By Dan Williams

 

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - 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 two close 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, which killed around 1,200 people in Lebanon and 158 Israelis. 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 both worry that the Iranian-backed militia could now broaden its clout in its Lebanese heartland. They disagree on whether the Lebanese army would help or hinder Hezbollah's expansion.

 

"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, a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, added that the Lebanese army "could well serve as a counter-weight to Hezbollah's desire to expand its own influence there, as well as Iran's reach in Lebanon".

But speaking three hours later on the same stage, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman reiterated his view that the Lebanese army was subordinate to 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," said Lieberman, a far-rightist in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative coalition government.

"They are part of Hezbollah and they will all pay the full price" for any large-scale attack on Israel, Lieberman added.

The INSS conference coincided with heightened concern in Israel about what it describes as Iranian efforts to fit precision-guidance systems onto Hezbollah's longer-range missiles - improvements that could potentially allow the fighters to knock out key Israeli infrastructure.

Israel's public response has been to lobby Russia - which has some sway over Iran and Hezbollah because of their alliance in Syria. Israel has also issued explicit warnings that it would devastate Lebanon should Hezbollah launch another war.

There was no immediate response from Hezbollah or the Lebanese military to Lieberman's comments. Neither Hezbollah nor Iran has responded to the Israeli allegations about missile conversions.

The Lebanese military has previously said it operates independently from Hezbollah, most recently during an operation against Islamic State at the Lebanese-Syrian border last year, during which the army said there was absolutely no coordination with Hezbollah fighters who attacked IS from the Syrian side.

Lieberman made similar remarks about the Lebanese military in October, marking a hard tack from more measured Israeli estimates that the Lebanese army maintained autonomy even if some of its troops cooperated with Hezbollah.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Peter Graff)