Identifier
Created
Classification
Origin
07BEIRUT1931
2007-12-10 05:26:00
CONFIDENTIAL
Embassy Beirut
Cable title:  

LEBANON: BERRI DEMANDING CONSENSUS ON HOW TO

Tags:  PGOV PREL PTER PARM SY IS LE 
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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 BEIRUT 001931 

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR NEA FRONT OFFICE AND NEA/ELA; NSC FOR
ABRAMS/SINGH/YERGER

E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/08/2017
TAGS: PGOV PREL PTER PARM SY IS LE
SUBJECT: LEBANON: BERRI DEMANDING CONSENSUS ON HOW TO
AMEND CONSTITUTION

REF: STATE 164382

BEIRUT 00001931 001.2 OF 004


Classified By: Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman for Reasons: Section 1.4 (
b) and (d).

SUMMARY AND COMMENT
-------------------

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 BEIRUT 001931

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR NEA FRONT OFFICE AND NEA/ELA; NSC FOR
ABRAMS/SINGH/YERGER

E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/08/2017
TAGS: PGOV PREL PTER PARM SY IS LE
SUBJECT: LEBANON: BERRI DEMANDING CONSENSUS ON HOW TO
AMEND CONSTITUTION

REF: STATE 164382

BEIRUT 00001931 001.2 OF 004


Classified By: Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman for Reasons: Section 1.4 (
b) and (d).

SUMMARY AND COMMENT
--------------


1. (C) Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri insists on amending the
constitution to elect Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Commander
Michel Sleiman as president via methods that bypass the
Siniora government. Blaming, as usual, everyone but himself
for the ongoing impasse, Berri cites Free Patriotic Movement
leader Michel Aoun as the real "political" problem. While it
is as yet unclear what tangible political gains Berri hopes
to secure by throwing up legal obstacles to the election of
what until now has been an elusive consensus candidate, we
suspect the current delay is yet a further attempt to wring
concessions in terms of the next cabinet's formation and
program. End summary and comment.


2. (C) The Ambassador, accompanied by DCM and Pol/Econ Chief,
met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and his advisor Ali
Hamdan at Berri's office in Ain el-Tineh on December 8.
Berri began the meeting by stating that, after parliament was
postponed for a seventh time on December 7 (until December
11) in its efforts to elect a president, he was "not so
optimistic" this time. He still believed amending the
constitution would be an easy task and had proposed two ways
to do so (which he claimed were "not from my brain"),but the
March 14 majority would not accept them.

BENDING THE CONSTITUTION TO BYPASS SINIORA:
FIRST PROPOSAL
--------------


3. (C) The first proposal was to have the Siniora government
resign. (Note: The opposition considers the government
illegitimate after the November 11, 2006 walk-out of six
opposition ministers, including all five Shia ministers,
thereby depriving it of its confessional balance. This has
not stopped the "resigned" ministers from carrying out their

day to day activities, though they refuse to attend cabinet
meetings. Their resignations were never officially accepted
by the Siniora cabinet. End note.) The government then
would automatically become a caretaker government.


4. (C) Berri agreed that a caretaker government normally
would not be allowed to undertake important government
business such as amending the constitution, but argued that
if everyone agreed on the need for the amendment, the
government could be given that right, only "tangentially
touching" any constitutional irregularities. Furthermore, PM
Siniora already had said he would give his resignation to the
new president; why not resign a half an hour earlier (i.e.,
before the election) to make this proposal feasible? The
process of amending the constitution and electing the
president then could be done in two hours, he said. (Note:
The prime minister's resignation is automatic upon election
of a new president. End note.)


5. (C) In a twist on this proposal, Berri suggested that, if
the Siniora government did not voluntarily resign, it would
automatically be considered resigned should two more
ministers resign from the cabinet. (Note: Cabinet must have
two-thirds, or 16 out of 24 original ministers, to remain in
power. After the resignation of the six opposition
ministers, and assassination of Industry Minister Pierre
Gemayel, the current cabinet has only 17. End note.)

BENDING THE CONSTITUTION TO BYPASS SINIORA:
SECOND PROPOSAL
--------------


6. (C) Berri's second proposal, assuming the resigned Shia
ministers would not return to the government and the
government itself would not resign, was for ten MPs to sign a
petition proposing a constitutional amendment, then for
parliament to pass the amendment without referring it to the
government (as mandated under the constitution). It would be
ordained a "law to be implemented immediately," thereby

BEIRUT 00001931 002.2 OF 004


obfuscating the need for government approval. Under this
scenario, the amendment and election of the president could
be done in one a half hours, he said.

