Deal or No Deal?

 

national-dialogue-september-5-2016

The Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation trying to reach a deal for the millionth time in three years this month. (Image source: September 5th 2016, The Daily Star/Parliament, HO)

This is the 24th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of August and the first half of September 2016 (the second half of summer).

Sit back and relax. This is going to be a long, long, long post. You have been warned.

Let’s start by playing a little exciting game. The game is called “calculating the number of members of parliament that haven’t been elected for 8 years yet are still eligible to elect a president and vote laws although they practically do nothing other than give speeches and maneuver all year”.

In order to play this little game called “calculating the number of members of parliament that haven’t been elected for 8 years yet are still eligible to elect a president and vote laws although they practically do nothing other than give speeches and maneuver all year” (yes, I copied and pasted that entire paragraph, just because I can), one needs a table that makes it easier. Lucky for you excited gamers, there’s a table for you here on the blog:

2009 lebanese parliament seats

In the dark cold month of February, and while Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea were forging their alliance and everyone else was panicking, I uploaded that table to tell the world that their alliance practically meant nothing: Aoun had the public support of the March 8 alliance (minus Amal and Frangieh) and Frangieh had the (not so public) support of Amal, the PSP and the FM. That meant that both candidates had around 45 to 50 votes (since you can never predict how smaller “offside” blocs such as Mikati’s and Murr’s bloc would behave with a Frangieh-Aoun confrontation in parliament), and both Frangieh and Aoun still needed around 15 to 20 votes to garantee their election after the second round (you need 86 votes to make it through after the first round).The main obstacle for Aoun was that Amal did not eventually support him, while the main obstacle for Frangieh was that Hezbollah – basically the core of the M8 alliance – never really fell to the temptation of saying yes to him instead of Aoun –  which was the goal of the entire FM maneuver of  endorsing Frangieh in December. So as predicted in February, the deadlock stayed and stayed and stayed although the alliances had completely shifted.

How it began

Then came the (politically) hot month of July: Berri and Bassil made a deal on the Lebanese gas and oil dossier,  and Berri suddenly started saying nice things about the FPM, which is why I assumed back then – like everyone – that there was a very high probability that Berri’s bloc would eventually vote for Aoun since the FPM and Amal are more or less on good terms since the beginning of this Summer. But that was pure speculation.

Panique

So Frangieh – in a probable panic mode – was meeting Gemayel in in his northern Lebanon home, perhaps in order to lure him into making the 5 MP Kataeb bloc side with the Marada leader to counter the recent Aounist momentum. The FM meanwhile were doing the same: The FM bloc met in Beirut and decided, via a 23-3 “internal” vote  that they would not stand with Aoun in the presidential elections. The vote was made public for obvious reasons: Sending a message to everyone, that even with a Berri blessing, they would still stand against the election of Aoun.

Deal?

In Lebanese politics, a no never means no (sometimes I say very deep quotes). Seriously though, a no in a Lebanese political negotiation means that you want something more. And that’s what the FM probably meant with their very public No. They would not elect a president for 6 years without something in return that would have a long-term effect as the term of the Lebanese president.

Wait? What?? Deal???

And Berri got the message fast. Less than 5 days after the internal FM vote, Berri publicly promoted a package deal – confirming that electing the president alone doesn’t solve the crisis. Right after that happened, we saw three interesting stances:

In other words, the FM were hinting that with a good deal they would be ready to abandon the Frangieh candidacy if a good deal is on the table, Salam was hinting that the alternative would have to be someone else than Aoun, and the FPM…were still holding on to Aoun (surprise!). Probably depending on the deal, the name of the president would have to change. If the deal favors the FM a lot, Aoun would become president. If not, the name of the president would be the result of a more moderate compromise.

What package deal?

For this, we’re going to fast-forward… one day: on the 13th of August, Hezbollah SG Hassan Nasrallah finally indirectly told us what the package deal – for the M8 parties at least – would look like: In his speech commemorating the 10th year since the July war, Nasrallah voiced his Party’s commitment to supporting General Michel Aoun for Presidency, adding that “House Speaker Nabih Berri, our long term partner, is our only candidate for heading the Parliament Council,” while expressing “openness” with regards to the Premiership issue after the Presidential elections.

Let me translate the proposal: Aoun becomes president. Berri gets a share of the oil that makes Amal happy enough to vote for Aoun and stays as speaker. The FM get the premiership.With Aoun in power, Hezbollah makes sure that a cabinet hostile to its policies in Lebanon, Syria, and beyond would not see light in the near future. On the Christian side, Geagea becomes the de-facto second in command behind Aoun and an FPM-LF alliance crushes all the smaller parties in the Christian districts in the next parliamentary elections (The proof: The FPM and the LF said in the same week that they want an electoral law with a joint green light from both parties) which means bigger shares in parliament for Aoun and Geagea. Everyone is happy. Everyone gains more from this deal.

Everyone except the FM, the Kataeb, the Marada, and the PSP

When it comes to the FM, the premiership (for Hariri probably) is “a prize” too little for them to approve in the context of such a deal. The prime minister would leave after the first parliamentary elections, and even if the FM coalition wins, there’ll aways be a chance that Hariri would be ousted from the premiership like what happened in 2011 (throwback to when we almost had a civil war).

For the FM to agree on a 6 year long term deal, they would have to be given something that benefits them on the long run… and that would be an electoral law that favors them. Exchanging the premiership with the presidency, without having any guarantee about the next electoral law would be a rookie mistake that the FM are not willing to do no matter how tempting the presence of Hariri at the head of the government might be for the FM.

There’s also the part where the parties have to share the ministers in the next government, but that’s also a temporary developement and the key issue will always  be the electoral law, because governments come and go but parliaments tend to stay in this country (throwback to that time Lebanon’s politicians extended the parliament term twice).

For the Kataeb and the Marada, they clearly lose because they gain nothing in government and will have to face the LF and the FPM in parliamentary elections with an electoral law they will have no say in, while the PSP kind of lose their kingmaker status if a deal passes through without them in the middle being able to block everything.

This is exactly why the Kataeb panicked and decided to escalate their trash crisis struggle and take things to an entire new level by closing down the landfills in August with their protests – just to be clear, closing landfills is the right thing to do but I’m tackling the issue here from a political maneuvering point of view.

In case you’re not following, more trash escalating means inducing more anger from the Metn electorate against the FPM and LF before elections which means higher odds for the Kataeb to secure Gemayel’s home district in the next elections (here’s a post from two months ago that explains the Kataeb escalations in detail). The Kataeb stopped their trash escalation this week, but their strategy remains the same: Make the FPM and the LF suffer as much as possible in the Metn before June 2017 arrives because it’s the only district where they can hope to make it to parliament all by themselves.

The commander of the army: Complication or advantage?

One of the things that complicate the deal right now is that the commander of the army’s term is expiring, which means that the ruling parties have another thing to share ( = add to the deal). As a potential next president, Aoun obviously wants the LAF commander to be close to him – the Lebanese president after all presides over the Supreme Defense Council and is the commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces which falls under the authority of the Council of Ministers (article 49 of the constitution), which might explains why the FPM is refusing to extend the term of the commander of the army with the absence of a president in power.

2006 + 2015 = 2016

Another reason why the FPM is focusing on the LAF commander issue right now is  because they currently have more leverage than they will ever have: They’re the only major Christian party that still has an active presence in government and this means that appointing/extending the term of a commander of the army (something relatively important) without their blessing can be considered to be illegitimate (There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the pact of mutual existence, article J, preamble of the constitution). Ten years ago (in 2006), March 8 blocked two years of political life in Lebanon with this article (when they argued that  a government – the first Siniora cabinet – without any Shia ministers had no legitimacy and had to resign), and it eventually worked to their advantage in the Doha agreement. And this is exactly what the FPM is doing now with their boycott of the cabinet sessions as well as the supreme council of the tribal federation sessions (the national dialogue got suspended too, in case you wondered) . So yeah, welcome back to…2006.

Yeah. Just kidding, it’s 2015, since FPM and the other parties also have the possibility of exchanging the amy command with the presidency as part of a huge package deal (in case you forgot about the 2015 Roukouz-Kahwagi-FPM dilemma, here’s a little reminder).

When it rains, it pours

Berri said in August that he was going to be with Hariri whether the former PM did something wrong or not (why so suddenly nice, Mr speaker…), while MP Raad of Hezbollah said that the situation was ripe for the election of president, so it seems that the speaker – as well as Hezbollah – are definitely on board with the deal. One might even say that Berri wants to force a deal: He warned that “the country is to face crossroad by year’s end if there’s no agreement“. And although the FM said that Nasrallah  has no right to impose Aoun as sole candidate, there is nothing the FM can do now since Aoun has ≥ 65 MPs behind him, except blocking the quorum session (ironically like M8 are doing right now). But this FM “negativity”, like I said earlier, might just be a temporary answer to get more concessions from the Aounist team (Aounist team = the parties who want to vote for him ): the definite proof? A Hezbollah MP said that “Mustaqbal may benefit most from Aoun’s election“.

Even Geagea wants the deal. Actually, forget Geagea: Even M14 MP Michel Pharaon wants a package deal.

Deal or no deal?

