Michael Totten

Berri Crosses Lebanon's Red Line

A few days ago Lebanon’s Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri floated the idea of opening peace talks with Israel. (Hat tip: Bad Vilbel.)

Now is the time to raise the issue to returning to peace negotiations…It is possible that now is a very appropriate time for peace talks.

He said this in France to a reporter from Al-Arabiya.

Before I say anything else, here’s a caveat. Earlier this year I wrote the following in a dispatch from the Lebanese-Israeli border.

The rhetoric that comes out of Beirut in Arabic rarely has anything to do with reality. The Lebanese government regularly affirms its “brotherhood” with Syria, its former murderous master that still knocks off elected officials and journalists. Undying loyalty to the Palestinian cause is constantly trumpeted, even while Lebanon treats its hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees worse than neglected zoo animals. Arab Nationalism is another regular theme, even though Arab Nationalism is more dead in Lebanon than in any other country around.

Lebanon is a hard country to read from afar. I can’t tell you how many times a government official said some boilerplate nonsense in public that almost everyone knew wasn’t sincere. You had to know the Lebanese “street,” and you had to look at the target audience. Most statements on foreign relations are intended for foreign consumption, especially the bits about Syria.
The same goes for Israel. Lebanon has officially been at war with Israel longer than I’ve been alive. But the Lebanese state never acts like it’s at war. Lebanon never fights Israel. People in Lebanon — the PLO and Iran’s private army — were the ones who fought Israel.
A cynical observer may say the Lebanese government wants to have it both ways. The Lebanese state gets its war and it gets deniability.
I don’t read it that way. When the PLO used Southern Lebanon as a base to fight Israel during the 1970s and early 1980s, Lebanon’s Sunni population applauded. But the Christians and the Shia were apoplectic. Lebanon disintegrated into the worst war in its history over this question.
Most Lebanese hated Hezbollah and wanted Iran’s and Syria’s little plaything disarmed even before they dragged the country into yet another pointless war against the will of the majority.
Even so, advocating peace talks with Israel was a “red line” when I was in Beirut. Some Lebanese did it anyway, but they only did it in private. No newspaper wrote editorials in favor of Israel or of peace. No politician from any party dared say anything of the sort even though everyone knew some would if they could. The stupid parties (Hezbollah, the Syrian Social Nationalists, etc.) still accuse the March 14 Movement (aka the “Cedar Revolution,” aka the government) of being Zionist agents even when the red line isn’t crossed.
So it’s telling that Nabih Berri, the Speaker of Parliament, a Shia from South Lebanon, Hezbollah’s “moderate” ally, one of Bashar Assad’s point men in the country, said what he said even to foreigners. He did say it in Arabic to Al-Arabiya. He did not say it in French to Jacques Chirac.
It doesn’t mean peace talks are imminent. Hezbollah, or anyone else for that matter, could sabotage peace talks in five minutes. (See Hamas.) But if Berri can say it even if he is not sincere, so can anyone else who has the guts.