Tfle01: Berri Says Cease-fire Necessary Eventually, But For Now, Israeli Strikes Are “like Honey.”

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¶1. (C/NF) Lebanon’s Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri told
the Ambassador today (7/17) that within another week,
continued Israeli strikes will solidify Lebanese popular
opinion against Israel. For now, however, he suggested in a
most oblique manner that the potential for Israel’s assault
to weaken Hizballah militarily and undermine the organization
politically is a positive development. “It’s like honey. A
little bit is good, but if you eat the whole jar you get
sick.” For the leader of a community that has by virtue of
its physical location borne the brunt of the Israeli assault,
Berri’s spirits during the meeting were remarkably high. His
condemnation of “Israeli aggression” against Lebanon was
perfunctory at best. Berri insisted that Hizballah
miscalculated Israel’s response to its kidnapping operation
last week. He added that now a cease-fire must be conducted
in a way to restore the Lebanese government’s sovereignty
over its territory, and ensure that Hizballah does not use
the cease-fire to entrench its positions and rebuild. In
another positive development, Berri saw Prime Minister
Siniora immediately before his meeting with Ambassador, and
explained that he and the Prime Minister are now meeting
“every day” to coordinate their efforts to resolve the
current crisis. Berri dismissed a UN sponsored plan for
Hizballah to turn over its two IDF hostages to the GOL,
preferring instead an immediate cease-fire, followed by a
hostage exchange (which we judge is a non-starter). The
speaker may have been playing coy with this issue, however,
as he studiously avoided suggesting any other proposals to
induce Israel into accepting cease-fire. End summary.


¶2. (C) On 7/17, the Ambassador and emboff called on Speaker
of Parliament Nabih Berri at his Ain el Tineh residence.
Berri was in a jovial mood when he received the Ambassador,
having just finished a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister
Fouad Siniora and his chief of staff, Ambassador Mohammad
Chattah. The prime minister and Ambassador Chattah seemed
up-beat as well, especially given Siniora’s grim disposition
during previous meetings this week. After teasing the
Ambassador good-naturedly, the prime minister then departed.
As the Ambassador and emboff sat down in Berri’s office,
Berri explained of Siniora, “He just stopped by, didn’t even
have an appointment. We are seeing each other every day now.
We are having very good cooperation.” (This, we note, is in
stark contrast to a few weeks ago, when Berri — the master
of backroom politics — complained that Siniora was not
consulting with him sufficiently.)


¶3. (C) As the meeting’s content moved towards Israeli’s
ongoing military strikes in Lebanon, Berri made perfunctory
complaints about Israeli aggression and civilian casualties,
especially in southern Lebanon, where he said the this week’s
destruction surpassed even that wrought by Israel in their
1982 invasion. He described several Israeli attacks as
“massacres,” showing emotion in describing the deaths of
civilians in Tyre and Marwaheen. Overall, however, Berri
seemed more focused on the need to achieve a cease-fire in
the next “four to five days,” and the importance of making
sure Hizballah does not use the opportunity of the cease-fire
to claim a political or military victory. Berri emphasized
that any cease-fire should result in full GOL responsibility
for security in the south, and (amazingly), “the complete
implementation of UNSCR 1559.” “This is what my national
dialogue was about, wasn’t it?” Speaker Berri asked. “We
need complete implementation of 1559.”

¶4. (C) Berri said he believed that if a cease-fire were
achieved today, Hizballah would certainly claim victory and
be politically and militarily emboldened by having forced an
Israeli-cease fire without having turned over the two IDF

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hostages they seized last Wednesday morning. But Berri also
worried that a prolonged Israeli campaign would start to make
Lebananese popular opinion sympathetic to Hizballah. ‘The
Israelis have another four or five days; after that people
will turn against them.”


