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Israel Softens Rhetoric on Lebanon After Foreign Minister’s Fiery Speech

Israel’s foreign minister is toning down his rhetoric after he had threatened to wreak blood vengeance on Lebanon if Hezbollah launches attacks on northern Israel.

David Levy said Thursday that Israel would strike back forcefully if its civilians were attacked from Lebanon, but there is no standing policy to launch attacks on civilian targets.

Trying to take the heat off controversial remarks made in the Knesset a day earlier, Levy told Israel Radio that his declaration that Israel would respond “blood for blood” and “child for child” if residents of northern Israel came under Hezbollah attack was intended to convey the gravity of the security situation and send a strong message to Syria to rein in Hezbollah.

His Knesset remarks generated volleys of sharp criticism from Syria and Lebanon, where news reports said Levy’s speech proves that Israel has “racist” intentions that rival those of the Nazis.

Israel’s northern border has been relatively quiet following a recent escalation in which seven Israeli soldiers were killed in Hezbollah attacks. Israel retaliated, bombing Lebanese power stations.

During the escalation earlier this month, Levy vowed a scorched-earth policy in Lebanon if Hezbollah decided to retaliate with Katyusha rockets, but those attacks did not materialize.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ehud Barak also sought to smooth over his foreign minister’s Knesset speech.

Speaking to reporters at a joint news conference with visiting French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, Barak said Levy’s remarks were intended to convey his concern over security, and in no way hinted that Israel intends to hurt Lebanese civilians.

Barak has pledged to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by July, with or without an accompanying peace accord with Syria.

During the news conference, Jospin said it would be preferable for such an accord before Barak orders the withdrawal.

A unilateral withdrawal, he said, could create a dangerous power vacuum in southern Lebanon, which Hezbollah would rush in to fill.

He also said that France, which seeks a more active role in the peace process, would be willing to provide troops to serve as a buffer force in the region, but only in the context of an Israeli-Syrian agreement.

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