BEIRUT (AP) – The Lebanese Prime Minister again on Thursday urged the Information Minister to step down over an unprecedented diplomatic rift with Saudi Arabia, saying his resignation was “a priority”.
The rift threatens to destabilize the new government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who was sworn in less than two months ago, and to escalate Lebanon’s economic downturn.
Mikati said the resignation of the information minister would help resolve a crisis with the kingdom and its Arab allies in the Gulf and preserve “deep and good relations with the Arab and Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia”.
He also had tough words for his government partners – the militant Hezbollah group and its allies – who have rejected calls for Information Minister Georges Kordahi to resign.
The dispute was sparked by Kordahi’s remarks about the war in Yemen, where a coalition led by Saudi Arabia is fighting the Houthi rebels supported by Iran. Lebanese officials said Kordahi’s remarks did not reflect the government’s official views.
Riyadh has withdrawn its ambassador from Beirut and asked the Lebanese envoy to leave the kingdom. It has also banned Lebanese imports, undermined the small country’s foreign trade, and stole millions of dollars from it, even as it struggles in the midst of an economic meltdown.
“The country cannot be run with the language of challenge and stubbornness,” said Mikati, who returned to Beirut on Wednesday evening from the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. “We have to unite behind a word to work to save our country.”
Lebanon had sought French and US mediation with Saudi Arabia.
Mikati’s message seems to be aimed primarily at his government partners from Iran-ally Hezbollah. Some Hezbollah allied ministers have threatened to withdraw if Kordahi leaves. Kordahi was appointed to the government by a party allied with Hezbollah. Hezbollah members have called the Saudi campaign “blackmail”.
The dispute has put Mikati’s new government to the test, which was sworn in after more than a year of stalemate among Lebanese politicians over the composition of the government.
Kordahi refused to resign, insisting that the Houthis in Yemen have the right to defend themselves and saying that he did not intend to offend with his comments, which were recorded before his term in office.
Arab Gulf states have joined Saudi Arabia to withdraw their diplomats from Lebanon, deepening the diplomatic dispute.