Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced Wednesday he was putting his resignation on hold to give way for more consultations nearly three weeks after he unexpectedly announced he was stepping down — a stunning reversal and embarrassment to Saudi Arabia, which was widely seen as having orchestrated his resignation.
In surprise conciliatory comments from the presidential palace, Hariri said he is putting Lebanon's interest first and is looking forward to a "real partnership" with Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
He said he presented his resignation to Aoun at the presidential palace, but then responded to Aoun's request to take more time for consultations, "hoping it will constitute a serious introduction for (national) dialogue."
"Our beloved nation needs in this critical period exceptional efforts from everyone to protect it in the face of dangers and challenges," Hariri said in a statement from the presidential palace.
He reiterated the need for Lebanon to remain neutral on regional disputes and conflicts "and all that undermines internal stability and brotherly relations with Arab brothers."
Hariri's announcement suggests Saudi Arabia's young crown prince realized he had overreached with the decision to fire Hariri, which constituted another failed move to try and counter Iran.
Hariri's mysterious televised resignation from Saudi Arabia had sparked a political and diplomatic crisis as Lebanese officials accused the Gulf kingdom, which is feuding with Iran for influence in the region, of forcing the Sunni, Saudi-aligned politician to resign and detaining him for days.
Top Lebanese officials accused Hariri's patron, Saudi Arabia, of forcing his resignation and detaining him in the kingdom for days. The Lebanese rallied around Hariri, unanimously calling for his return from Saudi Arabia in what became an embarrassment to the kingdom.
Posters have been erected around Beirut and other cities welcoming Hariri's return.
The reversal is also a win for French President Emanuel Macron, whose mediation succeeded in getting Hariri out of Saudi Arabia to Paris for few days. He returned to Lebanon on Tuesday night following brief stops in Egypt and Cyprus.
Earlier on Wednesday, Hariri participated in Independence Day celebrations, his first official appearance since his resignation.
Hariri's resignation on Nov. 4 was not accepted by President Michel Aoun, who said he wanted to hear from Hariri in person first.
The premier had cited Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah's meddling in the region as a reason for his decision to step down, and also cited concerns for his own safety in Lebanon. Hezbollah is a partner in the coalition government formed by Hariri a year ago.
His resignation plunged Lebanon in turmoil and triggered concern that the tiny country, which has enjoyed relative calm amid a Middle East on fire, would again be dragged to the forefront of the intensifying regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It set off international efforts, led by France, to prevent the upending of the country's delicate sectarian-based political order.
The announcement that he was stepping down was followed by sharp Saudi rhetoric against Hezbollah, which the kingdom accuses of meddling on Iran's behalf in regional affairs.
Hezbollah has been fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country's six-year civil war, where many of Assad's enemies are rebels backed by Saudi Arabia. The kingdom says Hezbollah is also advising Houthi rebels waging a war against Yemen's Saudi-backed government. Hezbollah denies it is militarily supporting the Houthis.
Hezbollah says Saudi Arabia is sowing instability in Lebanon, and accused the kingdom of partnering with Israel to start a war with Lebanon.
Hariri, in his only in depth interview since announcing his resignation, told his media station Future TV that he could retract his resignation if a deal could be struck with his opponents to distance Lebanon from regional conflicts.
Upon arriving in Beirut Tuesday night, Hariri went straight from the airport to pray at the grave of his father, the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, assassinated in 2005. He then retired to his home in central Beirut.