Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks on Monday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss joint efforts to curb Iranian aggression in the region, including reining in Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group.
Netanyahu was reported to be telling Pompeo that Israel could take military action if Beirut does not clamp down on Hezbollah, amid concerns that Tehran has begun shipping advanced arms directly to the terror group in Lebanon.
Netanyahu made an unexpected trip to Brussels on Monday afternoon for the meeting with Pompeo, who is in Belgium for talks with NATO counterparts.
In a public statement before the closed door talks, Netanyahu thanked Pompeo for the administration’s “strong” stance on Iran, and said he looked forward to discussing joint Israeli-US efforts to “curb Iran’s aggression in the region, in Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon and elsewhere.”
There was no immediate statement from the State Department. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to Hadashot news, in a report shortly before the meeting, Netanyahu was planning to tell Pompeo to convey a warning to Beirut that Israel would take action if Lebanon does not work to keep Hezbollah from arming itself.
Reports in recent weeks have pointed to Iran shipping arms directly to its proxy terror group in Lebanon, and not via Syria, as had been done until recently. Israel has repeatedly targeted Iranian arms consignments in Syria en route to Hezbollah. On Thursday, a flight from Tehran to Beirut on an ostensibly civilian cargo carrier was widely reported to contain arms meant for Hezbollah.
Without specifically mentioning the flight, the army’s Arabic-language spokesperson Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee tweeted Thursday that Lebanon should stop allowing Iranian planes to bring war materiel into the country, along with a black-and-white satellite photograph of Rafik Hariri International Airport.
— افيخاي ادرعي (@AvichayAdraee) November 29, 2018
At the UN in September, Netanyahu used the world stage to accuse Hezbollah of hiding weapons facilities in civilian areas of Beirut, and said Israel would not let the terror group “get away with it.”
“In Lebanon, Iran is directing Hezbollah to build secret sites to convert inaccurate projectiles into precision guided missiles, missiles that can target deep inside Israel within an accuracy of ten meters,” he said. “Hezbollah is deliberately using the innocent people of Beirut as human shields. They have placed three of these missile conversion sites alongside Beirut’s international airport.”
Netanyahu continued: “I also have a message for Hezbollah today: Israel knows, Israel also knows what you’re doing. Israel knows where you’re doing it. And Israel will not let you get away with it.”
Lebanon dismissed the claim.
Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria, many of them to keep advanced missiles from being transferred to Hezbollah, which fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006. But it has kept from carrying out strikes in Lebanon.
Though Israel’s northern border has seen relative quiet for the past 12 years, tensions have remained high and Israeli officials have recently sounded alarms over Hezbollah’s acquisition of precision missiles that can hit anywhere in Israel.
Before taking off, Netanyahu said in a statement that he would “discuss with Mike Pompeo a series of developments in our region as well as the measures we are taking together to curb the aggression of Iran and its proxies in the north.”
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office told the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily that the sit-down with Pompeo was “urgent.”
Netanyahu was joined on the trip by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat, and military secretary Col. Avi Blot.
Officials said meeting had been scheduled last week and set for Wednesday, but was moved up to Monday because Pompeo will be flying back from Europe early in order to attend the funeral of former US president George H.W. Bush.
The meeting comes at a time of heightened tensions with Iran amid reimposed US sanctions, and after Pompeo accused Tehran of testing missiles that could carry warheads to anywhere in the Middle East and parts of Europe, in violation of a United Nations resolution prohibiting tests of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles..
Iran said Sunday that it would continue to develop its missile program after Pompeo’s accusations.
Traveling with Pompeo, US special envoy for Iran Brian Hook rejected Iran’s insistence that its missile program is defensive.
Hook said US discussions with the Europeans about missile sanctions are gaining traction. Those talks center on slapping penalties on companies and people involved in Iran’s program.
“It is a grave and escalating threat, and nations around the world, not just Europe, need to do everything they can to be targeting Iran’s missile program,” Hook said.
On Thursday, Hook accused Iran of violating a UN ban on Iranian arms exports by sending weapons to its proxies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
Although there are no restrictions in place on the range of Iranian missiles, US President Donald Trump had insisted that limitations be placed on Tehran’s missile program as a prerequisite for Washington remaining in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. He ultimately pulled out of it on May 12, ramping up tensions.
Sensitive security situation
The prime minister last month alluded to an unspecified sensitive security situation when explaining his decision to agree to a ceasefire with the Gazan Hamas terror group, following a flareup of violence with the Palestinain enclave.
Israeli officials have long warned that the threat posed by Gaza’s Hamas rulers pales in comparison to that of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group — a heavily-armed mini-army with valuable combat experience and an arsenal of some 150,000 rockets that can reach nearly every part of Israel.
With Syria’s civil war winding down, Israeli defense officials are concerned that an empowered Hezbollah is now free to re-establish itself back home in Lebanon and refocus its efforts on Israel.
Until recently, Israel flew its jets through Syrian skies with impunity. But that was severely restricted after a Russian plane was downed in September by Syrian forces responding to an Israeli air strike, a friendly fire incident that stoked Russian anger toward Israel and hastened the delivery of sophisticated S-300 air defense systems to Syria.
AP contributed to this report.