|05BEIRUT3084||2005-09-23 15:12:00||CONFIDENTIAL||Embassy Beirut|
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C O N F I D E N T I A L BEIRUT 003084
1. (C) SUMMARY: Coming only a day after his public
outburst against PM Fuad Siniora and the Core Group meetings,
the Nabih Berri who met the Ambassador and Poloff on 9/22 was
notably calm and full of sweet reason. He insisted his only
concern in voicing his displeasure was the well-being of
Lebanon. He gave a well-prepared (albeit intermittently
silly) brief on why privatization, particularly of the state
enterprises mentioned in New York, would be a serious error.
The speaker went on to criticize at length the prime
minister's "lack of consultation" in the preparation of his
Core Group presentations. Showing a sense of unease, the
speaker pressed the Ambassador on the content of the latter's
meetings in Paris last week, as well as the real American
position regarding a possible presidential succession.
Nevertheless, he predicted that Lahoud will remain in office
until the last day of his term, "unless Mehlis has
something." At the end of the meeting, The Ambassador gave
the speaker a letter written by President Lahoud to UNSYG
Annan in June 2000. Berri was stunned to the point of
reading out loud, repeatedly, the letter which stated an
acceptance "without prejudice" of the provisional LE/IS
boundary, a position which would sidestep the Shebaa Farms
imbroglio. After muttering "this is very bad," Berri said
that Lahoud would either deny he ever wrote it, or had simply
unknowingly signed it because it was simply another document
which had been placed before him. End summary.
2. (C) Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri met with the
Ambassador and PolOff on September 22 at Ain al-Tine, his
official residence in West Beirut. This meeting occurred one
day after the speaker had strongly and dramatically
criticized both the prime minister and the "real agenda" of
the Core Group meetings held in New York earlier this week.
In his meeting with the Ambassador, however, he was calm,
reasonable, and well-rehersed. He spun his heavy criticism
of the previous day as a civic responsibility to his country,
that is, he wished only to point out to the Lebanese people
that the positions offered in New York were not the result of
consultations and had therefore surprised and dismayed
various political figures. He assured the Ambassador that he
was reasonable and would await the prime minister's return
before issuing further criticism, even "though the prime
minister was not following the law"
3. (C) He then launched into a lengthy defense of
maintaining state ownership of certain enterprises which had
been mentioned as possible privatization targets. He asked
rhetorically why should the government sell its most valuable
assets, namely Middle East Airlines, Casino du Liban, and
Intra, when other less attractive properties were losing
money every year. He appeared unconcerned that capital
markets would place a higher value on the former rather than
the latter, even though he admitted that "no one would
invest" in the country's mismanaged electricity sector.
Rather, he was focused on the revenue stream that would
disappear once those companies were privatized. His
arguments and reasoning -- which, while "old school," were
well-prepared -- implied that he would fight privatization
strongly should it come up for debate.
PARIS II..."WHERE WE BROKE ALL OUR PROMISES"
4. (C) Presenting himself as the epitome of civic
responsibility, he declared that in light of the broken
promises of the Paris II accord, which hurt Lebanon's
credibility and credit ratings, he simply wanted an economic
reform plan that was feasible -- suggesting that PM Siniora's
proposals were not. He plaintively complained that, "I do
not know what the prime minister wants to do." But he
promised he would try to work with him and the Cabinet.
Wrapping himself once again in the flag, Speaker Berri
claimed that "during the war, I paid a big price in not
dividing Lebanon and I will not do it now."
5. (C) Addressing the fact that two Lebanese delegations
represented the country in New York, the speaker insisted
there should have been only one. "President Lahoud is the
responsible official to represent Lebanon, and as long as he
is president, he should be president." Pointing out that
when President Lahoud met with UNSYG Annan and UN Special
Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, the foreign minister could not be
included because he was with Siniora. Speaker Berri believes
that and other instances "said to the world, we are not a
6. (C) However, he did admit that the were positives,
specifically that the Core Group showed significant
international support for Lebanon and gave the government an
opportunity to speak. "Do not misunderstand my position" he
asked, "we appreciate the meetings, but I do not accept
promises made there that we cannot keep. I don't want to
repeat Paris II."
"WHAT DID YOU DO IN PARIS ?"
7. (C) Changing topics, the speaker addressed the political
situation and directly asked the Ambassador who he spoke with
last week in Paris. The Ambassador informed the Speaker
Berri that he met with Saad Hariri and others and, as he has
with other political figures, asked them to refrain from
trying to determine political consequences ahead of the
completion of the Mehlis investigation. But if such
consequences did lead to a presidential selection, the
Ambassador urged his Paris interlocutors to emphasize the
leadership qualities sought by the Lebanese people, rather
than the usual political maneuverings. Speaker Berri agreed
that any new president had to come from the Christian
community, but also appeal to the rest of the country.
Additionally, any new leader would have to represent the
sentiments of liberty and transparency demonstrated in the
March 14 mass demonstrations. Even though he voiced approval
of these ideas, Berri could not resist asking the Ambassador
about the "rumor that the U.S. was really pushing Michel
Aoun." The Ambassador responded with a flat "that is simply
not true." The Ambassador explained to Berri that the USG
did not, and would not, have a particular candidate, which
Berri seemed, upon reflection, to accept (for now).
"HE WILL STAY UNTIL THE LAST DAY"
8. (C) Despite his engagement in this discussion of
leadership qualities, Speaker Berri finished with the
comment, "I think he (Lahoud) will stay until the last day of
his term," then -- following a long pause -- "unless Mehlis
has something. On that day I told Walid (Jumblatt) we have
to talk, but we will wait until then." He then repeated to
the Ambassador a rumor he recently had received that "Mehlis
really has nothing."
9. (C) As the conversation wound up, the ambassador
presented the speaker with a June 2000 letter written by
Emile Lahoud to UNSYG Kofi Annan in which the Lebanese
president offered to accept for now -- without prejudice to
future negotiations -- the UN demarcation in the Shebaa Farms
region. The Ambassador asked Speaker Berri if this could
somehow be used to creatively deal with that difficult issue.
The speaker took out his reading glasses and intently
studied the letter, then reading the Arabic version out loud,
repeatedly (and in increasing volumes), as if not able to
believe its text. Again, the Ambassador inquired as to
whether this could change anything. Speaker Berri chuckled
in a bemused way and softly said, "This is very bad."
Recovering his poise, Berri replied that he could arrange for
the Ambassador a presentation of various documents dating
back to the Ottoman regime which he believes clearly proves
Lebanese ownership of the disputed area, to which the
Ambassador asked why the Lebanese had not made the claim on
Shebaa when the area was first occupied in 1967. Speaker
Berri declined to answer and said at any rate, Lahoud would
say he never authored the letter, that it was simply one of
the many documents placed in front of him that he had
10. (C) Speaker Nabih Berri displayed his usual agility and
quickness in coming up with plausible explanations for
implausible actions/events. Although he played with the name
Jean Obeid as a potential occupant of Baabda Palace, it is
clear that he has not yet decided to withdraw his own support
from Lahoud, given that his political fortunes are tied to
the president's. Berri may not be entirely comfortable with
the prospect of Lebanese political figures removed from
office before the end of their terms. End comment.