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07BEIRUT176 2007-02-02 07:53:00 SECRET Embassy Beirut
Cable title:  

RIZK CLAIMS FRENCH, HARIRI BACKING FOR PRESIDENCY

Tags:   FR KDEM KINL LE PGOV PREL SY 
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1. (S) Minister of Justice Charles Rizk -- who considers
himself the father of the (not yet fully gestated) Special
Tribunal for Lebanon -- claims to have overcome two key
hurdles to winning Lebanon's presidency: the endorsement of
"Queen Mother" Nazek Hariri (widow of Rafiq) and backing of
French President Jacques Chirac. While, last time we
checked, neither Nazek nor Chirac have voting rights in the
Parliament that will this autumn choose the next occupant of
Baabda Palace, Rizk (joining a Lebanese consensus) considers
their support as essential to success. He claims that Chirac
plans to check with the USG to ensure that we would not veto
Rizk. While we at Embassy Beirut would prefer a March 14
candidate from the triumvirate of Nassib Lahoud, Nayla
Mouawad, or Boutros Harb (in that order), we think that Rizk
is the best of the "compromise candidates" currently in play.
He has been far more transparent in his dealings with us
than Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, another perennial
favorite. With months to go until the (s)election process,
however, other names will emerge; while we recommend against
vetoing Rizk, there is no reason for us to zero in on a
single candidate now. Rizk also claimed that, recently,
Syrian proxies attempted to bribe him to quit the cabinet.
While he may have invented or embellished that story to woo
our affection, whatever bridges he had to Damascus surely
have been badly damaged by Rizk's single-minded focus on the
tribunal (admittedly, a focus probably more rooted in
ambition than in a quest for truth). At first treated with
suspicion by March 14 stalwarts, Rizk, who jettisoned his
childhood friend Emile Lahoud as he pushed the tribunal
forward, is now accepted as credible presidential material by
most of them. Rizk expressed interest in coming to
Washington to present himself and a three-part presidential
agenda. End summary and comment.

WINNING THE TRUST
OF 'QUEEN MOTHER' NAZEK


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



2. (S) Rizk, who returned from a six-day trip to Paris on
Wednesday evening, insisted on a Thursday (2/1) lunch with
the Ambassador. Before the Ambassador had sat down, Rizk
said contentedly that he had seen "the Queen Mother" -- Rafiq
Hariri's Paris-based widow Nazek -- three times. While the
first included Rizk's wife Nayla and the second was a dinner
with other guests, the most important meeting took place on
Monday evening, when Rizk sat with Nazek for two hours
one-on-one. Nazek started out apologetically, saying that
she regretted that Rafiq never really got to know Rizk and
that she herself at first did not trust him. Rizk was
unknown to them, and he joined the Mikati and then Siniora
cabinets as a representative of President Emile Lahoud, his
childhood friend. How could she like him, given that
association. But, watching Rizk single-mindedly pursue the
establishment of the Special Tribunal, Nazek's views of Rizk
evolved. She appreciates what he has been doing, and he has
earned her trust and gratitude.

AUDITIONING CANDIDATES
BEFORE CHIRAC


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



3. (S) According to Rizk, Nazek then admitted that she had
first hoped that former MP Ghattas Khoury, who was extremely
close to Rafiq, would succeed Lahoud. Ghattas was Rafiq's
choice. She arranged for an interview between Khoury and
French President Jacques Chirac, who found Khoury lacking in
presidential stature. So she then invited former Foreign
Minister Jean Obeid ("who has no known source of income but
lives like a king," Rizk griped; "why does no one ever ask
about that?") for his audition with Chirac. Obeid, too,
failed his exam. Delighted to recount the felling of his
competition, Rizk laughed that Chirac's rejection probably
stemmed from the fact that neither are fluent in French, "a
requirement for office, according to the French." Ever the
stage mother, Nazek then focused on pushing Central Bank
Governor Riad Salameh. This was an easier sell, as Salameh
was already well known to and respected by Chirac because of
the work he accomplished to make the three Paris donor
conferences successful and vehicles to highlight France's
special relationship with Lebanon. Chirac gave his Gaulic

BEIRUT 00000176 002 OF 005


nod of approval to Salameh. At this point in the
conversation, Rizk admitted that his heart sunk: he was
convinced that Nazek was trying to explain and apologize for
her choice of Salameh over Rizk.