EXCEPTIONAL CIRCUMSTANCES
CALL FOR EXCEPTIONAL MEASURES
--------------


7. (C) For both proposals, Berri argued, after reading from
past legal decisions he claimed supported his argument,
"exceptional circumstances" and the "interests of the state"
could be invoked as reasons for not adhering strictly to
constitutional procedures. As he had told majority leader
Saad Hariri, the presidential vacuum, the ongoing problem
with Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, and the risk
of a Sunni-Shia conflict all justified this approach. It's
like after 9/11, he said, when the U.S. took actions that
encroached upon civil liberties in the name of national
security. Furthermore, Berri concluded, the Lebanese
constitution is based on the French, and French jurists agree
with this approach.

REWRITING HISTORY
--------------


8. (C) The Ambassador noted that in the past Berri had said
an easy -- and constitutional -- solution would be for at
least one resigned minister to return to the cabinet
temporarily to remove any questions about its legitimacy,
thereby allowing the cabinet to play its constitutional role
in amending the constitution. Berri denied this (although
Saad told us Berri told him the same thing),saying he
"didn't go into the details" of procedures for amending the
constitution.


9. (C) Berri admitted, however, that the possibility had been
discussed. MP Bahije Tabbareh had told Berri, French FM
Kouchner, and Hariri that, although the current government
was not constitutional, the Shia could return and include in
the minutes of the Council of Ministers their reservations
about the government. The issue also had been raised with
Hizballah; (Rresigned) Energy Minister Fneish reportedly said
Hizballah would agree only if all the decrees passed during
the past year by the "illegitimate" Siniora government were
reviewed by the fully reconstituted cabinet. Saad had
discussed the issue with Berri and Hizballah MP Mohamad Raad,
who reportedly said he would ask Hizballah SYG Hassan
Nasrallah. Berri told the Ambassador that he would stand
aside if Nasrallah gave the green light.


10. (C) The Ambassador then suggested that the Siniora
government could accept the resignation of the six "resigned"
ministers, and appoint a new Shia minister, thereby removing
any doubt about the cabinet's legitimacy. Berri, appearing
not to have considered this solution (though we're sure he'll
find a legal study to tell us why it won't work next time we
see him),said, "We can talk about that."

HARIRI STALLS ON SIGNING PETITION
--------------


11. (C) Berri claimed he had asked MPs Bahije Tabbareh and
Robert Ghanem (who heads the parliamentary legal committee
tasked with studying the issue of the amendment) to prepare
the petition to start the process. The petition, he said,
would not specify how the constitution would be amended, it
would just request that it be amended. Five MPs from each
side would sign it (five from March 14, two from Hizballah,
two from Amal, and Michel Murr, representing Aoun's bloc).


12. (C) Berri said he urged Hizballah and Saad to sign the
petition on December 7, reportedly telling Hizballah to sign
first and ask Nasrallah later. Saad reportedly agreed at
first, then said he wanted to wait until he was comfortable
with the whole process. Hamdan chipped in that the rumor was
that Telecom Minister Marwan Hamadeh had advised Saad to wait
(Hamadeh later confirmed this in a separate meeting with the
Ambassador, saying he had advised Saad "not to rush"). This
was a big mistake, Berri said, as it would have put a lot of
pressure on Aoun.


BEIRUT 00001931 003.2 OF 004


SLEIMAN IS U.S.' CANDIDATE
--------------


13. (C) The Ambassador insisted that, since there was a
consensus on Sleiman and an urgent need to fill the
presidential vacuum, parliament should be convened
immediately to vote. March 8 already had won a victory by
getting March 14 to propose a candidate from outside its
bloc. "Which victory?!?" Berri exclaimed, affecting
astonishment. The U.S. was the first to mention Sleiman,
giving the green light by saying it was not opposed to a
constitutional amendment, he said. Even with consensus, it
is a different thing to talk about going to parliament and
actually doing it, he added, suggesting that first there had
to be agreement on how to amend the constitution.

