Ankara bought Russian-made defense missile systems, which resulted in its removal from the F-35 fighter jet program along with several US sanctions on its defense sector.
Democratic Senator and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez said on Wednesday that he will not approve the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkiye and that the final text of the NDAA was not “a win” for Ankara.
According to Sine Ozkarasahin, a security analyst at the Istanbul-based think tank EDAM, the Biden administration is using its political capital to move the debate in a positive direction.
“But there are still many hurdles to be overcome for a potential agreement, and persuading skeptical senators such as Menendez is the most significant of all,” she told Arab News.
The explanatory text accompanying the NDAA bill emphasized that “NATO allies should not conduct unauthorized territorial overflights of another NATO ally’s airspace,” considered by many experts as a warning to the overflights in the Aegean that trigger disagreements between Ankara and Athens.
“Those in the US Congress that want to prevent the transaction have other means to do so, but in return the administration has ways to overcome or circumvent their objection,” Unluhisarcikli said.
“In line with the Arms Export Control Act, US President needs the Congress to not formally object to the transaction. Accordingly, the president needs to notify the Congress 30 days before formalizing a defense sale to a third country, and 15 days in the case of allies including Turkiye,” he added.
Unless Congress adopts a joint resolution of disapproval within those 15 days, the president can sign off the deal.
According to Unluhisarcikli, Congress has never prevented an arms sale through this channel in the past and, given its workload, it is not an easy task to adopt such a resolution in a short time.
“However, there is also a practice in the form of the State Department informally notifying the Congress 20 days before the president’s formal notification. If there are strong objections in the Congress after the informal notification, then the president is unlikely to make the formal notification,” he added.
If the deal to buy F-16 fighters falls through, Ankara may consider other options, including Eurofighters, Swedish Saab fighter aircraft or the latest generation of Russian or Chinese fighters.
“However, Turkiye’s regional rivals, like Greece, are rapidly modernizing their air forces while Ankara remains stuck in the fourth-generation air warfare model,” Ozkarasahin said.
“In the aftermath of its removal from the F-35 program and the changing power balances with its geopolitical rivals, Turkiye urgently needs a stopgap solution until its national combat aircraft takes to the skies.”
The first prototype of Turkiye’s indigenously built fighter jet TF-X recently arrived on the final assembly line. The aircraft is estimated to be rolled out in March 2023 and make its first flight in 2025 or 2026.