What Would It Take To Get Aoun To Renounce His Presidential Ambitions?

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, receives FPM leader Michel Aoun in Beirut, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, receives FPM leader Michel Aoun in Beirut, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

This is the 11th post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon. 

Last week, all of Lebanon started speculating on the outcome of the presidential elections. For the first time since 2013, it finally seemed that Hezbollah and the Future Movement had agreed on a name to fill the vacancy, and that Sleiman Frangieh would eventually make it to Baabda. Yet the candidacy of the Zgharta MP still faces two major obstacles: Reservations coming from M14’s Christian parties, and – more importantly – the absence of an official green light coming from his long-term ally and president in the Change and Reform Bloc, Michel Aoun. Which is why this month’s WikiLeaks cable is about a dialogue that happened 8 years ago – when Aoun was running for the 2007 presidential elections – between speaker Nabih Berri and the American ambassador, on what it might have taken to get Aoun to renounce his presidential ambitions back then (spoiler: Berri says that it might be certain ministerial portfolios).

Also, (according to the cable) Berri called Aoun  “an…eunuch”.

Enjoy.

LEBANON: BERRI URGES U.S. TO WORK ON AOUN
2007 November 6, 15:36 (Tuesday)
07BEIRUT1736_a
CONFIDENTIAL
CONFIDENTIAL
— Not Assigned —
SUMMARY
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1. (C) Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri lamented the absence of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri from Lebanon, which he said prevented efforts to reach a consensus presidential candidate on time. If no consensus candidate is named before November 12, Berri said he would set a new date for the election, probably on either November 19 or 20. Berri was optimistic that the recent discussions with the Syrians in Istanbul and continuing French diplomatic efforts in Lebanon could lead to a consensus candidate, but warned the U.S. to stop supporting a half plus one president. Privately, Berri told the Ambassador that the U.S. should work on Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to find out what it would take to get Aoun to renounce his own presidential ambitions. With Aoun conceding the office to others, Berri said that he he would work to see a consensus candidate elected who is closer to March 14 than March 8, with Boutros Harb and Robert Ghanem mentioned as possibilities. End summary.
HARIRI’S ABSENCE COSTING TIME
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2. (C) The Ambassador, accompanied by Pol/Econ Chief, met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and his advisor Ali Hamdan at Berri’s office in Ain el-Tineh on November 6. The Ambassador opened the meeting asking when majority leader Saad Hariri would return to Lebanon. An exasperated Berri complained that Saad’s frequent and prolonged absences were causing them to lose time. We lost the October 23 election date because of Saad’s extended stay abroad, Berri said, and now the timing is even more delicate; Saad is out and about meeting with the French in Paris to hear about Istanbul when he should be here dealing with the situation in Lebanon. If he had to postpone the electoral session again, Berri said, it would probably be November 19 or 20. (Note: President Lahoud’s mandate expires on midnight November 23; November 22 is Lebanese National Day. End note.)
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
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3. (C) Berri said he had heard the day before from Fares Boueiz that Sarkozy advisor Claude Gueant would visit Beirut later in the week and had requested a meeting with Berri for November 8. Gueant reportedly planned to stay in Lebanon afterwards to help encourage progress towards electing a new president.
4. (C) Sharing his readouts from the Istanbul meetings, Berri said the French representatives reportedly told the Syrians they wanted a consensus candidate and a new relationship with Syria, and that France would work on the Europeans and U.S. if Syria played a constructive role in the Lebanese election. There were no differences between the French and U.S. up until November 14; but after that France feared that March 14’s election of a president with a half plus one majority would be a problem. The French reportedly asked about possible candidates, to which President Asad replied that Syria also wants consensus and has no candidate in mind. Asad reportedly pushed the French to talk to the Patriarch, Saad Hariri, and Nabih Berri, telling them that if they were successful in reaching a solution, Syria would be on board.
5. (C) The Ambassador, noting that this echoed reports he had heard that the Syrians had proposed to the French a mechanism for resolving the impasse, wondered whether the Patriarch would play along, given his fear that people would not accept his candidates. Berri, agreeing that the names currently believed to be on the Patriarch’s short-list (Demianos Kattar, Joseph Torbey, Shakib Qortbawi, Michel Edde) were not acceptable to either side, said there were many names between the March 14 candidates (Nassib Lahoud, Boutros Harb, and Robert Ghanem) and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun (“an eunuch,” Berri said, beseeching us not to share his comment). So, he added, “I think we can arrive at a consensus…with the help of the U.S.”
