Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's $800m plan for rural development and social projects was knocked out by 13-opposition ministers who voted against it in yesterday's Cabinet session. The names of those ministers indicate their affiliation, and the question now in Beirut is whether knocking out the plan was intended to push Hariri to resign. The names are Elias Hobeika, Suleiman Franjieh, Ghazi Seifeddine, Assaad Hardan, Nicolas Fattouche, Fares Boueiz, Nadim Salem, Shahe Barsoumian, Talal Arslan, Yassine Jaber, Mahmoud Abu Hamdan, Ali Harajli and Elias Hanna.
Information Minister Bassem Sabbaa, emerging from the cabinet meeting, said the outcome of the meeting places the country before new factors. He did not confirm whether the Prime Minister would resign or not. Sabbaa said despite the general impression, the session was ordinary, and the discussions were calm.
But, despite rumors, Prime Minister Hariri did not resign. Instead, he appeared in a 3-hour live televised interview and said opposition to his plan was political and not economic, as it provided no alternative solution. He, however, said he will continue to shoulder his responsibilities, on the belief that his presence would make a difference.
Affirming that he did not reach a dead end, Hariri said the problem Lebanon is facing now is two fold: The budget deficit, which he said has reached 53 percent, and the public debt, which he placed at $12bn. To avoid augmenting the budget deficit, he said it was necessary to find resources other than the State budget to finance the proposed development plan.
At any rate, most newspapers today believed the voting yesterday served a severe blow to the Prime Minister. One paper even one to the extent of saying that there was a plot to undermine Hariri's proposal in order to force him to resign.
As to the immediate outcome, press reports said the Cabinet's marathon meeting last Wednesday ended with leaving the budget deficit pending, perhaps until the 1998 fiscal budget.
Another result was a surprise announcement today by the Minister of the Displaced Walid Jumblat saying that his Ministry will stop working as of next week until new funds are provided, especially since the 1998 budget will only provide a meager LP60m for the return of the displaced.
Later today, reports said Prime Minister Hariri has left to Damascus for talks with the Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam.
A detailed report outlining Hariri's plan was circulated hours before the Wednesday's session, bringing critics to say that little time was given to the ministers to study it.
According to the report, the originally proposed $1bn plan was reduced to $800m, and geared to cover the following expenses: $200m for the return of war-displaced citizens; $130m to settle overdue hospitalization bills; $35m to finalize phase one of the vocational schools' project; $35m to finalize phase one of public schools' project; $50m for south Lebanon; $50m for public transport; and $300m for the development of Baalbeck-Hermel, Akkar and similar areas.
As to the sources of funds, the plan listed the following: cutting State expenditures by LP200m; Levying a tax on gasoline prices; increasing custom duties on a number of selected commodities; issuing new license plate numbers; levying a tax on cement; and amending coastal properties law.
The Director of the International Finance Corporation's (IFC) Section for the Middle East and North Africa Andre Hafogimonian, during the 52nd meeting of the World Bank and the IFC in Hong Kong, yesterday expressed interest in providing loans to small business enterprises, vocational workers and farmers at the rate of $30,000 per case. The loans, he said, would be provided by a group of banks with which talks on the matter are being held. "This is in addition our focusing on remote areas, such as Baalbeck, Hermel, and North and south Lebanon, to reduce social differences", he said.
He also pointed out that the IFC is studying the possibility of helping Lebanon in the field of improving roads, especially after establishing the "Lebanese Roads Company" for the purpose of executing the peripheral and Arab highways.
He also said that the total amount of loans so far provided to Lebanon is $436m.
Hizbullah's Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qassem, in an interview yesterday, said, "the Israelis proposed swapping the bodies of martyrs with Israeli soldiers remains, but we refused, and we will not accept any thing less than exchanging the shreds with the living ".
Speaking to a German magazine, Qassem said, "negotiations on swapping the detainees and the remains are proceeding with the Red Cross, and between the Red Cross and the Lebanese government which, also, has Israeli body parts". We also received ideas from the Israelis and gave them replies, he added.
As to the Israeli pilot Ron Arad, Qassem said, "we do not hold Arad, and if we did we would have released him as quickly as possible because our people in Israeli jails are far more important than him".
-President Elias Hrawi yesterday reportedly expressed his concern that the recent discussions at the Council of Ministers might adversely affect the general atmospheres in the country. He emphasized the necessity of overcoming what happened because "there are economic and developmental obligations that should be financed". He also said that one should differentiate between the budget deficit and the $1bn plan.
-House speaker Nabih Berri ironically justified his opposition to the increase of gasoline price by saying that "gasoline is flammable and could eat up all other commodities". Berri was also quoted as saying that the timing for introducing the $1bn plan was wrong.
-Lebanon's National Committee for Lebanese Detainees in Israeli jails said after the botched Israeli commando raid on South Lebanon, that detainees at the Khiyam detention camp were prevented from receiving visitors and clothes, and were deprived from going out in the sun.
-Zahle MP Khalil Hrawi, after a visit to House Speaker Nabih Berri, said the Parliament is the right place for studying and resolving controversial issues. He said instead of imposing vital projects, it would be better to refer them to the Parliament which had passed since 1992 about $3bn loans, and is prepared to consider other projects.
-Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir is due to leave Sunday to the Vatican to meet the Pope and participate in church meetings.
-Lebanon's Foreign Ministry, responding to a letter from the Arab League sent to Arab countries in November 1996 for the purpose of accepting passports issued by the Palestinian Authority, instructed its missions and consulates to accept the passport, provided visas are issued after consultations with the Lebanese Public Security Department which, in turn, referred the matter to the Council of Ministers for approval. The subject was later discussed by the cabinet, and was postponed until the Ministry of Interior looks into the matter.
-Muslim Grand Mufti of the Republic Mohammad Rashid Qabbani asked the Parliament to speed up approving a draft law on establishing Islamic banks in Lebanon which, he said, will hopefully have positive effects on the Lebanese economy.
-Ten Arab news agencies are scheduled to meet Sunday in Beirut for two days to discuss mechanisms of exchanging news on the satellite.
-The National Syrian Socialist Party (NSSP) expressed its rejection of any new tax on gasoline, and warned against increasing school fees this year.
- President of World Vision, US branch, Robert Seiple yesterday ended a three-day visit to Lebanon, which was the first after lifting the US travel ban. He held talks in Beirut with Lebanon's three top officials, and checked the Organization's activities in various Lebanese areas.
-US Ambassador to Lebanon Richard Jones delivered $375,000 worth of medical equipment to humanitarian organizations in Lebanon.
-The Tripoli based Islamic Unification Movement reiterated its demand for the resignation of the government, and the punishment of those who opened fire. The military tribunal at midnight released the two sons of the Movement's leader Sheikh Saeed Shaaban, and sentenced other detainees to light sentences and fines.
-Lebanese Ansar and Yemen Wehda football teams are to play in the Asia clubs -17.
-Lebanon's Football Federation yesterday held the lottery poll for Lebanon's Cup matches. Eighteen lower-rank teams joined the current 14 first rank teams to play for the cup this season.
-Lebanon's women basketball championship in its last phase will be held today with four teams running for the cup.
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