Over the past several weeks, as Wikileaks has released its reams of US government cables full of politically damaging statements by the leaders of Lebanon’s March 14th coalition, many have remarked on the fact that Hizbullah and its allies have not exploited the documents as purposefully as they could have.
Sure, there has been the odd snide remark in a press conference, and Hizbullah is now making noises about suing March 14th figures for inviting Israel to invade Lebanon, but one gets the sense that much more could have been made of the scandal. So why the silence?
The obvious reason is that no one really knows what else Wikileaks has in the way of embarrassing transcripts. By allowing ministers like Elias al-Murr to claim that Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman was putting words in his mouth (when it was revealed by Wikileaks that he was coordinating the Lebanese Army’s response in a future hypothetical encounter with the IDF), Hizbullah was ensuring that its own allies would have the same space to maneuver, in case they were caught saying similarly damaging things.
Which brings us to the latest revelations, made possible by al-Akhbar’s serialized Wikileaks bonanza. There are four new cables available on the newspaper’s website that provide a glimpse into several meetings that Speaker of Parliament (and staunch Hizbullah ally) Nabih Berri held with American officials (including Ambassador Feltman and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch) during the July 2006 War.
(Update: There’s also a cable about a meeting between Minister of Health Mohammed Jawad Khalifeh and Ambassador Feltman, which I pasted at the bottom of the lot below).
Nothing Berri says is nearly as egregious as what a vodka-swilling Walid Jumblatt was whispering in the Americans’ ears around the same time, but it is telling nonetheless. Most notable is a statement that Berri allegedly made regarding the future of the Lebanese resistance:
If Shebaa Farms are not turned over to Lebanon, Berri said that he personally would oppose disarming Hizballah. But if the Shebaa Farms are “”liberated,”" then “”who needs”" Hizballah?
Now, this obviously doesn’t make Berri look so good, and one can imagine that there will be a letter to the editor from Berri’s office published in al-Akhbar tomorrow decrying the statement attributed to him in the cable. He probably won’t take much of a political hit, and all will be forgiven and forgotten in due course.
However, I think it’s still worth pointing out that a very significant majority of Lebanon’s political leaders (across ideological and confessional lines) were basically in agreement on the need to “deal with” Hizbullah, in some way or another. March 14th’s leaders obviously wanted the party’s military apparatus to be crushed by Israel, while Aoun wanted it to be reined in through the framework of his February 6th agreement with Nasrallah.
Meanwhile, although Berri insisted that the resistance had a legitimate right to exist as long as Israel remained on Lebanese territory, he also made it clear that Hizbullah would have to give up that right if Israel withdrew from Shebaa. Most strikingly, the cables show that even the Americans were beginning to be convinced that this broad consensus among Lebanon’s leaders on Shebaa might actually provide a solution to the Israel-Lebanon conflict.
Of course, we all know what happened. Tzipi Livni rejected the idea that Shebaa be dealt with at all, and the issue was put to bed. On the other hand, who knows how serious Berri and Aoun would have been about advocating Hizbullah’s disarmament when push came to shove? It’s not hard to imagine any of a wide range of potential pretexts to replace Shebaa. The links to the various cables are below; check them out and discuss amongst yourselves…
PS: For those of you waiting for some big pronouncement on my part about the events going on in Syria, I’m waiting for some expert commentary to come through. In the meantime, check out Syria Comment. (For Arabic speakers, there’s also Kafa Samtan, which I haven’t checked out yet, but Mustapha over at Beirut Spring vouches for them.)
