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Israel PM talks Iran, Lebanon with Macron on first foreign trip

Lapid picked France for his first foreign trip in office
— Paris (AFP)

Iran and its influence in the Middle East took centre stage on Tuesday in talks between Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid with French President Emmanuel Macron during Lapid's first trip abroad in office.

Lapid also asked for backing in a gas dispute with Lebanon that days ago saw Israel shoot down three drones launched by Hezbollah, which it says is largely Iran-financed.

Lapid took over the premiership on Friday following the collapse of Israel's coalition government, which will see the country return to the polls in November for its fifth election in less than four years.

The new leader was confronted with his first test a day later, when Lebanon's Hezbollah movement launched three drones towards an offshore gas field in the eastern Mediterranean.

"Israel will not sit back given these repeated attacks," Lapid told reporters in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace just before entering talks with Macron.

"Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation threatening Israel" and "trying to attack us with Iranian rockets", he said.

Lebanon rejects Israel's claim that the Karish gas field lies within its territorial waters.

"We had a long discussion about Lebanon, we presented intelligence on Hezbollah and its activities," Lapid told a small group of reporters after his meeting with Macron.

He gave no details, but said the information was "connected to the attacks on the gas rig".

Israel and Lebanon resumed negotiations on their maritime border in 2020, though the Karish site sits outside of the disputed area and is marked as Israeli on previous United Nations maps.

The US-backed talks have been stalled by Beirut's demand that the UN maps must be modified.

- Make Iran 'see reason' -

Macron, at the news briefing, said both sides should "avoid any action" that could worsen relations between Israel and Lebanon.

Lapid reiterated Israel's firm stance against international efforts to revive a nuclear accord with Tehran.

Acknowledging that France disagrees with that view, he said what was beyond dispute was that "Iran is violating the agreement and continues to develop its nuclear programme".

Macron said he would "make every effort" to make Tehran "see reason" and return to the negotiating table.

Israeli officials fear that giving Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme could allow Tehran to boost funding to Hezbollah, as well as the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, speaking in Athens Tuesday, said "we can confirm that Iran is methodically basing itself in the Red Sea, with war ships patrolling the southern region". Four such ships had been detected in "recent months' Gantz said.

Lapid's Paris visit comes days ahead of US President Joe Biden travelling to Israel and the Palestinian territories, before flying to Saudi Arabia for energy talks.

Washington is seeking to stabilise the global energy market following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which led Moscow to cut its gas supplies to some European countries.

Lebanon-Israel disputed martime border

Israel and Egypt signed a deal last month to boost gas exports to the European Union, as the bloc attempts to end its dependency on Russian energy.

Israel and Lebanon remain technically at war but agreed to talks aimed at delineating their maritime border to allow both countries to boost gas exploration.

"One of the key factors to stabilise Lebanon would be its ability to become an exporter of gas," an Israeli government official told AFP after Lapid met with Macron.

The Lebanese government had signed a deal with French oil major Totalenergies and "therefore France is a player on the issue", the official said.