Lebanon’s new Prime Minister Najib Mikati pledged Friday to gain control of one of the world’s worst economic meltdowns, saying he was willing to cooperate with any country except for Israel.
Holding back tears, Mikati, one of the richest men in the country, said he recognized the pain of Lebanese mothers who cannot feed their children or find aspirin to ease their ailments, as well as to students whose parents can no longer afford to send them to school.
“The situation is difficult but not impossible to deal with if we cooperate,” Mikati told reporters at the presidential palace, where the new government line-up was announced.
Still, their pain was apparently not enough to accept aid from Israel.
Asked during a press conference if he would be willing to cooperate with Syria to address the economic crisis, Mikati responded that the government “will deal with anyone for the sake of Lebanon’s interest, with the exception of Israel, of course.”
Israel had formally offered humanitarian aid to Lebanon in July, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said.
Citing what it said were efforts by the Hezbollah terror group to bring Iranian funds to Lebanon, a statement from Gantz’s office said the Israel Defense Forces’ Liaison Unit relayed the offer through UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.
Israel and Lebanon do not have diplomatic relations. The Israeli military and Iran-backed Hezbollah, which holds sway over state decision-making in Lebanon and denies Israel’s right to exist, fought a devastating war in 2006.
From 1982 to 2000, Israel occupied a strip of southern Lebanon — totaling about 10 percent of Lebanese territory — in order to defend northern Israel from terrorist attacks.
Last year, Israel also offered humanitarian assistance after a massive blast at Beirut’s port killed over 200 people, but was rebuffed.
Mikati’s remarks mirrored those of Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen who told Russia’s Sputnik news earlier this week that the radical Islamist group that took over Afghanistan is willing to forge relations with any country that’s interested, including the US.
“Yes, of course, in a new chapter if America wants to have a relation with us, which could be in the interest of both countries and both peoples, and if they want to participate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, they are welcome,” Shaheen said.
However, there was no chance for ties with Israel.
“Of course, we won’t have any relation with Israel. We want to have relations with other countries, Israel is not among these countries,” Shaheen said.
The new government faces a mammoth task that few believe can be surmounted, including undertaking critically needed reforms. Among its first tasks will be managing public anger and tensions resulting from the lifting of fuel subsidies expected by the end of the month.
Lebanon’s foreign reserves have been running dangerously low, and the central bank in the import-dependent country said it is no longer able to support the country’s $6 billion subsidy program.
The government is also expected to oversee a financial audit of the Central Bank, and resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package.
The agreement breaks a 13-month deadlock that saw the country slide deeper into financial chaos and poverty over the past year.
A date for parliament to convene to approve the government and its plan has not yet been announced.
The new cabinet of 24 ministers headed by Mikati, a billionaire businessman, was announced by the president’s office and later by the Secretary-General of the Council of Ministers, Mahmoud Makkieh. Ministers were handpicked by the same politicians who have ruled the country for the past decades, blamed by many for the corruption and mismanagement that led to the country’s current crisis.
Many members of the new cabinet are experts in their fields, including Firas Abiad, director-general of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the public hospital leading the coronavirus fight. Abiad, who has won praise for his transparency in handling the pandemic, was named health minister. A top Central Bank official, Youssef Khalil, was appointed as finance minister, and Bassam Mawlawi, a judge, is the new interior minister.
The new cabinet is also expected to oversee general elections scheduled for next year.
Mikati, who hails from the impoverished northern city of Tripoli, was tasked with forming a new government in July. He was twice prime minister — in 2005 and again from 2011 to 2013 — and is widely considered to be part of the same political class that brought the country to bankruptcy.
“I hope we can fulfill people’s aspirations and at least stop the collapse,” he said Friday. He said the government will launch a rescue plan for the country.
It was not immediately clear what sudden compromise resulted in the breakthrough Friday. The announcement of a new government comes after renewed US and French pressure to form a Cabinet as Lebanon’s economic unraveling reached a critical point that risked a social explosion. Crippling shortages in fuel and medicine threatened to shut down hospitals, bakeries and the country’s internet and caused friction, sometimes violence, in long queues to fill up vehicles.
The currency has lost 90 percent of its value to the dollar since October 2019, driving hyperinflation and plunging more than half the population in poverty.
Salem Zahran, a Lebanese journalist and political analyst, said a new government provides a “dose of oxygen” for Lebanese whose lives have been upended by the crisis.
“A positive shock has happened, but we have to see how the government will work, and how they will negotiate with the IMF,” Zahran said.
In the hours since the government formation, the national currency gained strength in the black market, rising to 15,000 to the dollar down from 19,000.
Mikati became a favorite for the post earlier this year after he was endorsed by most of Lebanon’s political parties, including Hezbollah and the other major Shiite party, Amal, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Mikati was also endorsed by former Sunni prime ministers including former prime minister Saad Hariri, who abandoned efforts to form a government earlier this year after failing for over eight months to agree with President Michel Aoun on the cabinet’s makeup.
The international community has refused to help Lebanon financially before wide reforms are implemented to fight widespread corruption and mismanagement.
Alain Aoun, a member of parliament representing the largest Christian block close to the Lebanese president, said international pressure and “signals” from the Americans and the Iranians that they have no conditions or reservations over the shape of the government accelerated an agreement between the internal rival parties.
“The American message was really pushing forward for the government to be formed,” he said, while the same message came from Iran’s president in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron.