Senior US official dangles sanctions threat over Lebanon's failure to form a Cabinet

David Hale said those obstructing cabinet formation may face 'punitive actions'

In this photo released by the Lebanese government, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, center, and, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, left, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, April 15, 2021. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)
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Those stopping government formation in Lebanon may face "punitive actions," after eight months of political paralysis in the country that has worsened a severe economic crisis, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale said on Thursday.

"Those who continue to obstruct progress on the reform agenda jeopardise their relationship with the US and our partners and open themselves up to punitive actions," Mr Hale said after meeting with President Michel Aoun in Beirut.
Mr Hale hinted at the possibility of sanctions one week after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reiterated a similar threat by his country.

Mr Hale is on a two-day visit to the capital Beirut, the first by a US diplomat since Joe Biden took office in January.

Forming a government capable of reform is the first step for Lebanon to access billions of dollars in debt relief and loans from the international community after a severe economic crisis struck the country in 2019, pushing more than half of the population into poverty.

Despite a financial meltdown, the country has been run by a caretaker government for the past eight months as political leaders fail to agree on a new Cabinet line-up.

Mr Hale blamed the political deadlock on Lebanese politicians who failed to act in the general interest of the country.

“The Lebanese people are clearly suffering because their leaders have failed to meet their responsibility to put the country’s interest first and address the mounting socio-economic problems.” he said.

“The time to build a government – not stop it – is now. The time for comprehensive reform is now,” Mr Hale said after meeting President Michel Aoun. “It is not too late.”

The son-in-law of Mr Aoun and former foreign minister Gebran Bassil was sanctioned by the US for corruption last year, and is widely blamed for the government deadlock.

Mr Hale met prime minister-designate Saad Hariri shortly before the latter left for a trip to Moscow, where he is scheduled to meet the Russian president, prime minister and foreign minister.

In a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, Mr Hariri discussed the domestic political situation in Lebanon.

They also talked about strengthening trade and ties "to counter COVID-19, including through the supply of Russian vaccines to Syria", a Kremlin communique said.

While the new US administration shifts its international priorities to Asia, Russian officials met with Lebanese politicians in Moscow several times in the past months.

Last year the US mediated talks between Israel and Lebanon on maritime boundaries on a disputed 860-square-kilometre area. The talks were suspended after Beirut claimed 1,340 square kilometres on top of that disputed area, based on a map sent to the UN in 2011.

In a statement released after the meeting, Mr Aoun said border demarcation talks must continue and the US must keep playing the role of an "honest and just mediator" in the negotiations.

He also called for international experts to demarcate the contested border in accordance with international law and that Israel "must not carry out oil or gas work or start exploration in the Karish field and in the adjacent waters" that are disputed.

Mr Hale said the US stands ready to facilitate negotiations on the maritime boundaries with Israel “on the basis on which we initiated these discussions”.

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