BEIRUT: Lebanon's foreign minister said Saudi Arabia was dictating impossible terms by asking the government to reduce the role of Iran-backed Hezbollah, adding Beirut's row with Riyadh could be resolved if the kingdom agreed to a dialogue with the new Lebanese cabinet.
"If they just want Hezbollah's head on a plate, we can't give them that," the minister, Abdallah Bou Habib, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.
"Hezbollah is a component of politics in Lebanon. It has a regional armed dimension, yes, but this is beyond what we can resolve," he said.
Lebanon is facing its worst rift yet with Gulf Arab states, spurred by a minister's critical comments about the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen that described the war there as futile.
Saudi Arabia and some Gulf Arab allies have reacted angrily to the remarks made by the information minister in an interview last week, which he'd filmed before taking up his position in cabinet. Riyadh expelled Lebanon's ambassador, banned all imports from Lebanon and recalled its envoy for consultations.
Kuwait and Bahrain followed suit by expelling the top envoys in their own capitals, while the United Arab Emirates withdrew all its diplomats from Beirut.
Saudi Arabia has said its actions were driven not just by George Kordahi's comments but rather were rooted in its objection to the increasing dominance of the Hezbollah armed group over Lebanese politics.
The row is part of a longstanding feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has played out in proxy conflicts across the region, from Yemen to Syria to Iraq.
Gulf states are traditional aid donors to Lebanon but for several years have been increasingly dismayed by Hezbollah's expanding power, and have so far been loathe to help rescue Lebanon from a devastating economic crisis.
On Tuesday, Bou Habib told Reuters he believed mutual dialogue between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia was the only way forward to solving the dispute. But he added that there had been no meetings on any level between both parties since Prime Minister Najib Mikati's cabinet was formed on Sep 10.
"There has been no dialogue (with Saudi Arabia) even before the problem with minister Kordahi ... the Saudi ambassador here never communicated with us," Bou Habib said.
"He (the Saudi ambassador) was here and was communicating with a lot of Lebanese politicians, but he wasn't communicating with us," he said.
"We need to know what they want ... we prefer dialogue to dictates."
Kordahi has refused to resign over the incident, but Bou Habib said it was unclear whether his resignation would solve the rift with Saudi at this point, although it could be enough for others in the Gulf.
The only offer on the table towards a resolution so far has come from Qatar, whose Emir met Mikati in Glasgow on the sidelines of the COP26 meeting on Monday, Bou Habib said.
"There is the possibility of a Qatari mediation," Bou Habib said, but added that it was in the initial stages and that the Qataris had not spoken with the Saudis yet over the matter.
"There is no other initiative."
Qatar has denounced the Kordahi comments but has not announced any diplomatic initiative over the incident.
Bou Habib said any Qatari effort to mediate could be helped by the resolution earlier this year of a separate row pitting Qatar against Saudi Arabia and three other Arab states that had resulted in an improved rapport between Doha and Riyadh.
Mikati's government, formed after over a year of political deadlock that has added to Lebanon's financial decline, is trying to revive talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to unlock much needed foreign funds.
But aside from political paralysis over an internal row to do with the Beirut port blast investigation, this latest diplomatic crisis has hampered the cabinet, Bou Habib said.
"Of course we have been affected, we have been affected a great deal, not a little," he said.