- Associated Press - Saturday, February 2, 2019

BEIRUT (AP) - Lebanon’s new Cabinet held its first meeting Saturday and the country’s leaders vowed to deal swiftly with the political and economic challenges the country faces, while playing down the militant Hezbollah group’s takeover of the health ministry.

The comments came a day after Washington expressed concerns about Hezbollah naming a health minister and two other posts in Lebanon’s Cabinet, and called on the new government to ensure that group is not supported by the ministries’ resources.

The new Cabinet was announced Thursday night, breaking a nine-month deadlock that had deepened Lebanon’s economic woes.

“There are many challenges ahead of us that we have to face,” President Michel Aoun was quoted as telling ministers in a comment on his Twitter account. “There is no time to waste.”

In its first meeting, the Cabinet formed a 10-member committee whose job will be to draft a government policy statement to be debated in Parliament ahead of a vote of confidence.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri said the government policy statement would be ready within days, adding that it will be similar to that of the previous government he headed. For years the government policy statement has been a source of tension as it mentions the right of Hezbollah to keep its weapons.

After the 1975-90 civil war ended, Hezbollah was the only group allowed to keep its weapons because at the time it was fighting Israel which occupied parts of southern Lebanon until 2000. Lebanon says Israel is still occupying the disputed Shebaa Farms.

The government policy statement that was issued after Hariri was named prime minister in 2016 said “the Lebanese people have the right to resist Israeli occupation, repel its aggressions and regain all occupied (Lebanese) lands.”

Asked about the Health Ministry, Hariri said that the American statements are similar to “what they (U.S.) always say about Hezbollah.” He added that none of the ministers, including those of Hezbollah, will make their ministries purely for their group.

“A minister is for all Lebanese and the health minister said this in the first statement he made after the formation,” said Hariri.

Asked if he is worried that international aid to the health ministry could be affected, Hariri said everything is “clear and transparent” at the health ministry, adding that those benefiting are “Lebanese citizens no matter to what party they belong.”

The new Cabinet was agreed on as Lebanon is dealing with soaring public debt of $84 billion, or 150 percent of the gross domestic product, and unemployment believed to be around 36 percent.

A big slap for Lebanon came in early January when Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the country’s long-term investment issuer ratings to Caa1 from B3. Weeks later, Moody’s downgraded the country’s three largest lenders.

Hariri said the Cabinet will enact reforms that will allow it to unlock around $11 billion in soft loans and grants pledged by international donors at a conference in Paris last year. At the time of the CEDRE conference, Hariri pledged to reduce the budget deficit as a percentage of the gross domestic product by five percent in five years.

Hariri said the biggest problem facing the Cabinet is the $2 billion spent annually on the crumbling electricity sector.

“We should do all what we can to reduce budget deficit by 1 percent over the next five years,” he added.

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