06BEIRUT2440 (July 22, 2006) | Subject: SPEAKER BERRI SAYS HE IS WAITING FOR ISRAEL’S FINAL OFFER
06BEIRUT2464 (July 25, 2006) | Subject: BERRI SAYS ISRAEL WON’T WIN
“The Ambassador argued that Israel will not accept a return to the status quo ante. At the same time, Lebanon has an opportunity now that the USG is considering ideas that might resolve the Shebaa Farms issue. Berri noted that the Shebaa Farms are crucial. If Shebaa Farms are not turned over to Lebanon, Berri said that he personally would oppose disarming Hizballah. But if the Shebaa Farms are “”liberated,”" then “”who needs”" Hizballah? Berri concluded that he understood that inclusion of the Shebaa Farms issue this was a positive step, and agreed to keep looking for a solution to the current crisis. (Comment: Berri stuck to the same line he had used with the Secretary — cease-fire and prisoner exchanges — which the Ambassador said would lead to a quick dead end. But, today, Berri seemed to offer a hint of support for a different approach, if he was assured that Shebaa Farms would be part of the package. Berri seems to have moved ever so slightly overnight. End comment.)”
06BEIRUT2541 (August 6, 2006) | Subject: A/S WELCH MEETS WITH SPEAKER BERRI
“Berri believed that if the Israelis do not withdraw from Shebaa, he cannot pressure Hizballah to relinquish their arms. He told A/S Welch that the resistance will have a right to remain as long as Israel is present in Lebanon.”
“Berri recommended that in the first phase, Israeli soldiers should withdraw and 10,000 soldiers from the Lebanese Army would deploy to the south. In what was an unprecedented statement for a Lebanese Shia leader, Berri vowed that he would lead the army to the south, driving a jeep in front of the tanks.”
“Berri stated that he will rebuild the south again, but could not do so with Israeli forces there. “”What I built in 22 years they have destroyed in 22 days,”" helamented. However, he stated that he is adamant to lead the Shia back to the south when Israeli troops leave, just as he claimed to do after previous times of strife. A/S Welch assured Berri that the U.S. would be a partner in rebuilding Lebanon with emphasis on the south.”
06BEIRUT2600 (August 11, 2006) | Subject: LEBANON: FOR BERRI RESOLUTION COMES DOWN TO ONE THING
“Berri admitted that the events of 1983 set a bad example for multinational forces in Lebanon under Chapter 7. Berri told A/S Welch that perhaps he is afraid of Chapter 7, and the U.S. friendship with Israel makes him even more afraid. He recognized that Israel wants the right to protect itself and said that “”this will be included.”" He reminded A/S Welch that Resolution 426 establishes precedent for Chapter 6 with a clause for self-defense.”
“Berri informed A/S Welch that Shebaa Farms will always be the pretext for Hizballah to remain armed. He warned that the language in the current draft of the resolution on Shebaa farms is not sufficient.”
“Berri accused the U.S. of not wanting to engage on the Shebaa Farm issue because it does not want to give Hizballah a victory. A/S Welch agreed. Berri declared that it is his right to state for the record that problems will continue with Israel until Shebaa Farms is resolved.”
“Berri reluctantly accepted the reality that if Israeli troops are fired on they have the right to defend themselves on the ground at the point of attack. However he added that defending themselves does not mean air bombings on civilian areas.”
“A/S Welch offered that when the U.S. votes on the resolution, it could say that civilian areas should not be used as launching areas and should not be attacked. Berri cautioned that the wording should be precise and clear. Winking (and implying he was thinking of his “”Hizballah partners”"), he fears that the time between the cessation of hostilities and the deployment of an enhanced UNIFIL could be used by people who “”do not want peace”" to ignite the conflict again. Berri stressed the importance of assurances from the U.S. and UN that Hizballah fire on Israeli soldiers inside Lebanon will not start the conflict again because he doesn’t “”trust Hizballah.”"
06BEIRUT2699 (August 19, 2006) | Subject: SHIA MINISTER CLAIMS BERRI TRICKED HIZBALLAH, NOW AT ODDS WITH NASRALLAH
QN Comment: This cable, which details a meeting between Feltman and the Berri-allied Minister of Health, Mohammed Jawad Khalifeh, is perhaps the most damning and mind-blowing of the lot. I’m not going to excerpt it because I’d just end up quoting the whole thing. Read it all.