'Hezbollah should not play with fire'

In Paris meeting with Macron, Lapid to send a warning to Hezbollah

After drones were launched from Lebanon toward Israel’s gas rigs, PM will urge French president to push Beirut toward a maritime border compromise

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Then-foreign minister Yair Lapid (R) embraces French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, November 30, 2021 (Quentin Crestinu)
Then-foreign minister Yair Lapid (R) embraces French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, November 30, 2021 (Quentin Crestinu)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid will look to send a stern message to Hezbollah during his meeting Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, a senior Israeli official said on Monday night.

“We want the French president to use his connections to make clear to the Lebanese government we intend to complete the negotiations,” said the official, referring to indirect talks between Israel and Lebanon over the maritime boundary between the countries. “We want to do it, but we won’t be able to do it under Hezbollah threats.”

“Hezbollah should not play with fire,” added the official, warning that a strike on a gas platform “could be a very dangerous act.”

The Israel Defense Forces said Saturday that it had successfully intercepted three drones flown by Hezbollah that were heading for the Karish gas field off Israel’s Mediterranean coast.

Tensions have risen over the site in recent weeks, after a gas production vessel arrived in Israel to launch extraction operations in the offshore field, drawing condemnation from Lebanon, which had laid claim to parts of it. Israel says Karish is in part of its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone.

France, which was granted the mandate to administer Lebanon in 1923 by the League of Nations, has been a major player in Lebanese politics and economy ever since.

A drone which the Israeli military says was launched by the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group, is seen shortly before being intercpted by an Israeli fighter jet over the Mediterranean Sea, July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Lapid took off for Paris midmorning on Tuesday. He will meet with Macron, a close friend, in the mid-afternoon at the Elysee Palace, before heading back to Israel at 8 p.m.

“The prime minister will present new materials that will explain how Hezbollah endangers Lebanon’s security and stability,” the official said.

In addition to the warning to Hezbollah, Israel hopes Macron will send a more conciliatory message to Lebanon’s government. “The message we want to be sent to them is that it would extremely beneficial for them to take advantage of the present opportunity,” said the official, stressing US energy envoy  Amos Hochstein’s active involvement in the maritime border issue.

“We can get to an agreement,” said the official, “if they don’t let Hezbollah get in the way.”

If the Iran-backed terror group continues threatening Israel’s gas fields, warned the official, “it could cause a deterioration that we are not interested in.”

An Israeli Sa’ar Class 4.5 missile boat guards the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Karish gas field, in footage published by the military on July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Lapid will also discuss the Iran nuclear issue at length with Macron, said the official. The prime minister will work to synchronize Israeli and Western pressure on Iran, and will emphasize Israel’s desire for a long-lasting, effective nuclear deal.

Israeli officials will stress that the US and the E3 — Germany, the UK, and France — can’t let Iran play for time by drawing out negotiations, which recently resumed in Qatar after a months-long hiatus.

“We expect that there will be some end to these never-ending talks,” stressed the official.

US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley and United States’ top negotiator for Iran nuclear talks, center, speaks at the Doha Forum in Qatar, March 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Lujain Jo)

“There is nothing fundamentally different in these talks [in Doha] from the previous ones,” the official said.

Israel also expects the investigation into the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh to come up in Tuesday’s meeting, according to the official.

The one-day trip will feature a bilateral meeting between Macron and Lapid, then a broader session with their aides. The visit was set up before Lapid became prime minister last week.

The friendship between Lapid and Macron goes back to before either of them was in their current position. Lapid took the unusual step of endorsing Macron in the 2017 presidential election, and Macron seemed to return the favor by hosting him at the Elysee Palace in Paris only four days before the April 2019 elections in Israel.

In late November, Lapid visited Paris and met with Macron at the end of a three-day trip to Europe, seen largely as focused on the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna.

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) meets with Blue and White MKs Benny Gantz (R) and Yair Lapid in Jerusalem on January 22, 2019. (Elad Malka)

After Macron’s electoral victory in April, Lapid referred to the centrist as “my good friend” and shared a photograph of the two men embracing.

There have been a number of signs that, with the election behind him, Macron intends to improve ties with Israel.

French Ambassador to Israel Eric Danon told visiting French parliamentarians last July that Macron intends to reset relations with Israel if he is reelected in 2022, according to a diplomatic source with knowledge of the meeting.

Macron’s appointment of Danon was itself an important indication of where he wants to take the relationship. Danon, a close confidant of the French leader, is not a typical diplomat, said Emmanuel Navon of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and is “very well disposed toward Israel.”

That disposition was on full display last July, when Danon gave a surprisingly muscular speech at Bastille Day celebrations, stressing France’s position that “the mullahs’ regime [in Iran] should never possess the nuclear bomb.”

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