In other words, all of M8 (minus Frangieh’s 3 MPs), as well as the LF, and some random MPs from M14 are on board with the deal: That gives Michel Aoun more than half of the parliament on his side (cc the game we were playing before at the beginning of the post), and with the half of the parliament already on his side, expect more MPs to flock towards his nomination: Let’s call it the Pharaon syndrome: You know that the deal will happen since there’s already a majority that approves it, and if you stand against it, you get isolated by the deal. So you might as well embrace it, and hope to get something in return…like a parliamentary seat for Pharaon who will be crushed in the next parliamentary elections in case the LF and the FPM blacklist him (it’s definitely going to happen if he doesn’t stand with them), so you can say it’s his way of “redeemint himself” (by endorsing Aoun) . And in September, the Pharaon syndrome was everywhere: Even MP Makari (who represents a Christian district in the North and who’s closer to the FM than the LF), distanced himself from the FM.

All the politicians are playing it safe, and for a reason: A deal is coming, and you’re either on the winning side, or the losing side will abandon you. That’s why the minor politicians on the losing side are flocking to the winning side.

OrangeBerries!

Berri’s indirect support gave Aoun a theoretical absolute majority, and once Aoun was there, his numbers only started getting higher. M8 just has to know what to concede so that the FM (and immediately after that the PSP) goes forward with his nomination and avoid another deadlock that would lead nowhere.

It won’t be easy to find a governmental formation and an electoral law that pleases the FM, but we’re almost there..almost.

I can’t believe I’m actually going to say it, but right now, Aoun has the highest chances of becoming president. Aoun’s chances are so high right now, Frangieh and Bassil clashed in the dialogue session on who represents the Christians more. But with the deal still in the making, Aoun is not going anywhere just yet, and if March 8 aren’t willing to concede something big (#electoral_law), we might instead find ourselves with the FM asking for a president that’s more to the middle between “March 8” and “March 14”: Two candidates fit the profile according to the partisan media: Jean Kahwagi and Jean Obeid. Which also probably explains why…the media has been circulating reports of Jean Kawhagi gaining momentum in the presidential game.

On the bright side, Lebanon’s politicians are actually looking for a solution to the deadlock. And it only took them three years to get here. Only three!

843 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 1201 days since the 31st of May (parliamentary extension) .

 

 

The Lebanese Senate in WikiLeaks

Rival leaders meet for national dialogue at Speaker Nabih Berri's residence in Ain al-Tineh, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016

Rival leaders meet for national dialogue at Speaker Nabih Berri’s residence in Ain al-Tineh, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016. (the Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

This is the 18th post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon.

When the Supreme Council of the Tribal Federation (in case you’re new to this blog, the SCTF = National dialogue session guys) met last month, Lebanon’s zuamas decided that solving a three year old presidential vacancy crisis as well as an electoral law were too mainstream, and took it upon themselves to find ways to establish a lebanese senate. According to the Taef constitution, Lebanon should have a non-sectarian lower house and an upper house (senate) that should be elected based on sectarian quotas (like the 50-50 parliament right now)- By the way, see what Elias Muhanna from Qifa Nabki has to say on the possibility of a bicameral Lebanese parliament.

So since the SCTF decided to finally bring up the senate debate, 26 years after the Taef agreement, I thought it would be interesting to see how the Lebanese politicians spoke about the creation of a senate behind closed doors. Turns out they didn’t really mention their plans about it, as I only found two relevant cables about the subject.

Plot twist: The cables aren’t actually that relevant, but hey, we’re talking about a major reform in the Lebanese political system, so it’s till worth seeing how politicians might use the senate card to their advantage. I only kept the important parts of the cables. Enjoy.

Cable 1

5. (C) In response to a question from the Secretary, Sleiman said that although Lebanese politicians are difficult to work BEIRUT 00000632 002 OF 002 with, the presidency was still an easier job than his previous position as commander of the LAF. He recalled each decision he made to send soldiers into harm’s way — from dealing with instances of sectarian street conflict to rooting out extremists in the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp — and assessed that that responsibility was heavier than any he had taken on in the political realm in the past year. Nonetheless, he joked that at least soldiers followed orders, unlike Lebanon’s unruly political class. POST-ELECTION AGENDA: REFORM ———- 6. (C) Although Sleiman expected the process of government formation after the elections to be difficult and potentially long, he anticipated that tensions would decline afterwards. He thought this would offer an opportunity to reform the judicial system and the electoral law, moving toward a system of proportional representation, and potentially creating a second parliamentary chamber. Sleiman envisioned a Senate where each confessional community could elect its representatives, while all Lebanese would vote for representatives of all confessions in the lower chamber. Nonetheless, he did not necessarily think the existence of a Senate should mean elimination of the 50-50 Muslim-Christian quota in parliament. “We have a national understanding,” he said. “We are a country of both Christians and Muslims, and it is important to preserve that.”

– Link for the entire cable: https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09BEIRUT632_a.html

Cable 2

7. (C) Berri argued that the Taif agreement should be implemented in full, including the formation of a bicameral legislature and the establishment of a committee to discuss abolishing sectarianism. Berri supported the formation of a small senate with six or seven representatives from each of the key sects that would be charged with “big questions,” such as decisions of war and peace and issues of major concern for each sect. A larger lower house elected without regard to sect would handle day-to-day operations of government. 8. (C) Berri admitted that formation of a senate would be unpopular among current MPs, who would have to cede some authority to the new body. He also supported formulating a new electoral law based on proportional representation to elect parliamentarians, a step he argued needed to be in place before two legislative bodies were formed. 9. (C) (Note: Lebanon had both a senate and parliament 1923-27, under the French Mandate. The parliament was non-sectarian and continued that way until 1943. The National Pact of that year established a 6-5 Christian-Muslim split of the seats in parliament and allocated the presidency to the Christians, the prime minister to the Sunnis and Speaker of the parliament to the Shia. The Taif Accord in 1990 changed the Christian-Muslim division of parliament to 50-50 and shifted some powers from the president to the prime minister. End note.)

– Link for the entire cable: https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09BEIRUT674_a.html

Presidency for Oil?

Headline L'orient le jour August 2016

This is the 23rd post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the last days of June and the month of July 2016.

Lebanese politicians usually take their break during summer. They stop writing speeches, they stop giving statements, and they stop campaigning. Truth be said, Lebanese politicians are on a break all year round, but in summer it’s usually really something else (it’s probably too hot for political maneuvers). This June and July though have been full of developments.

Revolts in the Kataeb and the FPM

When the transition of power started in the Kataeb and the FPM last year, everyone had underestimated the fact that the new young leaders of those parties would face resistance from their own leadership. Bassil was Aoun’s son-in-law and was more or less anointed by the General (unchallenged after Alain Aoun withdrew from the race), while Gemayel was basically leading a party founded by his grandfather and led by his father. So the potential for revolt in both parties was small, since time had turned those parties (as well as most of the Lebanese parties) into family reunions led by the heir. But both leaders were young, and both saw their party making HUGE decisions within less than a year for them in power: The FPM entered a historic alliance with the LF in January, and the Kataeb decided in June to abandon their biggest share in government since ages in favor of a long-term political maneuver. Big decisions mean consolidating power, and consolidating power means that potential rivals had to be marginalized. One of the Kataeb ministers, Sejaan Kazzi, (arguably) a member of the old guard, refused to resign, and subsequently saw his membership revoked. Gemayel was trying to keep the Kataeb in the game by orchestrating the political maneuver of the year (you don’t get the opportunity to be congratulated by rivals for a bold move twice) and everything Kazzi was thinking about was his chair in the Grand Serail. He publicly defied the young leader’s authority and made him look weak. Expelling Kazzi from the party was the smart thing to do, and the Gemayel leadership did it. On the other side of the political spectrum, in the FPM, tensions have been building up for a while: It is no secret that not everyone likes Gebran Bassil in the FPM, and if Gemayel was brave enough to exit the cabinet and expel a minister from his party, Bassil had to take control of his party too: Right before preliminiary elections that were supposed to be a democratic way to choose the FPM’s parliamentary candidates, three major FPM officials – not big fans of Bassil – were expelled from the party, probably to prevent them from consolidating any kind of power while Bassil is still trying to win the hearts of his father-in-law’s fan base. Not every LF supporter liked the FPM-LF alliance, and not every FPM supporter was a fan of it too, so making sure that there was no rivalry to the young FPM leader in the middle of a weird Christian alliance was a must. Prominent Beiruti FPM official Ziad Abs, Aoun’s nephew Naim Aoun, and other Bassil critics were thus no longer part of the FPM. Not really smooth, but it’s a practical way of keeping the potential FPM parliamentary candidates pro-Bassil. The months of June and July 2016 “party purges” in the Christian parties are the first round of preparations to the 2017 elections: The leader has to make sure that the candidates would not question him before he starts nominating them.

The rest of the August was cliché: Lebanese politicians arguing about the internet, Hezbollah and the FM playing the usual love-and-hate game, and other Lebanese politicians trying to strike an gas & oil deal before a new president gets elected and complicates the procedure of sharing the cake. Speaking of that:

“We discussed the oil and gas file and ways to extract it from the Lebanese waters. We have agreed with the AMAL Movement on the points of disagreement which gives the country an opportunity for stability.” (Gebran Bassil, July 1 2016)

Presidency for oil?

