Pompeo, in Israel, Calls Hezbollah Risk to Middle East Stability

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM, March 21 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Hezbollah on Wednesday as a risk to Middle East stability and conferred with Israel about the heavily armed, Iranian-backed Lebanese group ahead of a trip to Beirut.

Pompeo, who has been on a regional tour to promote the Trump administration’s hard tack against Iran, received a warning from Israel which worries it may again be in the sights of Hezbollah forces winding down their intervention in Syria’s war.

Meeting Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, Pompeo listed Hezbollah, Palestinian Hamas and Yemen’s Houthis – all recipients of Iranian support – as “entities that present risks to Middle East stability and to Israel”.

“They are determined to wipe this country off the face of the planet and we have a moral obligation and a political one to prevent that from happening. You should know that the United States is prepared to do that,” Pompeo said in public remarks at the meeting.

For its part, Israel has carried out repeated air strikes on Hezbollah in Syria, where the Shi’ite Muslim militia – along with Russian air power – helped President Bashar al-Assad turn the tables against mainly Sunni Muslim rebels and militants.

In a speech broadcast on the Persian new year on Thursday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Islamic Republic had successfully resisted “unprecedented, strong” U.S. sanctions.

Iran has faced economic hardship since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew last year from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and reimposed sanctions.

Focusing his remarks on Lebanon, Rivlin told Pompeo that its prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, “cannot say to anyone that Lebanon is separate from Hezbollah” – a reference to the group’s political clout in Beirut where it has ministers in the government as well as lawmakers in parliament.

“If some(thing) will happen from Lebanon toward Israel, we will hold Lebanon as the responsible (party)”, Rivlin said, speaking in English.

Washington also has been increasingly voicing concern at Hezbollah power, echoing Israel, whose forces were fought to a standstill by the militia in a 2006 Lebanon war.

Pompeo’s visit to Jerusalem was widely seen in Israel as a boost for Netanyahu, who enjoys a close relationship with Trump, just three weeks before a closely contested Israeli election.

In a further signal of solidarity with Israel, Pompeo was later scheduled, accompanied by Netanyahu, to visit Judaism’s Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.

In May 2017, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the wall, but did not ask Netanyahu to join him.

Seven months later, Trump broke with decades of U.S. policy and recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, incensing Palestinians who claim the city’s eastern sector as the capital of a future state they seek.

Last May, Washington moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Pompeo also visited the embassy on Thursday.

(Writing by Dan Williams Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)