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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
05BEIRUT3818 2005-11-29 08:45:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Beirut
Cable title:  

MGLE01: SPEAKER BERRI HALF-HEARTEDLY DEFENDS

Tags:   IS LE PGOV PREL PTER SY 
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O 290845Z NOV 05
FM AMEMBASSY BEIRUT
TO SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 0891
INFO ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY
					  C O N F I D E N T I A L  BEIRUT 003818 


NSC FOR ABRAMS/DORAN/WERNER/SINGH

E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/28/2015
TAGS: IS LE PGOV PREL PTER SY
SUBJECT: MGLE01: SPEAKER BERRI HALF-HEARTEDLY DEFENDS
HIZBALLAH'S ACTIONS, BUT UNDERSTANDS NEED FOR CONSTRAINT

Classified By: Jeffrey Feltman, Ambassador. Reason: Sections 1.4 (b)
and (d).



1. (C) SUMMARY: Speaker Nabih Berri tried to explain
Hizballah's November 21 attack on an Israeli position in the
Blue Line village of Ghajjar as merely a response to Israeli
military activity earlier in the month. Yet Berri indicated
he understood that Hizballah's aggression in Ghajjar, and its
subsequent fiery rhetoric on martyrdom, were
counter-productive and destabilizing to Lebanon. Berri said
that even though he wanted to issue public statements to that
effect, he could not. He still believes it is in everyone's
interest to keep Hizballah inside the government, but
realizes this will require better coordination among himself,
Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt to balance Hizballah's growing
power. In discussing a possible Michel Aoun-Jumblatt
reconciliation, Berri hinted that he could publicly break
with Hizballah over an anticipated by-election for one
Parliamentary seat. Berri also said he is trying to work
with the Siniora government to deliver measurable progress,
such as a recent energy transaction with the Gulf Emirates
that will help the GOL lower the price of heating fuel this
winter. The Speaker also promised to join Siniora in
supporting an extension of the UNIIIC mission in Lebanon,
despite his strongly expressed feeling that they were
"sons-of-bitches" who may be trying to implicate him in some
manner in the Hariri assassination. Berri was convinced that
a "secret deal" involving Syria, the UNIIIC, and the U.S. had
been reached, and that this was the real reason behind
Syria's last minute agreement with Detlev Mehlis. Finally,
Berri confided that in a meeting held last week, former
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Ja'ja and Druse leader Walid
Jumblatt agreed not to pursue for now the ouster of President
Emile Lahoud. End summary.



2. (U) Speaker of Parliament and leader of the Amal Shia
movement, Nabih Berri, met with the Ambassador and Poloff on
November 28 at Berri's residence in West Beirut. He
acknowledged the Embassy's invitation to meet with CODEL
Hagel on December 3 and said he looked forward to discussing
issues with them.

HIZBALLAH'S RATIONALIZATION


--------------------------





3. (C) In response to a question regarding Hizballah's
motivation for its November 21 aggression against Israeli
positions, Speaker Berri reacted with a gesture of
frustration and launched into a protracted (and possibly
rehearsed) explanation that struck us as more half-hearted
than usual. He reviewed for the Ambassador a list of recent
Israeli "provocations" -- IDF naval activity close offshore
Sidon; high-level, reconnaissance overflights over the Biqa
and south Lebanon; extended artillery firing close to the
Blue Line; and low-altitude supersonic flights -- all of
which he felt gave Hizballah an "excuse" to retaliate, in
order to prove they were not "weak." Hizballah leader Hassan
Nasrallah made his point on November 25. But Berri did
acknowledge there was a considerable difference between the
non-lethal nature of recent Israeli activity compared to
Hizballah's pre-meditated, lethal attack of November 21. The
Speaker expressed a not so subtle fear of Hizballah's real
intentions, but rhetorically asked what could he do in the
face of such power. Berri implied that if he could show that
Hizballah's actions were not justified, he would speak out
against their destabilizing effect. (Note: Playing a
surprising and refreshingly constructive role, Berri did
assist the Embassy and the Siniora government in dampening
tensions during last week's events by acting as an
intermediary with Hizballah. But it is clear he fears
stepping beyond that role, despite the seriousness of more
aggressive Hizballah policies in Lebanon. End note.)



4. (C) Because of the stakes involved, Speaker Berri
insisted he was now trying to work more cooperatively with
Prime Minister Siniora and his government. In fact, he said
he had just concluded an agreement with the United Arab
Emirates to supply heating fuel to Lebanon to help ease
public demand for lower energy costs. This USD 55 million
transaction will help blunt criticism of the Siniora
government that it is heedless of the needs of ordinary
citizens. The ever-calculating Berri implied he will be
cooperative whenever political realities permit.

STILL GRUMPY ABOUT "MR. X," SPEAKER
NEVERTHELESS TO SUPPORT UNIIIC EXTENSION


--------------------------





5. (C) Concerning UNIIIC and greater cooperation among
Lebanon's moderate political forces, the Speaker related how
his confidant MP Ali Hassan Khalil, carrying messages from
Walid Jumblatt, had just asked him to support publicly an
extension of the UNIIIC's mandate in Lebanon, and perhaps,
the establishment of an international tribunal to prosecute
those accused in the investigation. He indicated he would
support these positions, but laughing bitterly, expressed
contempt for the investigative "sons of bitches who don't
understand the warm relationship that existed between himself
and Rafiq Hariri" before the latter was assassinated. He
described a complicated and continuing UNIIIC sub-inquiry
into the now-infamous "Mr. X" wiretap, implying he had been
set up by Syrian Military Intelligence chief in Lebanon
Rustom Ghazaleh, and feared that he, like President Lahoud,
was somehow being implicated in the crime. As he has on
previous occasions, the Speaker professed complete innocence
and said he welcomed the truth. To demonstrate his
commitment, he said he was sending a letter that afternoon
declaring his support for the UNIIIC extension. As for the
content of the "Mr. X" wiretap, Berri said that he was
convinced Ghazaleh had tapped the call with the intention of
sharing its content with Hariri, as Ghazaleh worked to keep
Lebanese politicians divided. At the time of the "Mr. X"
phone call, Berri claimed, Ghazaleh would have prohibited
Jumblatt, Hariri, and Berri from meeting together privately.