Now this is pure speculation, but Berri’s 13 votes in parliament are a nice advantage for Aoun’s quest to the presidential palace (March 8 + LF =65 votes – here’s a nice table clarifying that), and the calm statements going back and forth from Ain El Tineh to Rabieh recently (Aoun and Berri are known for their political cold war) hints that an agreement on the oil dossier can mean that a compromise including the oil and gas reserves file might make it easier to end the deadlock. Also, we all know that “opportunity for stability” is the politician’s nickname of “Lebanese president”

Bassil’s comments were made following his meeting with Speaker Nabih Berri in the presence of Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, who, in turn, said that Berri is “keen on reaching a common ground over this issue in order to launch works.

“We discussed political issues and projects and we agreed to continue the coordination and cooperation over these issues” he added.

“these” = something is cooking. Have you ever seen the FPM and Amal leaders so happy and optimistic in their meetings?

Jumblatt too:

Jumblatt also criticized any new term extension for Kahwagi in the army command, a move that should bring the PSP leader closer to the FPM, which is something he shouldn’t be doing if there wasn’t a deal on the horizon. He also praised the FPM-Amal agreement

Oh, and among other cliché events, the supreme council of the tribal federation (the national dialogue guys) met for three days and decided that since electing a president and agreeing on an electoral law, organizing parliamentary elections, voting a state budget, and drafting a defensive strategy were too mainstream, they were now going to work on creating a senate and debate its authorities and its electoral law – in the absence of a president and with the legitimacy of 127 deputies elected more than 7 years ago who are represented by an assembly of politicians that has no constitutional authority.

Nice.

So to sum up the first half of this summer, the Lebanese Christian parties were organizing themselves for next year’s parliamentary elections while the political class was complicating the presidential crisis even more by including senate talks and the oil doisser in the potential deal. Complicating the crisis means a longer deadlock and a longer deadlock means a possible parliamentary extension which also means a longer deadlock, which means that the entire revolts and counter-revolts that happened in the Christian parties last month were in vain.

So yeah, again, nice.

Oh, and speaking of deadlocks and productivity, Lebanon’s number 1 presidential candidate right now, Sleiman Frangieh, reportedly said that the only things that work right now are…prayers. And people complain our politicians / candidates have no plans.

Enjoy your summer. You know your politicians are!

And pray.

Don’t forget to pray,

For three years of dialogue weren’t enough to agree on the name of a president.

The July War, 10 Years Later: What WikiLeaks Tells Us

Disaster Sightseen in Southern Beirut

BEIRUT, LEBANON – AUGUST 19: on August 19, 2006 in the southern suburb of Haret Hreik in Beirut, Southern Lebanon. Most of the people going around in Southern suburbs of Beirut are Lebanese leaving in other neighborhood who came to see and photograph the destruction and to collect Hezbollah posters. Hezbollah pose banners on top of each destroyed buildings reading: ” Made in USA, Trade Mark, The Divine Victory ” the local residents are not coming back to leave to those areas due to the destruction, the suburbs are becoming an amusement attraction. (Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

This is the 17th post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon.

This month marks 10 years since the July war with Israel happened, so I thought it would be interesting to see how the first days of the clashes were described in WikiLeaks cables. I unearthed three cables which I found to be the most relevant. Every war has a political motive, and in those cables, several Lebanese politicians are discussing with the ambassador the likely reasons that might have led to the military escalations.The 2006 war is one of the most edited Wikipedia pages of all times, and the stances of the Lebanese politicians during the first three days of that war should be very important to see how they were planning to use the military clashes in their political maneuvers: The 2005 protests were a little more than a year old and the Hezbollah-FPM alliance was still in its early days and any change in the March 8/14 coalitions was possible. The first cable is a detailed description of a meeting between PM Siniora (+ his chief of staff, Mohammad Chatah, who was assassinated in 2013) and the American ambassador the morning after the war started. In the second one, you’ll find the opinion of Michel Samaha (yeah, seriously), as well as other minor Lebanese politicians. In the third cable (which is rather popular among Lebanese), Berri says that “the potential for Israel’s assault to weaken Hizballah militarily and undermine the organization politically is a positive development”. In the fourth cable, and “while expressing deep concern about some of the Israeli targeting, Jumblatt and Hamadeh expressed their hope that Israel would continue its military operations until Hizballah’s military infrastructure was seriously damaged even if it meant a ground invasion into southern Lebanon.”

So yeah, while innocent civilians were dying throughout the country, Lebanese politicians were trying to use the July war to their advantage. Enjoy the cables.

MGLE01: LEBANESE PM SINIORA: “WE NEED HELP.”
2006 July 13, 11:01 (Thursday)
06BEIRUT2353_a

SUMMARY

——-

1. (S) Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora expressed deep concern to the Ambassador this morning that the current security crisis is unfolding “as if by script,” with Israel and Hizballah dutifully playing out the assigned roles one would expect in a worst case scenario path to regional war. He argued that the only possible way to salvage the situation will be for the GOL to “change the script” by dissociating the GOL from Hizballah’s actions, asserting the Lebanese government’s responsibility for security in the south, maintaining peace along the Blue Line, respecting all relevant international resolutions, and soliciting United Nations support to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the current crisis. Siniora also criticized Israel’s military response over the past 24 hours as “disproportionate” and “unhelpful,” and he requested USG and international assistance in asking the Israelis to scale back their military assault and lift the air and sea blockade of Lebanon. Siniora argued that Israel’s response plays into the hands of Hizballah and Damascus and is paving the way for a Syrian re-occupation of Lebanon. Siniora and the Ambassador discussed international diplomatic initiatives to resolve the crisis, including a German offer to serve as an intermediary between Lebanon and Israel. Siniora also said that a Presidential statement from the UNSC would be beneficial — even if critical of Lebanon — and could explore the possibility of using UNIFIL renewal as a tool to reassert control in the south. The mood in the Grand Serail was grim today, and as the meeting was breaking up, Siniora leaned close to the Ambassador and flatly whispered, “We need help.” End Summary.

CONCERNED BY RAPID ESCALATION, SINIORA SUGGESTS A STRONG GOL RESPONSE

————————————–

2. (C) On the morning of July 13, the Ambassador and emboff called on Prime Minister Siniora at the Grand Serail. The British Ambassador to Lebanon, James Watt, was present in the meeting as well. As the Prime Minister sat down, he complained that Israel’s strong military response has been counterproductive and is uniting the Lebanese people behind Hizballah. He then said he is planning a strong government response of his own however, and had scheduled a Council of Ministers meeting for that afternoon. In it, he said he would push for a strong statement “dissociating” the GOL from Hizballah’s actions. Siniora also told the Ambassador that the only way to “change the script” and take the initiative away from Hizballah is to push for a unified GOL position asserting the government’s sole authority for security in south Lebanon, calling for a cease-fire along the Blue Line, respecting all relevant international resolutions, and soliciting United Nations support to negotiate an immediate, mutual cease-fire with Israel. The Ambassador asked the Prime Minister if he had publicly made such a statement yet. Siniora replied, “No, but I will.” He added that he had made a statement last night dissociating the government from Hizballah’s actions, but recognized that in the face of the significant escalation from both sides that took place this morning, he would need to take a stronger, more comprehensive position.

3. (C) Siniora then returned again to the topic of Israel’s punishing military response this morning, and complained that they were making the situation worse with “disproportionate” actions that were uniting Arab opinion behind Hizballah and against Israel. “They are crippling our economy, killing our people, they are going to take us back twenty years. This does not help.” In response. the Ambassador suggested that it would be important for the GOL to credibly distance itself from Hizballah’s assaults if they hoped to temper the severity of Israel’s retaliation.

A HIZBALLAH PROXY FOR THE SYRIAN-IRANIAN ENDGAME

————————-

4. (C) The Prime Minister acknowledged as much, but said he was concerned about Syria and Iran as well. The Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Ambassador Mohammad Chattah, said that Hizballah’s recent campaign was obviously conducted for the benefit of Syria and Iran, “They want to distract BEIRUT 00002353 002 OF 002 attention from the UNIIIC investigations and the nuclear issue. That’s the only explanation for why Hizballah would do this after they’ve been assuring us they would be quiet.” The Prime Minister took it one step further, adding, ‘They knew what the result of this would be. They saw Gaza, they knew how the Israelis would react. This isn’t about trading prisoners at all, even if that is the declared objective.” The Ambassador asked, in that case, what the Prime Minister thought the Iranian – Syrian endgame is. Siniora sighed, “They want to break our government and delay the tribunal,” acknowledging that after crippling the Lebanese government, Syria would then re-invade to “save” Lebanon from Israel. He added that Iran also wants to open a front on Israel’s northern border to distract from the mounting tensions regarding its own nuclear program.

ATTEMPTS AT RESOLUTION

———————-

5. (C) Siniora thanked the Ambassador for the Secretary’s remarks yesterday, and said that he had also talked twice to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. He said that Annan was considering sending an envoy to Lebanon to help mediate the crisis. Siniora said he would prefer “someone who understands the region,” suggesting Terje Roed Larsen, although he was aware that Annan is considering two other candidates first. Siniora also said that he talked to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi government yesterday as well, adding that Prince Saud gave strong support by telling Siniora that they should not allow “any organization (e.g. Hizballah) to undermine sovereign national Arab security.”