STILL HIDING BEHIND AOUN
--------------


14. (C) All of Lebanon is with Michel Sleiman, Berri said,
except one person. That's the real issue, not how we amend
the constitution. There is a political problem with Aoun, he
said, shaking his head, "he is unbelievable!"


15. (C) Aoun wants two things, Berri continued: partnership
in the government and a new electoral law. Referring to the
proposed French communique, Berri said Saad wouldn't accept
language on the need for a "proportional" government, which
Aoun was claiming the French had assured him would be
included. Aoun is pocketing French assurances of a "55/45"
cabinet formation (to reflect the majority/minority
composition of parliament). He also claims the Europeans
promised him language on a new electoral law that would
reference the "qada" (small district) voting system, Berri
said. (Note: Aoun believes the "qada" system will lead to
electoral gains for his party, and blames an unfair electoral
law for not receiving a fair share of seats in the 2005
elections. End note.)


16. (C) In addition, Aoun is insisting that Sleiman only
remain in office for "one year and seven months" (i.e., until
the 2009 legislative elections) and that Saad not become
prime minister, Berri continued. Claiming to object to both
demands, he added that he had said so to Amal and Hizballah,
warning them that Aoun's demands go against the interests of
the Christians (presumably because they would weaken the
Christian-held presidency),and we can't oppose an entire
community.


17. (C) The Ambassador noted that cabinet formation should be
the new president's prerogative; otherwise he would be
deprived of his constitutional role. Sharing points from
reftel demarche, the Ambassador said he had already begun
notifying Aoun MPs that they could potentially risk financial
sanctions and a travel ban to the U.S. should they continue
to obstruct efforts to elect a president.

COMMENT
--------------


18. (C) For many months, Berri insisted on the need for a
two-thirds quorum to elect a president in order to ensure
consensus. Now that a consensus candidate has been found in
Michel Sleiman, Berri is raising the bar yet again:
consensus now must be reached not only on the candidate but
also on the procedure for amending the constitution. When
questioned why the simple strategy of having one resigned
Shia return to the cabinet was no longer acceptable, Berri
first denied having discussed it, then put the onus on
Hizballah, stating that if Nasrallah was on board, it could
be done. The slippery Speaker again has an answer for
everything, but his answers are beginning to lose credibility
with us and only raise our suspicions about his true aims.


19. (C) What does Berri gain by having the Siniora government
resign or eliminating it from the amendment process? The
satisfaction (on par with March 14's victory of watching
President Lahoud leave Baabda Palace) of seeing Siniora
prematurely leave the Grand Serail, with the implicit
suggestion that March 8 was right all along and his
government was indeed illegitimate? Whatever ego the

BEIRUT 00001931 004.2 OF 004


do-no-wrong Speaker may have, this doesn't strike as the full
answer -- unless Berri gambles that somehow this would lead
to the unraveling of all the accomplishments of the Siniora
government. The Special Tribunal presumably is safe, having
been ordered by the UN. But decisions regarding telecom
privatization (highly opposed by March 8, which sees them as
benefiting the pockets of March 14, not to mention a threat
to Hizballah's own independent telecom network) probably
would be the first target.


20. (C) Would Siniora's resignation somehow strengthen
Berri's posture with his Hizballah and Aoun allies (or Syria,
for that matter),after so much bending in the wind over the
past months in an effort to appease all sides? Again, not a
fully satisfactory explanation. Despite Berri's efforts to
lay all the blame at Aoun's doorstep, we view this as a
convenient pretext for not moving forward with elections.
After all, there is a two-thirds quorum without Aoun's MPs
(and two MPs from his bloc showed up for the vote on December
7).


21. (C) Granted, Hizballah would lose its Christian cover
should it split with Aoun. Berri therefore may be trying to
buy time to find a way to bring Aoun on board, as he claims
he is. Moreover, assuming that the opposition (and its
Syrian and Iranian masters) do indeed want a president, we
suspect that Berri, to ensure March 8's key interests are
protected (i.e., Hizballah arms),is seeking more tangible
gains, most likely related to cabinet formation and program.
How he extracts those from lobbing up obstacles to the
constitutional amendment is as yet unclear, but the latest
twists are no doubt part of the delay, delay, delay game for
which he has become famous to us, as he waits for
instructions from Damascus and for the winds to shift even
more decisively in his favor.
FELTMAN