¶5. (C) Berri said he thought Hizballah had miscalculated
Israel’s response when they executed their kidnapping
operation last Wednesday, but admitted that he felt betrayed
by Nasrallah for misleading Lebanon with assurances of
stability during the national dialogue. “We can never sit
down at the table with him again. We think he lied to us.”
Berri then condemned the ferocity of Israel’s military
response, but admitted that a successful Israeli campaign
against Hizballah would be an excellent way to destroy
Hizballah’s military aspirations and to discredit their
political ambitions. He warned only that Israel would have
to complete its mission quickly, before a sustained military
campaign pushed Lebanon’s popular sympathies into Hizballah’s
arms. Berri then suggested that Israel’s strikes were “like
honey.” “I like a little bit of honey, but if you eat the
whole jar you get sick!,” Berri exclaimed, and then threw his
head back in riotous laughter.

¶6. (C) Unfortunately, Berri suggested, for the overwhelming
force shown by Israel in the past week, they have had only
limited success in weakening Hizballah militarily. “In the
past week, they have killed only three Hizballah fighters!”
he claimed, citing a figure of 150 dead overall. Berri said
that the IDF would have to markedly improve its targeting
intelligence to make air strikes more effective. Either
that, or they would have to wipe Hizballah out of the south
with a ground offensive. “But they won’t be able to sustain
that for very long. They will have casualties, and popular
opinion in Israel will turn against them.”

¶7. (C) Berri seemed convinced, however, that for any chance
of a lasting peace, the IDF would have to be successful in
its mission to neutralize Hizballah’s military capabilities.
He explained that over the past several years, Hizballah has
continuously built up its military capabilities in the south
alongside UNIFIL observers and limited LAF deployments. He
said that during any new cease-fire, the LAF should fully
deploy across the south, but they would need to make sure
that Hizballah was completely destroyed first. Otherwise, he
explained, they would rebuild right alongside LAF troops who
were supposed to be in charge of security, but who in
actually, are too weak to stand up to Hizballah at their
current strength.


¶8. (C) The Ambassador suggested to Berri that he should play
leading role in the government’s efforts to secure the
conditions that could lead to a cease-fire with Israel, and
asked Berri what initiatives he had in mind. After avoiding
the question several times, Berri finally mentioned the
proposal suggested by last night by Ambassador Veejay
Nambiar’s UN delegation. “That was the only thing they
talked about for three hours,” Berri said. Berri quickly
dismissed Nambiar’s suggestion for GOL to demand custody of
the kidnapped Israeli soldiers from Hizballah, but never came
up with any other proposals himself, only saying that there
should be an immediate cease-fire with Israel based on
“political agreements.”

¶9. (C) Regarding other international initiatives, Berri was
“mostly” impressed with last night’s G8 summit statement,
saying, “There were a few things we didn’t like, but overall
it was very good.” Berri dismissed outright, however, the
visit from EU Envoy Javier Solana and any suggestion that the
EU may have offered to broker direct talks between Israel and
Hizballah. “The EU had nothing,” Berri said. “(Solana) just
came here and talked, but they had nothing to offer.”


¶10. (C) Berri, of course, is an ally of Syria and Iran.

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But, the quintessential Lebanese political survivor, he’s not
a fully-owned subsidiary of the two, and it would be
inaccurate to see him simply as “Hizballah-lite.” If Berri
can be weaned away from his Hizballah tactical alliance,
Hizballah would no longer be able to use Lebanon’s strange
confessional politics to veto any initiative not in its (or
Syria’s) interest. We are certain that Berri hates Hizballah
as much, or even more, than the March 14 politicians; after
all, Hizballah’s support (with the exception of General Aoun
and those who blindly follow him) is drawn from the Shia who
might otherwise be with Berri. If Israel succeeds in
weakening Hizballah militarily, then Berri will be more
willing to weaken them politically. He certainly hinted at
that possibility in speaking favorably for the first time in
our presence of UNSCR 1559. But, while his honey description
was unexpected given the subject matter, he drew a very fine
line between “just enough” Israeli action and too much. We
suspect that Nabih Berri’s sense of the location of that fine
line is quite far from the location where Israeli will
ultimately choose to draw it. Berri, for example, seems to
think that we are rapidly approaching the point where Israeli
action becomes counterproductive to political goals. We
doubt, based on the ongoing Israeli strikes, Israel is there