BUT NOW NAZEK BACKS RIZK


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



4. (S) But, Nazek noted, over the past year, she
(exercising the right of multibillionaires everywhere)
changed her mind. Rizk has proven his independence from
Syria by his pursuit of the tribunal, despite Syria's clear
wishes to kill it. Nazek has heard whispers that Salameh may
still have some Syrian connections. (We too, have heard the
whispers, but do not know whether they are based in fact or
in backstabbing by the presidential competition.) Even at
the expense of his friendship with Lahoud, Rizk has done more
than any other person to establish the tribunal (a
characterization that UN/OLA's Nicolas Michel or Lebanese
judges Choukri Sadr and Ralf Riachi might well dispute).
Nazek wants Rizk to become president of Lebanon, and Chirac
agrees.

AND SO DOES CHIRAC


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



5. (S) Rizk then back-tracked briefly to a Saturday (1/27)
ceremony at the Elysee Palace, when Chirac presented the
Legion d'Honneur to Marwan Hamadeh: Chirac, in front of all
the guests, ostentatiously pulled Rizk aside for a 10-minute
one-on-one conversation. Nazek's subsequent words revealed
to Rizk just how significant this pull-aside was
symbolically, with Chirac praising Rizk's work on the
tribunal. (We note that several other presidential candidates
were also at the same ceremony. We predict that Nassib
Lahoud, Nayla Mouawad, Michel Edde, and Riad Salameh also
will tell us of their significant pull-asides with the French
President.) The Ambassador noted to Rizk that Chirac had
found many occasions during Paris III to extravagantly praise
Salameh: was Rizk so sure that Chirac had switched horses?
Rizk agreed that Chirac would still accept a Salameh
presidency, but maybe no longer as his first choice.
Chirac's praise of Salameh may have been intended to as
partial compensation for the let-down Salameh will experience
when he realizes Chirac has shifted his gaze, Rizk said
hopefully.

CHIRAC TO CONVINCE SAAD


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



6. (S) Returning to his 1/29 session with the Widow Hariri,
Rizk asked whether Saad Hariri, her step son and the
parliamentary majority leader, agreed with her assessment.
Nazek said that she would use Chirac to convey the message.
Chirac would convince Saad to back Rizk. If she approached
Saad directly, Saad would play the role of a contrary
stepson. After all, in July 2005, she had warned him not to
appoint the dreaded Fouad Siniora as Prime Minister, and the
next day he did just that. "Look what happened," Nazek said,
seeing Lebanon's woes as linked more to Siniora's tenure than
any other factor.

CHIRAC TO QUERY WASHINGTON;
RIZK ANGLES FOR VISIT


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



7. (S) It is also key to have a green light from the U.S.,
Nazek said, asking Rizk about his relationship with the
United States. "It seems to be fine," Rizk said, blurting
out before he noticed her face darkening that he had
accompanied the dreaded Siniora to the White House in spring
2006. Nazek said that Chirac planned to call President Bush,
or have Maurice Gourdault-Montagne call APNSA Hadley, to make
sure that the Americans accept a Rizk presidency. Rizk
expressed hope that the Ambassador would convey to Washington
very quickly how happy he is with the close relations with
Rizk. Eager to audition before us, he also made a pitch for
going to Washington. If Washington is tired of Lebanese
officials, he doesn't require any press, he said, and would
not overreach in terms of the level of appointments sought.
He wanted to share ideas on a three-part presidential agenda:
1) Getting the tribunal up and running and navigating
Lebanon through the dangers it will create; 2) passing a new
legislative election law and overseeing credible legislative
elections; 3) forging a national consensus on what Lebanon

BEIRUT 00000176 003 OF 005


is, in a way that forces all groups -- including Hizballah --
to become part of the state and subject to its rules.