6. (S) Siniora also revealed an offer he said he had received from Germany yesterday to serve as an intermediary in negotiations between Lebanon and Israel. UK Ambassador Watt said he thought it was a good idea, and that if the Israelis were receptive, it would serve as useful and discreet back channel. But, the UK Ambassador said, it is far from clear that the Israelis are in any mood for such an initiative. The Ambassador underscored the point, expressing reservations. The Prime Minister’s special assistant, Rola Noureddine, pointed out that they would have to be careful in setting up the back channel so that it doesn’t look like they are trying to negotiate a prisoner release, which would be interpreted as a victory for Hizballah, or at least a GOL endorsement of Hizballah’s plan.

7. (C) Mohammad Chattah raised the possibility of a UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) on the situation. Ambassador Watt noted that any UNSCR would inevitably include a condemnation Hizballah’s actions as well. Prime Minister Siniora responded by saying that at this point, a supportive statement from the UNSC Presidency would be better than a UNSCR. Siniora suggested that with UNIFIL renewal on the table, perhaps the UNSC President could look at UNIFIL renewal as a tool to reassert control in south Lebanon. Even if the UNSC presidency statement would contain sharp criticisms of Lebanon as well as calling for Israeli restraint, Siniora said, he still thought action in New York would be helpful.

HELP ON BLOCKADE

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8. (C) Soon after the Ambassador left the meeting, Siniora called by phone to say that he had forgotten to mention a key point. Israel’s announced air and sea blockade of Lebanon, he said, was “pushing us all into the arms of Syria.” “Syria is becoming our lungs,” he said; “we can only breathe through the Syrians.” He urged that the U.S. press the Israelis to lift or at least lighten the blockade. He also passed on one specific request: the Lebanese want to get six empty jets (five belonging to MEA and a sixth) out of Beirut and to Larnaca. Siniora expressed hope that the U.S. could at least get the Israelis to allow the airport to function for 60-90 minutes to evacuate the planes. (Siniora claimed that the runways could be temporarily patched quickly, in order to allow the departure of the planes.)

FELTMAN

TFLE01: ISRAEL HITS SOUTHERN BEIRUT HARD; AIRPORT STRUCK AGAIN
2006 July 14, 10:13 (Friday)
06BEIRUT2386_a

Classified By: Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman. Reason: Section 1.4 (d) .

SUMMARY

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1. (C) Subsequent to reftel, Israeli aircraft have bombed two small airports, a power plant, and struck hard at targets in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Two rockets were reported to have struck Haifa, but Hizballah denied responsibility and UNIFIL could not confirm that the rockets were launched from Lebanon. Press is reporting that three Lebanese civilians were killed and 50 wounded in the Israeli airstrikes on the southern suburbs. All five MEA planes left BIA by 1100 hrs. local this morning. Embassy contacts expressed frustration with Hizballah for provoking a major escalation with Israel. End summary.

SUMMARY OF EVENTS IN LAST 24 HOURS

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2. (C) The following is an update of events since reftel using UN sources and Embassy contacts, and where necessary, press reporting. All times are approximate and in local time. July 13 1500 Rumors surfaced that Israel threatened to bomb the southern suburbs of Beirut and warned residents to evacuate. A trusted Shia journalist who lives in south Beirut reported to polstaff that no one was taking the warning seriously. In fact, Shia morale in south Beirut was high, and Hizballah buses were collecting people for a 1700 demonstration. 1600 UN Political Officer Georges Nasr briefed econoff on the current situation in the south. According to Nasr, sporadic gunfire exchanges have continued throughout the day at various points along the Blue Line. A few more Israeli airstrikes were reported this afternoon. UNIFIL observed three Israeli gunboats crossing the line of buoys that represents the maritime Blue Line. Later, UNIFIL observed one gunboat off the coast just north of Naqoura and another off Tyre. The third is unaccounted for. As of 1600 hrs. local, UNIFIL had not observed any Israeli ground forces in Lebanon. 1700 Two small airports were hit by Israeli airstrikes. The first is Quleiat Airport, located 20 km northeast of Tripoli near the Syrian border, and the second is Rayak Airfield, a small utility airfield in the Biqa’ Valley. (See 05 BEIRUT 4117 for background on Quleiat Airport.) An official at the Ministry of Transportation confirmed these reports. 2100 Two rockets hit Haifa, Israel. Hizballah denied that its fighters launched the rockets. UNIFIL did not observe the rockets launched from Lebanon, and has no further information to confirm or dispute Israeli claims. 2120 Israeli gunboats bombarded Beirut International Airport, setting fuel tanks on fire. July 14 0330 Israeli aircraft pounded the southern suburbs of Beirut. Explosions, sonic booms, and antiaircraft artillery fire could be heard at the Embassy. Press reported three Lebanese civilians dead and 50 wounded. Embassy contacts in the southern suburbs have left the area. In the morning, a large pillar of black smoke hung over Beirut. Early morning Israeli jets bombed power plant in Jiyye, just north of Sidon. 0430-0900 UNIFIL observed very little fighting in southern Lebanon, apart from some sporadic gunfire. 0500 Israeli jets struck the PFLP-GC base at Qussaya in the Biqa’ Valley just a few kilometers from the Syrian border. (See 05 BEIRUT 1604 for background information on the PLFP-GC base.) 0800 Al Manar tlevision station claimed Israeli jets bombed BEIRUT 00002386 002 OF 003 a television antenna in the Biqa’ Valley. 0822 Unconfirmed reports of Israeli gunboats shelling north of Sidon. 0825 An Israeli air raid against a major bridge of the Beirut-Damascus highway has made that bridge impassable. 0900 UNIFIL observed Israeli airstrikes near Khiam. 1030 UNIFIL reported Israeli artillery shells falling in southern Lebanon near the Blue Line. There is little to no return fire from Lebanon at this time. No Israeli ground forces observed inside Lebanon. 1030 UN Political Officer told econoff that it appears Middle Eastern Airlines will be able to evacuate its remaining five aircraft from the airport, pending UN negotiations. 1100 All five MEA planes and one private plane (belonging to former PM Mikati) successfully left BIA by 1100. PM Siniora, Central Bank Governor Salameh expressed their appreciation to the U.S. President and USG for their help on this matter. 1125 Israel dropped four bombs on the two runways at BIA, according to Civil Aviation DG Hamdi Chaouk.

REACTIONS TO ISRAELI STRIKES

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3. (C) Speaking with emboff on July 13, former Information Minister Michel Samaha characterized the ongoing Israeli reaction as a “normal” one. Based on his reading of public Israeli statements, he did not expect “real escalation.” No Israeli military action was capable of changing the internal situation in Lebanon. Only internal Lebanese dialogue can make that happen. This is the task that lies ahead once the situation calms down. Rather than the national dialogue, he advocated the formation of trilateral negotiations among MP Saad Hariri, Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, and MP Michel Aoun. This arrangement was necessary to “cook” a solution before the broader National Dialogue process started up again. (Comment: Samaha may be taking inspiration from the Syrian-brokered Tripartite Agreement of the 1980s, which brought together the LF, Amal, and the PSP, and in which he played a major “fixer” role. End comment.)

4. (C) Samaha did not argue with the suggestion that the ongoing crisis has diminished Aoun’s credibility, but insisted that the Lebanese still need to build on the “bridge” that Aoun extended to Nasrallah. The idea is to get the Maronite and Sunni communities jointly to “contain” Hizballah. The only alternative is “civil war with Hizballah.” The immediate task, Samaha said, is to find a way to get Saad Hariri back to Lebanon, in order to get 3-way talks started.

5. (C) Separately on July 13, Aounist MP Farid el-Khazen told emboff that Lebanon was in a “terrible situation,” and that he did not “see a way out.” He saw Hizballah’s kidnapping of Israeli soldiers as a “carbon copy” of what provoked the ongoing crisis in Gaza, and worried about the implications of Israeli retaliation. He was also furious at what he saw as Nasrallah’s lies at the national dialogue promising to keep the Blue Line quiet this summer. He admitted that Aoun’s agreement with Hizballah is becoming hard to defend.

SHIA JOURNALIST FLEES SOUTH BEIRUT; VIEWS HIZBALLAH STRATEGY

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6. (C) On July 13, Ali al-Amin, columnist for the Arabic language daily al-Balad and son of Shia “third way” leader Sheikh Mohammad Hassan al-Amin, told emboff that he had taken his family out of Beirut’s southern suburbs because of reports that the Israelis had called on the civilian population to evacuate. Amin noted that, were Israel actually to launch attacks on Beirut (which it later did), his family would be in a fix, since moving to their village home in southern Lebanon is no longer an option, either.

7. (C) Offering his analysis of why Hizballah provoked the violence by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers, Amin described Hizballah as being made up of two wings: a military/security BEIRUT 00002386 003 OF 003 wing, and a political wing. The military/security wing held decision-making authority, with Imad Mughaniyeh as one of the central figures. In recent years, especially following Syria’s withdrawal, however, a large portion of Hizballah’s membership took interest in a more “political” direction, and had seen that doing so could lead to benefits (such as participation in a cabinet for the first time). In this spirit, Hizballah officials revived discussion of the “Elisar” land development project, for example, talking about turning that area into a major tourism zone. While “some were betting on this new trend,” according to Amin, Hizballah’s military/security wing decided to re-assert control. Taking into consideration Iranian calculations (such as in the Persian Gulf and the nuclear issue) and the situation in Gaza, they decided to launch the July 12 attack on the Blue Line, and, in so doing, “open a battle” with Israel.

