Dec 18, 2023 - World

Israel tells U.S. it wants Hezbollah pushed further from border

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, third from left, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second from right, during his visit in Tel Aviv on Dec. 18. Photo: Israel Prime Minister's Office/Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images

Israel told the Biden administration it wants Hezbollah's forces to be pushed roughly 6 miles from the border as part of a diplomatic deal to end tensions with Lebanon, three Israeli and U.S. officials told Axios.

Why it matters: The Biden administration is deeply concerned that escalating border skirmishes could lead to an all out war that will be even worse than the Gaza conflict.

Driving the news: Shortly after the war in Gaza began, Hezbollah started attacking Israeli military outposts along the border and launching rockets and drones into the northern parts of Israel.

  • Israel has evacuated tens of thousands of civilians from Israeli villages and towns close to the border as a precaution for a possible attack by Hezbollah's elite Radwan forces like the one Hamas conducted on Oct. 7.

The Israeli government said publicly that in order to allow Israeli citizens to go back to their homes, the situation needs to change either through a diplomatic solution or military action.

  • President Biden's senior adviser, Amos Hochstein, and other U.S. officials have been working on trying to reach such a diplomatic solution but so far little progress has been made.

Behind the scenes: The tensions on the border with Lebanon were one of the main issues under discussion during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's meeting on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv.

  • Israeli officials said Netanyahu and Gallant told Austin that Israel couldn't accept that tens of thousands of its citizens were displaced for months because of the security situation on the other side of the border.
  • Netanyahu and Gallant said Israel wants a deal that includes pushing Hezbollah's forces far enough that they will not be able to fire at the Israeli villages and towns along the border or be able to conduct a raid like the one Hamas conducted on Oct. 7, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

The Israeli prime minister and the minister of defense told Austin that as part of this agreement they want Hezbollah to not be allowed to go back to its positions along the border, which Israel destroyed in the last two months, the officials said.

  • U.S. and Israeli officials said Austin told Netanyahu and Gallant that the Biden administration understands the Israeli concerns and will push for a peaceful solution, but asked that Israel give time and space for diplomacy and not take steps that exacerbate the tensions.
  • Netanyahu and Gallant said that Israel is willing to give diplomacy a chance, but stressed they want to see progress in the next few weeks, Israeli officials said.

State of play: Austin also focused his discussions with Netanyahu, Gallant and the members of the Israeli war cabinet on moving away from the high-intensity phase of the fighting.

  • The rate of civilian deaths in Gaza is outpacing those of other conflict zones in the 21st century. Mounting casualties have been accompanied by a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the enclave.
  • Israeli and U.S. officials said the Israelis claimed there have been less Palestinian civilian casualties in recent weeks in comparison to the beginning of the operation.

Austin told the Israelis that there needs to be more improvement and proposed to use more ground forces and less air strikes as Israel moves to a new phase, the officials said.

  • Biden administration officials think that moving to lower-intensity fighting will decrease civilian casualties, allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and decrease the risk for regional war.
  • At a Monday press conference with Gallant, Austin said he didn't "dictate to Israel terms or timelines" for its operation in Gaza, but said he discussed with the Israelis how to move to more "surgical operations" in Gaza.

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