MUSING OVER HIS ODDS


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



8. (S) Rizk said that he thought he would be an acceptable
candidate to Lebanese Forces' leader Samir Geagea, Druse
leader Walid Jumblatt, and Maronite Patriarch Sfeir.
(Comment: We agree that these three would now readily accept
him, having been initially suspicious of him. End comment.)
He reckoned that Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, if he fails
in promoting his favorite, Jean Obeid, would endorse Rizk as
a fallback. His biggest opposition would come from Lahoud,
"whose opinion shouldn't count," and Amine Gemayel, the
latter for reasons of local Metn politics as well as
presidential politics. He worried about a Syrian veto that
could come in the form "a la Bashir Gemayel and Rene Mouawad"
of physical elimination. As for Hizballah, Rizk claimed to
have maintained a working relationship with Wafiq Safa, with
whom he shared various drafts of the tribunal documents.
Rizk said that he thought Hizballah would not block him,
unless Hizballah was forced to follow explicit orders from
Syria.

9. (S) Lowering his booming voice to a whisper, Rizk
("don't tell anyone") then claimed that some of "Syria's
friends" in Lebanon had approached him recently. They seemed
to want to bribe him "with a lot of money" to resign from the
cabinet. "I refused!" Rizk said, volume fully restored.
"They can't buy me." The Ambassador asked whether "Syria's
friends" had raised the presidency, either promising it or
threatening to block it. Rizk claimed that he cut off the
conversation so quickly that they had no chance to say more.
As the Ambassador tried to probe about who carried the
alleged Syrian message, Rizk cut off the conversation. "I
shouldn't have said anything."

COMMENT


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



10. (S) If Rizk was being honest with us about the content
of his consultations with the Widow Hariri, we suspect that
Nazek is hedging her bets, saying similar things to all the
likely presidential contenders. That way, whoever prevails
will feel in Nazek's debt. After all, whatever power and
influence Nazek possesses today stems from two factors -- her
billions and her relationship with Jacques Chirac. The
billions aren't going away, but the Chirac asset has an
expiration date quickly approaching. Nazek needs to shop
around for a replacement. Her access to political power is
unlikely to be exercised through Lebanon's premiership, if it
continues to be occupied by Fouad Siniora or is acquired by
Saad Hariri. Thus, she is presumably focused on the
presidency. Rizk's ambitions seem to have made him gullible,
believing that he is the only one for Nazek. It will be
interesting to see if the French do come calling to inquire
about Rizk alone: we suspect not. We would guess, if they
do call, that the French will have a lists of acceptable and
unacceptable candidates, with Rizk falling somewhere on the
acceptable list.

11. (S) As for our views on the approaching presidential
elections, it is no secret that we would prefer as president
someone who has been associated with March 14 values --
independence and sovereignty for Lebanon, free of Syrian
interference -- from the start. Nassib Lahoud, Nayla
Mouawad, or (in distant third place) Boutros Harb would top
our list of preferences. All three began resisting the
Syrian occupation before it became trendy to do so. But we
also sense that, in any grand deal to address Lebanon's
political crisis, the presidency will end up in the hands of
a compromise candidate, neither March 14 nor March 8. Of
those whose names are currently in circulation in this
category, we prefer Rizk. He has weight and presence
compared to the colorless Central Bank Governor Salameh (who
seems to be the current front-runner among the compromise
names), and he has worked transparently with us on trying to
move the tribunal forward. We think the Patriarch sees him
as a more genuine representative of the Maronites than
Salameh as well. If Chirac does call, we recommend not
vetoing Rizk, but we also see no reason today to limit
ourselves to one candidate. In the capricious political
winds of Lebanon, other candidates will emerge.


BEIRUT 00000176 004 OF 005


12. (S) Admittedly, Rizk's longtime friendship with Emile
Lahoud does give one pause. We have probed, trying to find
out what is his relationship, past or present, with Syria; we
have uncovered little that is definitive. But we note that,
in any case, Rizk is not the only person in Lebanon to have
broken with past alliances. Rafiq Hariri's belated push for
a Syrian withdrawal and Walid Jumblatt's spectacular break
with Hizballah and Syria come to mind. We do not now
question the authenticity of Hariri and Jumblatt's changes of
heart. Rizk's shift came with his embrace of the mission of
establishing the tribunal, and is probably rooted more in
ambition for the presidency than in a noble quest for the
truth. But he has stuck doggedly with the tribunal and the
cabinet when it would have been easier for him to quit. Some
Lebanese figures are starting to sidestep back toward the
fence from which they once jumped down on the side of March
14, when March 14's fortunes and future appeared bright.
Rizk was never, and is not now, a March 14 member. But, even
in this most difficult environment, he also has not tried to
be a fence-sitter on the tribunal, an issue of critical
importance to March 14, to Lebanon, and to us. If Rizk ends
up as president despite Lahoud's inevitable objections, we
think we'll find him acceptable and certainly a vast
improvement over the shameful incumbent.

