Hizballah’s Unlikely Rep at the Bargaining Table

It may be an understatement to say that Nabih Berri is an unlikely figure to become America’s go-to guy and negotiating partner in Lebanon. After all, the leader of the Shia Muslim Amal party became Speaker of the Lebanese parliament with Syria’s forceful backing in 1992, a post he still holds. And Monday, he minced no words in calling Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s fly-by in Beirut a failure because she wasn’t willing to support an immediate ceasefire.

But with Hizballah’s leadership in hiding from Israeli air raids, Berri has become the acceptable face of Lebanese Shia. And since Hizballah has given him the authority to negotiate on its behalf, Berri has taken a surprising position. His people say that Berri — and by extension Hizballah — would be willing to discuss all of the U.S. proposals, including using a multinational force to help the Lebanese government take control of southern Lebanon.

“The disagreement between the Speaker and Secretary Rice is procedural not substantive,” said Ali Hamadan, a spokesman for Berri. “There are many points of agreement. But she wants to talk about how to bring stability to Lebanon and he’s telling her, ‘Let’s go straight to a cease fire.’”

Not so long ago, Berri’s role as Hizballah’s representative at the bargaining table would have been unthinkable. Amal and Hizballah were once rivals for authority among Lebanon’s Shia — their militias fought each other during the Civil War — but the two pro-Syrian groups have become close ever since the end of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon last year. The fight with Israel has brought them even closer.

“They realize that Shia influence is what’s at stake, so it’s natural for the two parties to come together,” said Dr. Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “All Shia in Lebanon support Hizballah because they believe that the fall of the party means the fall of the entire Shia community.”

But unlike Hizballah, Berri and Amal have never attacked Israel or warmed to Hizballah’s “Death to America” stance. In fact Berri, who was born in West Africa but raised in Lebanon, was once a lawyer for General Motors and lived in Detroit in the 1970s. And though the U.S. has refused to have any contact with Hizballah since they bombed the U.S. embassy and Marine Corps Barracks in Lebanon in 1983, Berri has met with Rice several times before. When Rice traveled to Lebanon in February of this year to put pressure on Syria to comply with the U.N. investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, she snubbed pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud but still met with Berri.

But if Berri is currently speaking for all Shia, he is not speaking for all Lebanese. The Shia position is that Israel still occupies part of Lebanon, Sheba Farms, though the United Nations says the land is actually Syrian; Syria, for its part, is loath to admit that another part of their country is occupied by Israel and Sheba Farms is part of Lebanon as well. (The issue is so contentious that when Rice was in Lebanon in February, she said she’d love to come back to Lebanon and go skiing, to which Berri retorted, “The best skiing in Lebanon is in Sheba Farms.” There are, in fact, no ski resorts in Sheba Farms.) According to Berri’s spokesman Hamadan, negotiations with Israel should include not just a prisoner exchange, and the withdrawal of both Israel and Hizballah forces from the border, but also the fate of Sheba Farms.

Many of Lebanon’s other parties and Lebanese, however, don’t particularly care about Sheba Farms. “We consider the South to have been liberated in 2000 thanks to Hizballah,” said Rami Rayers, a spokesman for Druze leader Wallid Jumblatt. But now “Hizballah has led Lebanon to disaster.”

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