8. (C) The hostage-taking of July 12 had been planned for some time, according to Amin. It was fair to say that Hizballah, in the lead-up to July 12, had taken advantage of recent steps that suggested it was going in the opposite (that is, a more “political”) direction, such as the February 6 agreement with Michel Aoun. Amin suggested that some in Hizballah — presumably in the military/security wing — share an interest with the Israelis in the kind of destruction that would set Lebanon back, as some Israeli officials have reportedly threatened, 20 years or so.

9. (C) Amin said there were two possible outcomes to the current situation, and he was worried about both. If Hizballah wins, this would mean that the project of building a Lebanese state had failed decisively. If Hizballah loses, this would portend even greater sectarian strife in Lebanon. Regarding the second possibility, Amin said that most Lebanese Shia see Hizballah not as “the resistance,” and not in terms of confrontation with Israel, but rather as the most powerful defender of Shia communal interests against threats from other Lebanese communal groups. Amin suggested that it was difficult to imagine that Lebanese Shias pushing for a political “third way” independent of both Hizballah and Amal would be able to make much progress in the current situation. FELTMAN

TFLE01: BERRI SAYS CEASE-FIRE NECESSARY EVENTUALLY, BUT FOR NOW, ISRAELI STRIKES ARE “LIKE HONEY.”
2006 July 17, 17:50 (Monday)
06BEIRUT2407_a

(B) AND (D) SUMMARY

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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.

A SHIITE – SUNNI RECONCILIATION

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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.)

WE NEED A CEASE-FIRE SOON…

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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 BEIRUT 00002407 002 OF 003 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.”

BUT FIRST LET’S HAVE MORE HONEY

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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.

INTERNATIONAL CEASE-FIRE INITIATIVES

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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.”

COMMENT

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10. (C) Berri, of course, is an ally of Syria and Iran. BEIRUT 00002407 003 OF 003 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 yet.

FELTMAN

TFLE01: LARSEN TO PROPOSE HANDOVER OF ISRAELI SOLDIERS TO GOL; JUMBLATT AND HAMADEH CONCUR
2006 July 17, 11:49 (Monday)
06BEIRUT2403_a

SUMMARY

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1. (C/NF) On July 16, the Ambassador and econoff had a late night meeting with UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen and UNSYG Personal Representative to Lebanon Geir Pederson. Larsen showed a draft proposal to the Ambassador, which Larsen said that he was drawing from orally but not providing to GOL officials. It started with calling for Hizballah to transfer custody of the two Israeli soldiers it is holding to the GOL under the auspices of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and then transfer them to Israel. This would be followed by a multi-step plan that would result in a cease-fire, a buffer zone in southern Lebanon policed by the Lebanese military, and a UNSC resolution calling for the full implementation of UNSC 1559. Larsen did not expect Hizballah to accept the proposal but its rejection would paint it in a corner. Larsen and Pederson met with Siniora and Speaker Berri that day, and they seemed open to the idea. Mid-way through the meeting, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Telecoms Minister Marwan Hamadeh, and Information Minister Ghazi Aridi arrived unannounced. Jumblatt liked Larsen’s idea. While expressing deep concern about some of the Israeli targetting, Jumblatt and Hamadeh expressed their hope that Israel would continue its military operations until Hizballah’s military infrastructure was seriously damaged even if it meant a ground invasion into southern Lebanon. Jumblatt said that publicly he must call for a cease-fire, but he saw the fighting as an opportunity to defeat Hizballah. After Jumblatt and company departed, Larsen said he agreed that an Israeli invasion might be positive. Pederson added that Hizballah called him several times on July 16, and seemed desperate for mediation. End summary.

LARSEN SHARES DRAFT PLAN WITH AMBASSADOR

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2. (C/NF) On July 16, the Ambassador and econoff met UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen and UNSYG Personal Representative to Lebanon Geir Pederson at Larsen’s suite at the Phoenicia Hotel. Pederson excused himself early to return to the other part of the UN delegation (Ambassadors Nambiar and Ambassador De Sota) so as to not arouse suspicion about Larsen-U.S. collusion. Meanwhile, Larsen showed the Ambassador a draft plan to de-escalate the fighting in Lebanon step by step. He made it clear that he would not leave a copy of the draft with the Lebanese but would draw from its ideas in his discussions. While Larsen did not allow us to keep a copy, we took notes. Its main elements follow: Element One: Ask the Prime Minister and Speaker to support a statement by the UN on July 17 to call for Hizballah to hand over the two Israeli soldiers it is holding to the custody of the GOL under the auspices of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The Red Cross will be allowed to visit the soldiers. Next, an understanding between Israel and Lebanon with the following conditions: a) transfer of the two Israeli soldiers to Israel, and Israel releases the two Lebanese citizens still in its prisons, followed by a non-mandatory “lull” in the fighting, b) creation of a buffer zone to extend 20 km north of the Blue Line, c) the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) deploy into the buffer zone, and d) Siniora sends a letter to the SYG and UNSC stating that the GOL, in spite of its reservations, will respect the Blue Line in its entirety until agreements are made. Element Two: The UNSC passes a resolution with the following attributes: a) condemns Hizballah’s violation of the Blue Line, b) calls for an immediate and safe return of the two Israeli soldiers, c) deplores the lack of progress in implementing UNSC 1559, d) condemns the targeting of civilian infrastructure, e) deplores loss of civilian life and reminds Israel of its responsibility to protect civilians, f) deplores the disproportionate use of force by Israel, g) calls for immediate cessation of military operations and the full implementation of UNSC 1559, and h) reminds neighboring states of their obligation not to interfere in Lebanon’s affairs. Mechanisms: The models under consideration include three options: a) a council of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, U.S., France, Britain, Russia, and the EU, or b) option A with the BEIRUT 00002403 002 OF 003 addition of pro-Syria states like Iran and Qatar, or c) a council of neutral countries like Switzerland, New Zealand, and Norway. Ideally, Israel and Lebanon could sit on the council, but this is unlikely to happen. Comprehensive Deal: Israel ceases all military operations and withdraws all its forces from Lebanese territory. The GOL deploys the LAF to southern Lebanon and ensures that no “armed elements” attack Israel. The LAF deployment to the south must have enough forces to “maintain respect along the Blue Line.” UNIFIL would verify compliance. Follow-up: The GOL, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Arab League organize a Taif II conference. The Arab League announces that it sanctions a Taif II. Israel returns to the conditions of the 1949 armistice agreement with Lebanon.

3, (C/NF) Larsen explained that he and Pederson had met with Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on July 16 and received a positive response from Siniora and a non-negative response from Berri for the basic concepts. He interpreted Berri’s lack of negativity as quiet interest restrained by the need to keep his constituency happy. Larsen said that he knew that Berri was planning to meet with Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah on the night of July 16. Berri was focused on “grabbing the opportunity” now or else the situation will spiral out of control, according Larsen. Larsen said that he had an excellent brainstorming session with Siniora regarding his draft proposal. Larsen said that his mediation will focus only on Siniora and Berri in order to avoid confusing the matter by including the “naive-ists” Michel Aoun and Saad Hariri. Larsen planned to meet with Berri and Siniora on July 17.

4. (C/NF) Larsen continued that he was working to derail Javier Solona’s efforts. “Solona is an embarrassment.” Larsen explained that Berri had told him that Solona had brought a German Ambassador with him with the intention of hostage negotiations like those that freed Elhian Tannebaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers in 2004 in exchange for hundreds of Arab prisoners. Siniora was equally skeptical. The Ambassador called Adviser to the Prime Minister Mohammad Chattah, who confirmed that Siniora had told Solona that his initiative was dead in the water.

SETTING A TRAP FOR HIZBALLAH; JUMBLATT AND HAMADEH AGREE

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5. (C/NF) Larsen agreed that Hizballah would most likely reject his plan. This would be not be a problem because then the Arab countries, possibly including Qatar, would be pressured to come on board. Hizballah would look like the party that is denying an opportunity for a cease-fire. 6. (C/NF) Mid-way through the meeting three visitors arrived at Larsen’s room unannounced. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Minister of Telecommunications Marwan Hamadeh, and Minister of Information Ghazi Aridi entered the room in good humor and indulged in generous orders to room service with the others present. The three Lebanese politicians reacted positively to Larsen’s proposal to call for a transfer of the Israeli soldiers to the GOL. They said it would be best for Larsen to hold his press conference at 1500 hrs. local on July 17 before the cabinet is scheduled to meet at 1700 hrs. local. This would give momentum to the proposal and an opportunity for the cabinet to endorse it. Hamadeh assessed that Hizballah would be a loser either way. If Hizballah rejected the Larsen proposal, then it would be blamed for the continued destruction of Lebanon. If Hizballah accepted, then March 14 could say what did Hizballah bring all this destruction to Lebanon for, if to just return the Israeli soldiers.

INVADE MY COUNTRY

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7. (C/NF) Over a glass of red wine, a large bottle of vodka (the quality of which sparked a long exchange between Jumblatt and the startled room service waiter), and three bottles of Corona beer, Jumblatt gave a briefing on the thinking of the March 14 coalition which had met that evening. Jumblatt noted the heavy destruction of Lebanese infrastructure but bemoaned the irony that Hizballah’s BEIRUT 00002403 003 OF 003 military infrastructure had not been seriously touched. Jumblatt explained that although March 14 must call for a cease-fire in public, it is hoping that Israel continues its military operations until it destroys Hizballah’s military capabilities. “If there is a cease-fire now, Hizballah wins,” said Jumblatt. “We don’t want it to stop,” Hamadeh chimed in. Hizballah has been stockpiling arms for years and its arsenal is well-hidden and protected somewhere in the Biqa Valley. Jumblatt marveled at the cleverness of the Iranians in supplying Hizballah with the anti-ship missile that hit an Israeli gunboat.