BUILDING COALITION TO WITHSTAND
HIZBALLAH-INDUCED PRESSURE


--------------------------





6. (C) In response to an inquiry as to why Hizballah was
not criticized as a "foreign agent" when it was clear they
received both funds and direction from Syria and Iran, Berri
fell back on history. He implied that when Hizballah
strategically claimed the mantle of the "resistance" in
opposing Israel, the organization acquired a considerable
amount of immunity from such criticism. He said that you had
to go back to 1948 and 1982 to appreciate the position they
now hold. But Berri did admit the situation with Hizballah
was now becoming untenable and had to be constrained. The
Speaker explained that he was working more closely with
several factions -- Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt, Amal, and
the various Maronite leaders -- to create a coalition strong
enough to deal with Hizballah. He stated that even Jumblatt
was planning to meet with Michel Aoun to shore up relations.

AMAL TO SPLIT FROM HIZBALLAH
IN POTENTIAL BY-ELECTION?


--------------------------





7. (C) In discussing the potential Jumblatt-Aoun
rapprochement, Berri noted that Baabda-Aley MP Edmond Naim is
quite ill and might vacate his seat. Deciding who to back in
a by-election might be the vehicle by which to build a
Jumblatt-Aoun reconciliation, Berri said. He noted that Amal
would still back Jumblatt's list (in the mixed
Shia-Druse-Christian election district) but that Hizballah
would not. (Note: This is the first time Berri has
indicated to us that he might take Amal in a different
direction than Hizballah, in terms of elections. End note.)


BETTER THAT HIZBALLAH
REMAIN INSIDE THE TENT


--------------------------





8. (C) Asked by the Ambassador about the possibility of a
united front isolating Hizballah, Berri said that he still
believes it is in the country's best interests to keep
Hizballah engaged in the government. He explained how he
worked quickly after Hizballah's walkout from the Cabinet
meeting on November 10 to limit the damage to Siniora's
government. Berri said he had heard about the incident and
rushed to convince the other three Hizballah-associated
Ministers to state that their action was based merely on
"administrative" concerns, that is, that no one had a
complete transcript of Bashar Assad's November 10 speech as
it was then being discussed later that same day in the
Cabinet. In describing this and other political maneuvers,
Speaker Berri argued that it, "was better to bring Hizballah
along, rather than leave them (for Syria and Iran)."

POSTPONING LAHOUD'S REMOVAL


--------------------------





9. (C) With regard to the president, Berri stated that,
despite the diplomatic gestures expressed by the U.S. and the
EU, the show of unity with himself, Lahoud and Siniora on the
parade reviewing stand on Independence Day was good for the
country. He confirmed other reports that Walid Jumblatt had
just met with LF leader Samir Ja'ja, but then added they had
agreed to postpone for the time being any effort to force
President Lahoud from office. The reason, with which he
concurred, was that if Lahoud was driven from office, it
would make Hizballah anxious and that much more difficult to
control. And in the unique world of Lebanese politics,
Lahoud's removal could also push Michel Aoun into a deal with
Hizballah.

ALLEGATIONS OF U.S.-SYRIAN DEAL


--------------------------





10. (C) The discussion closed with Berri pressing for an
explanation of Syria's November 25 agreement with UNIIIC
investigator Detlev Mehlis. "There must be a deal among the
U.S., Syria, Mehlis, and perhaps Saudi Arabia," he exclaimed,
"otherwise, it would be stupid." Although he did not receive
the answer he was apparently looking for, Speaker Berri
closed by promising to work in cooperation with the country's
other moderate elements.

COMMENT


--------------------------





11. (C) Probably no single event over the past six months
disappointed reform-minded Lebanese more than Nabih Berri's
re-election as Speaker of the Parliament. As we have
reported earlier, Berri won his position by relying on what
was in essence a "confessional veto" -- the Hizballah-Amal
monolith only permitted one Shia candidate, Berri, for the
Speaker post that is always reserved for a Shia. While
Sunni, Druse and Christian MPs, holding the majority, could
have voted in someone else, no one wanted to defy the will of
the Shia community as represented by Amal and Hizballah.
Now, Berri could rehabilitate himself in the eyes of many
Lebanese if he would begin to distance himself from
Hizballah, so that Hizballah could no longer claim to
represent all of Lebanon's Shia. It would be easier for the
rest of Lebanon to confront Hizballah if that confrontation
was not perceived to be a confessionally-driven campaign.
Berri is the key to the success of that approach. What Berri
told the Ambassador and Poloff in this meeting was more
encouraging than Berri's usual statements, in that he
acknowledged distance between his own views and those of
Hizballah. But we should not kid ourselves: Berri is a
survivor and the head of a movement that now has now been
largely subsumed into Hizballah. While we are convinced that
he personally detests Hizballah, he is, at best, essentially
a fence-sitter: he is constantly calculating whether his
political prospects are brighter with Hizballah or with
Hariri et al.


FELTMAN