BEIRUT — The United States pledged continued support for Lebanon’s military on Wednesday, calling it a potential counterweight to Iranian-backed Hezbollah, even as Israel said the two forces were indistinguishable and fair game in any future war.
Such a public difference of opinion between the allies was remarkable enough, but especially so as it was sounded by senior officials at the same event – an Israeli security conference.
The Lebanese Armed Forces took no part in the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. It has received more than $1.5 billion in U.S. military assistance since then and, in the last seven years, training and support from U.S. special forces too.
With Hezbollah having helped sway the Syrian civil war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor, Israel and the United States worry that the militia could now broaden its clout in its Lebanese heartland.
“We will sustain our efforts to support legitimate state security institutions in Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is the only legitimate force in Lebanon,” David Satterfield, acting assistant U.S. secretary of state, told the conference organized by Tel Aviv University’s INSS think-tank.
Satterfield added that the Lebanese army “could well serve as a counterweight to Hezbollah’s desire to expand its own influence there, as well as Iran’s reach in Lebanon”.
But taking the stage three hours later, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman reiterated his view that the Lebanese army was under the command of the better-equipped Hezbollah.
“As far as I‘m concerned, all of Lebanon – the Lebanese army, Lebanon and the Lebanese army – are no different from Hezbollah,” he said. “They are part of Hezbollah and they will all pay the full price” for any large-scale attack on Israel.
on Wednesday, Lebanon’s Hezbollah pledged to confront any threats to the country’s “oil and gas rights” after Israeli comments urging firms not to bid on a Lebanese offshore energy tender.
“We confirm again our firm and honest position to decisively confront any assault on our oil and gas rights, and protect (Lebanon‘s) wealth,” the Iran-backed political and military movement said in a statement.