Israeli PM to press France on Iran, warn Hezbollah 'playing with fire'

·2 min read

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM, July 5 (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid will press French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday for a tougher and time-limited tack on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and warn that the Tehran-backed Hezbollah group is "playing with fire", an official said.

Lapid's visit to France, his first abroad since becoming caretaker premier last week, is also a chance to flex diplomatic muscles as Israelis gear up for a snap election in November.

France is among world powers trying to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that the previous U.S. administration quit and which Israel opposed, deeming its caps insufficient.

As Lebanon's former colonial administrator, France has additional clout in Beirut - whose economic crisis-hit leaders were jarred on Saturday when Israel shot down three Hezbollah drones launched toward one of its Mediterranean gas rigs.

"The French are very, very active on the Iranian issue," a senior Israeli official told reporters.

"It is important for us to make our case ... Israel opposes a return to the JCPOA (2015 nuclear deal). In the same breath, we do not oppose a deal. We seek a very strong deal."

Israel is not a party to the nuclear negotiations. But Western capitals have been attentive to its worries about its arch-enemy and worried it might take preemptive military action if it deems diplomacy a dead end.

Since the U.S. walkout, Iran has itself been in breach of the deal, ramping up projects with bomb-making potential - though it denies having such designs. Its technical advancements have set a ticking clock on the so-far fruitless negotiations.

"We want an end to the unending talks," said the senior Israeli official, calling for "coordinated pressure" on Iran and offering help on "drafting an appropriate framework" for that.

Israel has de facto front with Iran in Lebanon, home to Hezbollah. The senior Israeli official, alluding to Saturday's shoot-downs, accused the group of "playing with fire".

The official declined to elaborate on that warning, but said Lapid would share with Macron "new material explaining how Hezbollah is endangering Lebanon".

Hezbollah and Israel fought a war across Lebanon's border in 2006 but have been in a largely stable standoff since.

The Karish rig near Lebanon's coast will produce gas not only for Israel, but eventually also for the European Union, the official said, tapping into EU countries' quest to replace Russia as an energy supplier since it invaded Ukraine. (Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by David Gregorio)

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