8. (C/NF) Responding to Jumblatt’s complain that Israel is hitting targets that hurt the GOL while leaving Hizballah strategically strong, the Ambassador asked Jumblatt what Israel should do to cause serious damage to Hizballah. Jumblatt replied that Israel is still in the mindset of fighting classic battles with Arab armies. “You can’t win this kind of war with zero dead,” he said. Jumblatt finally said what he meant; Israel will have to invade southern Lebanon. Israel must be careful to avoid massacres, but it should clear Hizballah out of southern Lebanon. Then the LAF can replace the IDF once a cease-fire is reached. A defeat of Hizballah by Israel would be a defeat of Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon, Hamadeh added. For emphasis, Jumblatt said that the only two outcomes are total defeat or total success for Hizballah.

9. (C/NF) Hamadeh said that an Israeli invasion would give Siniora more ammunition to deal with Hizballah’s arms. Jumblatt thought the crisis could end in an armistice agreement like after the 1973 war. A buffer zone in the south could then be created. However, Jumblatt added, Israel should not bomb Syria because it would simply bring Syria back into the Arab fold without damaging the regime in Damascus. Weaken Syria by weakening Hizballah, he counseled; don’t make Syria a hero of the Arab world. Jumblatt made it clear he approved with Israel’s scrupulous avoidance of direct military action against Syria.

INVASION ON THE TABLE

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10. (C/NF) After finishing their room service, Jumblatt and company departed. Pederson, now back at the meeting said he thought Israel might launch a ground incursion into southern Lebanon. Larsen agreed, noting that much could be achieved if Israel invades southern Lebanon. “No one wants the status quo ante,” said Larsen. Pederson sensed Hizballah was getting nervous. “They called me several times today; they seem desperate,” Pederson said.

COMMENT

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11. (C/NF) Jumblatt’s comments echoed those of other March 14 contacts. Like the Israelis, they see the status quo ante as not an appealing destination. Thus, they also privately share their belief that a cease-fire now would leave Hizballah’s capabilities largely intact, with Nasrallah stronger and March 14 even weaker. But they fret that Israel’s stated aims of weakening Hizballah, while theoretically attractive, is not in fact happening. Marwan Hamadeh commented bitterly that al-Manar television is still broadcasting, while infrastructure under “March 14” control, like the fixed telephone network, has been seriously damaged.

FELTMAN

Al-Qaa’s WikiLeaks Diaries During the Civil War

Qaa Suicide Bombing.jpg

Lebanese army soldiers patrol near the site where suicide bomb attacks took place in the Christian village of Qaa, in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon June 28, 2016. REUTERS/Hassan Abdallah

 

This is the 16th post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon.

Monday was a sad day for Lebanon as eight suicide bombings killed five people and wounded more than 30 in the Lebanese border village of Al-Qaa. Even by Lebanon’s Syrian spillover standards, eight suicide bombings in less than 24 hours is a very tragic development and reminds us of the dark days of the Lebanese civil war: Sectarianism, the return of “self-security”, tensions vis-a-vis refugees, government failure, and border control issues. Which is why this month’s Wikileaks post is a compilation of several cables (I only kept the relevant parts to Al-Qaa) dating from the civil war era about the violence that used to happen there. The cables might be from a different era, the fighting might be between different groups than today, but some thing stays the same: Tensions lead to more tensions, more tensions lead to violence, violence only leads to more violence, and the political repercussions of violence are the same everywhere: In one of the cables, you’ll see that a Lebanese president was threatening to resign because of a massacre in Al-Qaa. How ironic is it that almost 40 years after that, Lebanese politicians are still bickering among themselves in the middle of  presidential vacancy while violence returns to that same village? Now more than ever, the Lebanese cannot fall into the trap of civil strife and cold-blooded violence. The Lebanese armed forces have to intervene more efficiently when such developments happen because self-security can quickly turn into civil war. Those suicide bombers wanted us to head into chaos  by causing panic, and almost succeeded. After all, who wouldn’t panic after eight suicide bombings?

TEMPERATURE RISES ONCE AGAIN IN LEBANON
1975 December 18, 13:45 (Thursday)
1975BEIRUT15337_b

(A) AFTERMATH OF SEBNAY INCIDENT (REFTEL) CONTINUES TO HAVE REPERCUSSIONS IN BEIRUT AND NEARBY AREAS OF THE SHOUF. ATTACKS AND COUNTER-ATTACKS WERE REPORTED IN AND AROUND BAABDA YESTERDAY AND INTO MORNING DEC 18. NEW AND SERIOUS ELEMENT IN SITUATION IS EXTENSION OF ACTIVE CONFLICT INTO SHOUF WHERE KAMAL JUMBLATT’S DRUZE ARE POWERFUL FACTOR. JUMBLATT’S PSP MILITIAMEN STAGED SEVERAL RETALIATORY ATTACKS ON CHRISTIAN CENTERS ALONG ROAD TO SOUK AL GHARB AND AT KAHALE AND ALEY AND ARE ON ALERT IN BEIRUT. ALL HOT SPOTS OUTSIDE EARSHOT OF EMBASSY EXPERIENCED AT LEAST SOME FIRING IN LAST 24 HOURS, ALTHOUGH TRUCE IN HOTEL DISTRICT APPEARS TO BE HOLDING AS OF 1300 HOURS DEC 18. NEW SPARK OR EVEN MOMENTUM OF STRIFE ELSEWHERE COULD CHANGE SITUATION AROUND CHANCERY INSTANTANEOUSLY. FIGHTING CONTINUES IN TRIPOLI WHERE OPPOSING ELEMENTS ARE SAID TO HAVE ENGAGED DEC 17 IN “TANK BATTLES” USING ARMORED VEHICLES TAKEN FROM SECURITY FORCES. IN BEQA, SHIITES ARE REPORTEDLY ON WARPATH AGAINST CHRISTIAN VILLAGES OF KAA AND RAS BAALBEK FOR ALLEGED CHRISTIAN PROVOCATIONS.

LEBANESE SITUATION: JULY 5, 1200 HOURS LOCAL
1978 July 5, 00:00 (Wednesday)
1978BEIRUT03720_d

ASKED ABOUT FAYYADIYAH, AYN AR-RUMMANEH, ASHRAFIYAH AND QAA INCIDENTS, CHAMOUN REPLIED “IF THESE EVENTS HAD NOT OCCURRED, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN TIME TO PUT AN END TO THE PRESENCE OF THE ARAB DETERRENT FORCES IN LEBANON. THE INCIDENTS THAT YOU HAVE EVOKED HAVE PRECIPITATED THE NECESSITY OF THE TOTAL EVACUATION OF THESE FORCES FROM LEBANON. THE LEBANESE MUST TAKE CARE OF THEIR PROBLEMS THEMSELVES.”

CHAMOUN VILIFIES THE PRESIDENT
1978 July 13, 00:00 (Thursday)
1978BEIRUT03917_d

1. SUMMARY: CAMILLE CHAMOUN HAS SENT AN OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT SARKIS, BOTH CRITICIZING THE PRESIDENT FOR THREATENING TO RESIGN AND IMPLYING HE HAS IN THE RECENT PAST ACQUIESCED IN THE “TYRANNICAL BEHAVIOR OF THE SYRIANS.” CHAMOUN WRITES, “I WILL NOT GO TO BAABDA, AND I WILL NOT TELL YOU TO GO AHEAD WITH YOUR RESIGNATION OR TO WITHDRAW IT.” BEIRUT PRESS HAS REACTED NEGATIVELY. END SUMMARY.

[…]

“AND THERE ARE SOME WHO SAY THAT YOUR RESIGNATION WAS IN PROTEST AGAINST THE TYRANNICAL BEHAVIOR OF THE SYRIANS (By “Syrians”, Chamoun means Syrian regime here) IN AL-QAA, RAS BAALBECK, JDEIDET AL-FAKIHA, AYN AR-RUMMANEH AND ASHRAFIYAH. “ASSUMING THAT THIS IS TRUE, IT WAS YOUR DUTY TO EXPLAIN THE SITUATION TO LEBANESE AND INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC OPINION AND TO DEMAND THE DEPARTURE OF THE DETERRENT FORCES, INSTEAD OF DEPARTING YOURSELF.

SITUATION IN LEBANON: CONVERSATION WITH MINISTER OF FINANCE RAPHAEL
1978 September 14, 00:00 (Thursday)
1978BEIRUT05373_d

6. HE AGREED THAT MARONITE MILITIAS REPRESENTED ONLY A MINORITY OF CHRISTIANS AND EVEN OF MARONITES BUT MISGUIDED SYRIAN ACTIONS HAD DRIVEN PEOPLE INTO THEIR ARMS. EVERYBODY WAS TIRED OF WAR AND THE EXACTIONS OF THE MILITIAS, BUT NO CHRISTIAN WANTED TO BE LEFT DEFENCELESS AGAINST THE SYRIANS, WHOM THEY DID NOT TRUST. IF THE SYRIANS HAD SHOWN RESTRAINT AFTER EHDEN MASSACRE, KATAEB WOULD HAVE FALLEN APART. THE SYRIAN MASSACRE OF CHRISTIANS AT QAA AND THE CEDARS AND THEIR BOMBARDMENT OF ASHRAFIEH HAD SAVED THE KATAEB FROM DISSOLUTION..

