Future, Hezbollah to meet as verbal feud intensifies

The Future Movement and Hezbollah will hold a new round of talks Monday amid renewed tension and an escalating verbal feud between the two rival parties over local and regional issues, including the resistance party’s fight against jihadis on the outskirts of Arsal.

“Monday’s dialogue session will discuss all key issues, including the latest Cabinet crisis, the subject of military and security appointments, the situation in Arsal and the presidential election crisis,” a senior March 8 source said.

The source said he expected the Future officials to raise last week’s remarks by Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem on the yearlong presidential deadlock, which are currently at the root of new tension between the two sides, whose strained ties have in the past threatened to plunge the country into sectarian violence.

Monday’s will be the 13th round of dialogue between senior officials from the Future and Hezbollah designed primarily to reduce sectarian and political tensions, exacerbated by the four-year-old war in Syria.

Despite the exchange of scathing diatribe, the two sides have been meeting since last December at the residence of Speaker Nabih Berri, the architect and sponsor of Sunni-Shiite dialogue.

The new dialogue session comes as Lebanon is in the throes of a presidential vacuum, Parliament being unable to convene over a lack of quorum to elect a president or legislate, and a Cabinet paralysis.

The contentious issue of security and military appointments has crippled the government’s work and prompted Prime Minister Tammam Salam to suspend its meetings.

The ministers of MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement have said they would not allow the Cabinet to discuss any topic before it addresses appointments of new security chiefs, including the appointment of Aoun’s son-in-law, Brig. Gen. Shamel Roukoz, the head of the Army Commando Unit, as Army commander.

Adding to the Future-Hezbollah tension was last week’s speech by Qassem in which he presented the Future Movement-led March 14 coalition with a bitter choice: either elect Aoun as president or face an indefinite presidential vacuum.

The parliamentary Future bloc has dismissed Qassem’s remarks as “dangerous and disgraceful” and accused Hezbollah of blocking the election of a new president with such an offer.

In an apparent response to Qassem’s proposal, Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi vowed to prevent Aoun from reaching the presidency, accusing the FPM leader of being committed to the “Iranian project.”

“Gen. Aoun will no way become Lebanon’s president. We will prevent anyone [serving] the Iranian project from reaching the presidency,” Rifi told Voice of Lebanon radio station. “Aoun is part of this project and I am against his election as president. Full stop.”

In an interview to be published by Al-Liwaa newspaper Monday, Rifi, a leading member of the Future Movement, said his party’s ministers would ask Salam to convene the Cabinet, noting that the situation in the country could not endure the disruption of the government’s work.

“The Constitution granted the prime minister the prerogatives to set a date for a Cabinet meeting and prepare its agenda. Prime Minister Salam must not abandon his prerogatives,” Rifi said. He also lashed out at Aoun, likening him to Roman dictator Nero “who is ready to set the country on fire for the sake of his interests and the interests of his family.”For his part, Qassem struck back at March 14 politicians who had criticized his remarks on the presidential deadlock.

“Whenever a Hezbollah official makes a statement … the next day we find newspapers filled with [March 14] responses,” Qassem said during a memorial ceremony in south Lebanon Sunday.

Describing the March 14 responses as a form of meaningless “wailing,” Qassem said that Hezbollah would not respond to criticism coming from “a helpless group that doesn’t see right [from wrong].”

Still, Qassem said Hezbollah extended its hands to the March 14 coalition to cooperate together to save the country.

“The March 14 group must understand that we are partners in Lebanon and we will not accept that this country to be their own monopoly,” he said. “Since they have failed to build the state after they had a monopoly over it for a period of time, the solution is for us to cooperate together. We extend our hands on the basis of avoiding monopoly … It’s better for you to accept our extended hands to work together, or else you will miss the train.”

Hezbollah’s heavy involvement in the war in Syria, particularly its fighting against Nusra Front militants and ISIS in the Qalamoun mountain range on the northeastern border with Syria, has added fodder to long-simmering tension with the Future Movement.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has vowed to liberate Arsal’s outskirts from the militants if the Lebanese state fails to do so. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Future Movement ministers and officials have warned Hezbollah against attacking Arsal, saying that protection of the town is the responsibility of the Lebanese state and Army.

The Future Movement’s tense relations with Hezbollah have been further strained by sharp differences over the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, with Hezbollah denouncing the kingdom’s offensive in March against Iranian-allied Houthi rebels and the Future Movement strongly supporting it.

Meanwhile, Aoun stood firm on his demand for the appointment of new top security and military officers, rejecting term extensions.

“The extension of the terms of security chiefs, the Army commander, the chief of army staff, the chief of [Army] Intelligence and the chief of the Internal Security Forces is not legal,” Aoun told supporters at his Rabieh residence Saturday.

He called on his followers to be ready to participate in protests across Lebanon “because what is happening in the country is not healthy.”