Israel says France can play diplomatic role in Israel-Hezbollah tensions

Comments by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen came as French and US officials push diplomacy and seek to avoid a broader regional war

From northern Israel along the border with Lebanon, Israeli ordnance falls on hills close to the town of Marwahin in southern Lebanon on December 16, 2023. AFP
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Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said on Sunday that France could play a role in preventing full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah as more fighting broke out on the Israel-Lebanon border.

“France could play a positive and crucial role in preventing a war in Lebanon,” Cohen said at a media briefing in Tel Aviv with the visiting French Foreign Minister, Catherine Colonna.

Ms Colonna is scheduled to visit Beirut on Monday as part of France’s diplomatic effort to mediate between Israeli and Lebanese officials.

Israel has increased its war rhetoric in recent weeks as it continues to clash with Hezbollah and the group’s armed allies, saying that the Iran-backed group’s presence along its northern border would not be tolerated.

Earlier this month, Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said Israel would have “to impose a new reality” on Lebanon after the end of its operation in Gaza.

“The situation in the north must be changed,” Mr Hanegbi told Israeli media “And it will change. If Hezbollah agrees to change things via diplomacy, very good. But I don't believe it will.”

His comments have been repeated by other officials, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in early December threatening to “turn Beirut and southern Lebanon into Gaza and Khan Younis”.

Since October 8, Hezbollah has engaged in gradually escalating border skirmishes with Israel as the Iran-backed group seeks to support its ally Hamas and distract Israel from its invasion of the Gaza Strip.

But the group has remained restrained, careful not to tip the conflict into a full-scale war and mostly focusing its attacks on military installations along the border.

Israel has responded to Hezbollah's attacks with air strikes on the outskirts of southern villages and has frequently used white phosphorus – a highly toxic and flammable substance – in its bombardment of southern Lebanon.

Israel is bent on preventing the Iran-backed militia from exerting influence on the outcome of the conflict and seeks to re-establish security along its northern frontier.

Tens of thousands of civilians on either side of the border have been displaced from their homes by the fighting.

France and the US, seeking to calm tensions and avoid a broader regional conflict, have sent envoys to conduct a flurry of shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Lebanon.

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Friday said that a “negotiated outcome” is the best way to reassure residents of northern Israel, adding that the threat of Hezbollah “can be dealt with through diplomacy and does not require the launching of a new war”.

But Hezbollah has resisted attempts at negotiation, balking at Israeli demands for the group to withdraw from the southernmost areas of Lebanon.

More than 100 people, among them at least 16 civilians have been killed by Israeli attacks since October 8.

In Israel, at least four civilians and seven Israeli soldiers have been killed, although the Israeli army does not always release updated death tolls in times of conflict.

Updated: December 18, 2023, 2:31 PM