Did Ashraf Rifi’s Resignation inspire the Kataeb?

Kataeb Party leader Sami Gemayel announces the resignation of his party's two ministers from the Cabinet

Kataeb Party leader Sami Gemayel announces the resignation of his party’s two ministers from the Cabinet (Image source: The Daily Star / Hassan Shaaban)

This is the 22nd post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the months of May and June 2016.

Six months ago, Lebanon watched in denial as the biggest two Civil War enemies became frenemies. As Geagea endorsed his archrival Aoun for presidency and as the Christian marriage sealed an alliance between the biggest two Christian parties, everyone else panicked and started acting weird: Instead of trying to win Geagea back, Hariri decided to widen the gap with the LF even further by officially endorsing Frangieh for presidency. Jumblatt awkwardly re-endorsed Helou, and even speaker Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s most experienced political tactician, struggled to distance himself from endorsing the FPM’s leader (spoiler alert: he eventually succeeded. He always does). The mainstream media started with its predictions, but back then it was way too early to know the impact of such an alliance on the Lebanese political scene. This month, however, saw the very first major consequence of that deal: Kataeb ministers resigned from a government in which they had one of the biggest shares in modern history.

Where do you campaign?

On the 14th of June, two Kataeb ministers resigned from government following a decision by the party’s leadership to leave the executive power. For 12 months, the Kataeb had criticized the government’s handling of the trash crisis without resigning. Last summer saw almost all of Mount-Lebanon and Beirut drown in garbage, but ironically, no Kataeb minister had resigned back then – they just kept voting against the awful solutions the government kept drafting – refusing to put more pressure on the government by resigning, even as tens of thousands of demonstrators protested in disgust against the trash crisis and the trashy solutions the government kept proposing. According to the Kataeb propaganda back then, it was crucial for them to stay in government in order to keep the public informed of the deals happening on the Grand Serail’s table, to be the opposition from within the cabinet, to preserve coexistence in the absence of a president, to prevent Hezbollah and their allies from controlling the cabinet, and last but not least, to be the shield that guards the realms of men, for this night and all the nights to come (Just like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones).

The thing is, Mount-Lebanon as whole, as well as the city of Beirut, are irrelevant for the Kataeb’s electoral policies. The Kataeb party is one of the smallest parties in parliament, and its members/supporters are scattered throughout all the constituencies (mainly the Christian ones), where they form small, irrelevant minorities to the constituency’s main voters. In Beirut III, it’s the FM that dictates the electoral terms. In Beirut II, it’s the Muslim and Armenian parties. In Beirut I, it’s the Tashnag and the LF-FPM alliance (There is no way the Kataeb can get a majority with the previous three parties allied with one another). In the Chouf, it’s everyone but them. In Aley, it’s Jumblatt.  In Baabda, it’s again almost everyone but them (Aoun and Hezbollah won the district comfortably all by themselves in 2009). The same goes for Kesserwan, that the Aounists held against all odds for the past 11 years, even without the help of the Lebanese Forces – so you can imagine the possible scenario now that the LF are by their side.

8 seats = 8 reasons to resign

There is only one constituency where the Kataeb can challenge everyone else in it, and it’s the Metn with its 8 seats. It has more seats than the Christian regions of Beirut, and has more than 50% of the Christian seats of Northern Mount-Lebanon. The Metn is Lebanon’s biggest Christian constituency in terms of MPs, has a very small Muslim minority, and has 4 types of Christian seats (4 Maronites, 2 Greek Orthodox, 1 Greek Catholic, and 1 Armenian Orthodox). Also, (a very known) fun fact: It’s also Samy Gemayel’s home district. The past two years saw Gemayel Jr rise in popularity, and the latest municipal elections are the proof that he will be a force to be reckoned with in Lebanese politics in the years to come. He is becoming more popular by the day, but he isn’t getting popular fast enough. By June 2017, if the kataeb can’t at least win/compete all by itself in at least one Christian district, the FPM and the LF are going to ignore the Kataeb’s demands for concessions in all of the Christian constituencies and they’re going to take control of everything they can take control of. They will treat the Kataeb in the parliamentary elections the same way they treated Dory Chamoun in Deir El Kamar during the municipal elections. After all, one of the obvious non-official goals of the Christian wedding was to create a Christian duality when it came to national politics and to eliminate everything not related to the FPM and LF from the parliament. The LF no longer need the Kataeb to counter the FPM, the FPM never needed the Kataeb anyway, and the Future Movement, the Kataeb’s last ally – at least on paper – isn’t exactly on good terms with Gemayel – blame his remarks against sukleen and the CDR – and has a new Christian bro called Sleiman Frangieh.

The Metn remembers?

To sum things up, the phalangists need to secure 51% of at least one constituency’s voters or they’ll lose everything in 2017. And the only place where that might be possible is the Metn, and it’s a big might. The FPM and the Tashnag won the district both in 2005 and in 2007’s by-elections. In 2009, they did it again, and this time even without the help of Michel el Murr. True, Samy Gemayel – alongside Michel Murr – was the only non-FPMer to make it to parliament in the Metn in 2009, but those were the days when the LF were Kataeb allies. One can argue that the FPM and LF didn’t do so well in their Metn municipal campaigns, but the fact remains that in the Metn, six parties will dictate the rules of the game in 2017: The FPM, the LF, the Kataeb, the Tahsnag, the SSNP, and Michel Murr. This is where it gets complicated: The FPM is friends with the Tashnag, the LF, and the SSNP. The LF is friends with the FPM. The Tashnag is friends with the FPM and Murr. The SSNP is friends with the FPM. The Kataeb, on the other hand, is the LF’s “March 14 Christian rival” (If you still believe in this whole M8/M14 duality), is the SSNP’s historical rival, is the biggest Christian party not supporting the FPM’s Michel Aoun right now, and is less friends with the Tashang than the FPM. The only politician who might stand with them if they face an FPM-LF-Tashnag-SSNP alliance, is Michel Murr (because the FPM and the LF will also probably try to isolate him as well). To make things worse, Murr is even less reliable than Jumblatt when it comes to stable alliances.

In 2017, the Kataeb know that they’ll be alone, with no allies, in a very hostile electoral environment because of an electoral law that currently favors bigger parties / alliances and that tends to eliminate political minorities from being represented in their constituencies (the Kataeb are going to regret their opposition to proportional representation soon enough). According to the laws of Lebanese politics, once you’re totally outside parliament, you hardly ever make it back: Only few politicians have ever managed to make a comeback after losing all of their party seats. Gemayel can’t risk losing it all, not while he’s still rising. The only way he survives the FPM-LF wedding is by securing the Metn, and the easiest way to secure the Metn is by giving the Metnis the impression that the FPM wants to turn the caza’s coast into a dump while the Kataeb were ready to resign their biggest government share ever in modern history just to protest that.

Mother nature?

According to Kataeb discourse, their resignation was about preserving the Lebanese environment – they took similar stances when it came to the infamous Jannah Dam. But in truth, it’s really more than saving mother nature, helping the Lebanese animal kingdom and taking care of the fauna and flora. It’s about electoral survival: The Kataeb ministers didn’t resign when two entire Mohafazas were drowned in trash, and aren’t really eco-friendly in some of their other stances (see here for not-so-eco-friendly dumps, and here for not-so-safe-dams). While it isn’t as “double-standardy” as the other politicians’ stances, the Kataeb are treating the Metn differently for a reason, and the timing of the resignation just isn’t right since if it was really for eco-friendly reasons, it should have happened months ago, not just after an FPM-sponsored dam was going to be built in a Christian region and after dumping was going to resume in the Metn coast. Constitutionally, and according to article 27, every member of the Chamber shall represent the whole nation, and by the laws of common sense, the cabinet serves the entire country, so the Kataeb can’t really say that they can only defend Metni interests because Gemayel represents the Metn. The Kataeb’s officials in parliament and government serve the entire nation by law, yet in a very “clientelistic Lebanese mentality (found in all mainstream Lebanese political parties), they behaved differently when it came to the districts that matter to them electorally .The Kataeb want (need) re-election, and are maneuvering with eco-friendly reasons, which really shows you the level of desperation (no Lebanese politicians has ever done that).

(But on the bright side, that means a struggle for more forests and less trashy trash solutions, just so you don’t say that I’m cynical all the time :-P ).

Plot holes, plot holes

Another plot hole in the Kataeb’s maneuver is – like I mentioned earlier – that they convinced the Lebanese that they were the opposition from within the cabinet for the past two and a half-years, which is why they refused to resign time after time, especially that there was no Christian president in power. The biggest irony is that they eventually resigned anyway, for lesser reasons (trash crisis in Mount-Lebanon + Beirut > trash complication in the Metn), and in the middle of a debate on a Christian-Shiite rivalry in a Lebanese security apparatus, while there was still no president in power, and while being fully aware that the two caretaker ministers that will assume the Kataeb’s responsibilities in parliament are both Muslims. The Kataeb are definitely playing a long-term survival maneuver, and they’ll clearly let nothing stand in their way (this time, it’s Star Wars I’m quoting).

 Did they really leave?