BIO INFORMATION


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



13. (C) Rizk is an easy, relaxed, engaging, likable
interlocutor, fully comfortable in colloquial English and
with a cosmopolitan air and tastes typical of the
French-educated upper-class Maronites. Unlike many, however,
he does not live ostentatiously -- his vacation house in
Faraya is rustic and classy, not showy, and his Ashrafieh
apartment is modest, even a bit shabby (in a "shabby chic"
sort of way), by Lebanese cabinet standards, with nary a
stick of gilded furniture in sight. His wife Nayla, who has
natural and genuine warmth, has not subjected herself to the
plastic surgeons' scalpels and collagen injections typical of
many Lebanese wives. Charles and Nayla share a love for the
arts and literature with a depth and passion unusual for
Lebanon. Even before Charles had to take unusual security
precautions because of his cabinet role and work on the
tribunal, they were not regulars on the Beirut social scene.
Nudging them out to a dinner required a promise that the
guest list was small.

14. (C) We enjoy ready access to Rizk. He is fond of his
drink, which tends to encourage his proclivity to expound on
subjects large and small. Some of his ideas verge on the
margins of the wacky, but he has also proven to be a
creative, facile thinker, always ready to shift gears based
on new arguments and facts. Somewhat vain, he is sensitive
to perceived slights (we doubt he ever forgives his ex-friend
Emile Lahoud for Lahoud's public insults of Rizk) and is
easily provoked into witty, amusing, but biting criticisms of
any and all of his peers and colleagues. Excitable, he
sometimes seems to talk before thinking, as when he called a
press conference to criticize Central Bank Governor Salameh
over an obscure detail in the Bank al-Medina scandal, an
ill-considered move on Rizk's part that made him appear to be
groping for the presidency (a trait, we note, not unique to
Rizk).

15. (C) A skier and swimmer, he comes across as younger and
more athletic than his 71 years would suggest. He exudes
energy and joy. He tends to be good-humored with us, often
sharing jokes about himself, us, the French, etc. While
clearly delighted to hobnob with those who share his
affection for fine Bordeaux, he finds the entire concept of
the Francophonie, to which he serves as Lebanon's executive
representative, risible, and constantly offers to be
Lebanon's representative to the "Anglophony." In comparison
with Riad Salameh, he has another advantage that the Lebanese
in particular appreciate: he looks presidential, not gray
and bureaucratic.

16. (SBU) The following is from the Embassy's biographic
files on Rizk:

Date and place of birth: July 20, 1935, Beirut.

Marital status: Married, with two grown daughters. One is a
locally recognized artist and the other lives and works in
Paris.

BEIRUT 00000176 005 OF 005



Religion: Maronite Christian (although his wife Nayla is
Orthodox)

Education: PhD in Law from the University of Paris, degree
from the Institute of Political Science, Paris, and
literature degree from the University of Lyon, France

Languages: Fluent in Arabic, French, and English.

Career:

-- Director of Studies in the Institute of Civil Service,
1960-67. Appointed Director General of the Ministry of
Information, 1967-70. Controller at the Central Control
Commission (equivalent of the OIG for the GOL), 1970-73.
General Manager of the National Litani River Foundation
(1973-1977).

-- He was also president of the state-run television station
Tele Liban, 1978-1983.

-- He is the founder and president of a software firm that
has operations in France and Central Europe. With his
appointment to the cabinet in April 2005, he transferred
ownership of the company to his two daughters.

-- Minister of Information and Minister of Tourism in Najib
Mikati's April-July 2005 cabinet.

-- Minister of Justice in Fouad Siniora's cabinet since July
2005.

-- Lebanon's representative to the executive body of the
International Organization of Francophone Countries since
1998.

-- Authored sevearl books, including "Le Regime Politique
Libanais" (which has a "Chehabist" theme -- that is, the
state should prevail, per the goals of Lebanon's former
president Fouad Chehab, the political mentor for Rizk).

FELTMAN