FOCUS ON CANDIDATES, NOT PROGRAMS
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6. (C) While acknowledging that the U.S. supported consensus in its public statements, Berri said the U.S. should stop telling March 14 privately that the U.S. would support a half plus one president. “I know the private messages you are passing,” he said, adding that Saad was convinced of consensus. “I know you have your opinion, but don’t interfere; it is your duty to help.”
7. (C) The Ambassador, as in many meetings before with the Speaker, told Berri the U.S. was not opposed to compromise, as long as it was not on principles. Berri retorted, “We are with 1701,” adding that since UN Special Envoy for UNSCR 1559 Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen downplayed 1559 in Rome, he saw no need to reference it either. When Saad raised UNSCR 1559, Berri stressed that he supported UNSCR 1701. After the election, it would be the first duty of the new prime minister to discuss Shebaa farms and Hizballah’s arms, he said; otherwise he, as Speaker, would have to finish what he started in the National Dialogue. If Hizballah disagreed with the government’s position, it could stay out of the government, Berri said, adding that he himself might withdraw if his party (Amal) were not given enough cabinet seats.
8. (C) Berri said he had told Saad in their meetings that there was no need to discuss principles and programs, only candidates, since the opposition would support the principles outlined in the spring 2006 National Dialogue (i.e., support for the Special Tribunal, good relations with Syria, including the exchange of diplomatic ties, and the rejection of Palestinian arms outside the camps and limited timeline for their removal inside the camps). The opposition also supported Lebanon’s Paris III commitments, he said; different elements within those commitments might have to be reviewed, he added, citing the government’s recent efforts to privatize Lebanon’s cell phone networks.
U.S. SHOULD WORK ON AOUN
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9. (C) Pulling the Ambassador into his side office for a private word, Berri urged the U.S. to work on Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to find out what Aoun would need in return for renouncing his own presidential aspirations. If Aoun agrees to concede the presidency, Berri said, then it makes possible for a solution — a president who is closer to March 14 than March 8. As long as Aoun remains in the running, Berri said, his hands are tied. But if Aoun agrees to accept certain ministerial portfolios, then Berri would be willing to support someone like Boutros Harb or Robert Ghanem. The Ambassador asked for confirmation that he would support Harb. Yes, Berri said, if Aoun will agree to step aside. Berri said that his only red line was Nassib Lahoud, as someone “too Saudi.”
COMMENT
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10. (C) In what seemed to the Ambassador and Pol/Econ Chief like an endless lunch the day before with presidential hopeful Robert Ghanem, Ghanem did not sound very March 14-like in his statements in support of a two-thirds quorum and his lenient approach to Hizballah. We find it slightly worrisome that Berri has now placed him in this camp, suggesting that he may no longer be viewed as a potential consensus candidate.
11. (C) Berri’s continuing mantra of “the presidency will solve all of Lebanon’s problems” also is not comforting, especially combined with his dismissal of UNSCR 1559. We find it difficult to believe Berri would strike a deal with Saad without some sort of guarantees on the makeup of the new cabinet or the government’s program. That is unless, as many have warned us, Berri’s real goal is to install a weak president along with Saad as prime minister, both of whom would serve as easy prey for the opposition’s efforts to undermine March 14 and its objectives.
12. (C) Berri, fingering Saad’s absence and what he deems to be U.S. “interference,” while at the same time applauding French and Syrian support for a consensus candidate, seems to be absolving himself of any responsibility should parliament be unable to elect a president on November 12. Rather than take the bull by the horns, however, he is content to postpone the crisis until the bitter end. His appeal to us to work on Aoun is not surprising, given his apparent disdain for the General, though we can’t help but wonder, if not Aoun or Ghanem, whom the speaker has in mind as a consensus candidate. Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Commander Michel Sleiman’s name, notably, did not come up in this meeting, suggesting that either the pro-Syrian opposition has given up on his candidacy or perhaps is merely waiting to see how things play out over the next critical days, ready to pull Sleiman back out of the hat when it seems no other solution is possible.
13. (C) Whatever Berri’s motivations, he is right that working on Aoun is something, however unappealing a task it may be, worth doing. We agree with Berri that, if Aoun would accept the inevitability that he is not going to be president, a solution to Lebanon’s presidential crisis becomes easier to achieve. End comment.
FELTMAN

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