What makes the Kataeb move look even more like a complicated professional maneuver than an eco-friendly move is the fact that while their decision to leave the cabinet was unquestionable since they officially submitted their resignation to Salam, one of the kataeb ministers who resigned, Sejaan Kazzi, also told the world that there has to be a president who accepts the resignations in order for their resignations to become official (which isn’t true…), as if (at least a part of) the Kataeb leadership wants to give the impression that it wants to leave without actually leaving the cabinet. With the amount of  anger from the party base and leadership regarding Azzi’s remarks (check this hashtag on twitter), it shows you how unconventional yet popular Gemayel’s move is: The last time a minister (not called Rifi) tried to resign because of a government policy, it was Nahas in 2011.

Plot twist: Ramzi Jreij is still out there

Oh, and there’s still Ramzi Jreij in the cabinet, who is pro-Kataeb but not officially Kataeb (so he wasn’t forced to resign by the Kataeb political bureau). In other words, what happens in the Grand Serail will not stay in the Grand Serail – at least not for now – as Ramzi Jreij should still report to Bekfaya every once in a while.

The rise and rise of Ashraf Rifi

I can go on for hours in this blog post about what Amal Bou Zeid’s win in Jezzine means, and overthink the awkward Machnouk comments about Frangieh’s presidency, but May was an electoral month, so nothing really counts, and three huge events are everything one needs to remember from these past 60 days of political chaos: The FM lost Tripoli to Ashraf Rifi and almost lost Beirut to Beirut Madinati, Robert Fadel resigned from parliament, and two Kataeb minsters left government.

The beauty of Lebanese politics is that although it seems that the three events aren’t connected with one another, they’re actually directly related: When Ashraf Rifi politically clashed with Salam and Hariri, and resigned from cabinet earlier this year, everyone saw it as political suicide. And that included myself: “Rifi […] signed with this move his mini-political death warrant“, I said back then. But the Tripoli strongman outsmarted us all. The timing of  his resignation, the causes of his resignation, as well as his political intuitions were so good that he actually managed to defeat – as an underdog, and all by himself – a  huge (HUGE) alliance made of three billionaires (Hariri, Mikati, Safadi), two former prime ministers (Hariri, Mikati), and the heir to the most prestigious political family in the North (Karami). Three years earlier, Rifi was not even a politician, and yet against all odds the list he supported won the municipal council of a city that has more than 8 MPs in parliament, and that victory was partly due to the context in which he resigned.

Inspired by a true story

By their resignation moves, Fadel (more on that in this blog post), as well as the Kataeb, are trying to appeal to their electorates in the same way Rifi did – via resignations in critical moments important to their electorates. Even Mikati tried to do the same strategy in 2013: Remember when he resigned months before parliamentary election because Rifi was isolated?

If a charismatic (in his region at least) newcomer/underdog/micro-Zaim can defeat three billionaires, two prime ministers, and the heir to Abdulhamid Karami, than Gemayel can do the same to the FPM, LF and SSNP in his home district. Two things seem to work in this country: Resignations and sectarianism. If you use both correctly, nothing stands in your way.

How much are you ready to risk?

And if you think about it, the government will be considered resigned the moment a new president is elected and isn’t currently doing much right now, so it shouldn’t be the end of the world even if the Kataeb give up their highest ministerial quota in Lebanon’s modern political history. The Kataeb’s maneuver is a risky gamble tough, especially if the presidential vacancy keeps on getting longer, but the Kataeb party has no choice but to give up its ministers in order to at least try to win more parliamentary seats in the next elections, or Sami Gemayel will soon be as influent as Michel Sleiman is right now. The Kataeb ministers had the perfect excuse/context to resign this June, and they did it smoothly, without making anyone feel it was a maneuver, literally advertising their move on every social media outlet there is (cc the hashtag mentioned earlier). Now we wait 12 months and see if the maneuver will succeed.

1960 or 2016?

The fun/weird part in this whole story is that Robert Fadel’s resignation meant that there might have been electoral redistricting in sight (with the possibility of transferring the Greek Orthodox seat from Tripoli to a wider Northern constituency under PR), while the Kataeb resignations mean that the Metn should remain unchanged in the next elections since the maneuver is adapted to the 1960 (2008) electoral law constituencies. This contradiction is the ultimate proof that even our politicians have no idea what’s happening with the electoral law debate.

757 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 1116 days since the 31st of May (parliamentary extension) .

Introducing the Robert Fadel Maneuver

Robert Fadel (Image source The Daily Star Mohamad Azakir)

Robert Fadel (Image source: The Daily Star/ Mohamad Azakir)

Wait, what? An MP resigned?

Yesterday, Tripoli’s Greek Orthodox MP, Robert Fadel, dropped a political bomb and announced that he was resigning from parliament, because the new Tripoli municipal council had no Christian representatives: “More than one essential component was absent or marginalized from the new municipal council,” Fadel said in an email statement.

True, 126 MPs should resign their seats as well since they weren’t elected and their presence in parliament is unconstitutional according to the constitutional council itself, but it should be noted that MP Fadel’s resignation is by far the perfect example of a Lebanese politician’s maneuver.

The context

With draft electoral laws being discussed in joint commissions once again – including talks of major changes, such as switching 60 or even 64 seats to proportional representation , bigger electoral districts might replace caza ones, and the Greek Orthodox seat might find his way to a larger PR district as a way to give the FPM-LF alliance a political win they can call huge while it’s actually not that relevant to the nationwide politics (although changing the law is extremely likely after the municipal elections almost overthrew every major politician in his “fiefdom” making proportional representation a risky prospect for everyone).

So in other words, there might not be a Greek Orthodox parliamentary seat in Tripoli in 2017 (It would be transferred to a greater North constituency with PR representation), and Fadel can no longer count on an alliance with the city’s politicians – No matter who they are (Mikati, Safadi, Karami, Hariri or Rifi). He’ll either have to run in a district that includes Zgharta, where he might face Frangieh, the strongest presidential candidate right now (or Frangieh Jr, the son of the next president in case that candidate makes it to Baabda) – good luck with that, or he’ll have to run in a district that includes Batroun. There, he’ll have to face Boutros Harb (or a successor), Gebran Bassil – the president of the FPM, and Antoine Zahra of the LF. Depending on the redistricting, he might run for a seat in the entire North governorate. And that means going against all of the above politicians.

Fadel had to face the fact that he was going to run against a presidential candidate or the son of a presidential candidate, or the son-in-law of a presidential candidate and the president of the biggest Christian party who also happens to be supported by the second strongest Christian party and a potentially very powerful independent candidate and local politician. To make things even worse, two of those politicians (Harb, Bassil) are currently in the cabinet.

So what did he do? He resigned, because there were no Christian members of the municipality in the city – in order to try and “win the hearts” of the Christian electorate of Batroun, Zgharta, and Koura, a year before general elections, while also making sure that it was almost impossible for anyone else to take his seat from now till June 2017. But the maneuver isn’t that simple.

The timing

Theoretically, and according to article 41 of the Constitution, “Should a seat in the Chamber become vacant, the election of a successor shall begin within two months. The mandate of the new member shall not exceed that of the old member whose place he is taking; however, should the seat in the Chamber become vacant during the last six months of its mandate, no successor may be elected.”
That means we should have elections by August – similar to the Jezzine by-elections earlier this month, but Fadel resigned one day after parliamentary elections could have been held to replace him, and we live in Lebanon, so if the interior ministry was going to organize parliamentary by-elections in Tripoli, it was going to be last week, when the city had its municipal ones. If the Jezzine by-elections took two years to happen (after the death of MP Helou in 2014) Tripoli by-elections are unlikely to happen before May 2017, and no one of the mainstream establishment parties is going to risk losing a Tripoli seat a day after Rifi won the city. It’s a risky prospect, and gives the opportunity to Rifi, Tripoli’s rising politician, to get a Christian politician by his side. That’s literally the worst thing that could ever happen to any of the parties in power, since it would mean that Rifi can slowly expand his influence in the other Sunni regions – The Sunni leaders of the establishment, when “big enough”, have always been known of allying themselves with minor Christian figures in their regions – while also threatening the Christian parties’ dominance in the North.

So yeah, I’ll repeat what I said earlier: No one of the mainstream establishment parties is going to risk losing a Tripoli seat a day after Rifi won the city. Fadel’s seat will remain vacant till 2017, so no one could actually fill the vacancy, and if the Tripoli seat remains in the city, Fadel will run with his Sunni allies just like the good old days of 2009 (In the end – and in a way – he resigned because they lost the municipal elections). If it’s going outside the city, where the Christian electorate is expected to have a higher percentage (Christians are around 40% of the Northeners), he has the best sectarian card ever to face the FPM, the LF, Harb (and if Koura is included, other independents like Makari) : He can say he’s the only MP who resigned for “a Christian cause”.

Mikati tried to do the same maneuver in the Sunni camp when he resigned back in 2013, right before parliamentary elections, when Rifi was being isolated (If you guys remember), so it’s actually an old-school maneuver many Lebanese politicians like to use in times of trouble.

ALSO, if you notice, Fadel resigned exactly 3 years after the first parliamentary extension. Now that is what you call a smooth maneuver.

La morale: Campaigning for the parliamentary elections has just begun. Brace yourselves. It’s going to be an exciting year of political maneuvers.

738 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 1097 days since the 31st of May (parliamentary extension) .