Jan 4, 2024 - World

Israeli defense minister tells Biden envoy "short time" for diplomatic deal with Lebanon

An Israeli self-propelled artillery howitzer shells southern Lebanon from a position in the Upper Galilee in northern Israel

An Israeli self-propelled artillery howitzer shells southern Lebanon from a position in the Upper Galilee in northern Israel. Photo: Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images

Biden envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Israel on Thursday to push for a diplomatic deal to calm down the tensions on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Why it matters: The Biden administration is deeply concerned that the escalating border skirmishes between the Israeli military and Hezbollah could lead to an all-out war that could be even worse than the Gaza conflict. Tensions escalated further on Tuesday after Israel killed a senior Hamas official in a strike in Beirut.

Driving the news: Hochstein, President Biden's senior adviser, and other U.S. officials have been working for weeks on trying to reach a diplomatic solution but so far little progress has been made, U.S. officials say.

  • Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told Hochstein on Thursday that Israel prefers a diplomatic solution, but there's "a short window of time" to find one, according to a statement he released. "We will not tolerate the threats posed by Hezbollah and we will ensure the security of our citizens," he added.

The killing of Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri by Israel earlier this week increased concerns of an escalation between Israel and Hezbollah, with the leader of the Lebanese militant group Hassan Nasrallah vowing to retaliate and punish Israel.

  • A senior U.S. official said in a briefing with reporters on Wednesday that regardless of Nasrallah's threats, the Biden administration believes Hezbollah and Israel have no desire to go to war with each other.

Catch up quick: 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 responded with air strikes and artillery fire.

  • Israel has evacuated tens of thousands of civilians from Israeli villages and towns close to the border as a precaution, with fears Hezbollah's elite Radwan forces could conduct an attack like that of Hamas on Oct. 7.
  • The Israeli government said publicly that the situation along the border must change — through a diplomatic solution or military action — before it will allow evacuated Israeli citizens to go back to their homes. Israel wants Hezbollah's forces to be pushed roughly six miles from the border as part of a diplomatic deal, as Axios previously reported.

State of play: Biden's top Middle East adviser Brett McGurk met with Lebanon's foreign minister at the White House on Wednesday to discuss a possible diplomatic solution to the rising tensions. "We are working on it," the senior U.S. official said.

  • Hochstein on Thursday met in Tel Aviv with Gallant, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, a member of the Israeli war cabinet.
  • Gallant spoke to Hochstein about the conditions required by the Israeli defense establishment to facilitate the secure return of more than 80,000 displaced Israelis to return to their homes, the Ministry of Defense said.
  • Netanyahu told Hochstein that the return of Israeli civilians to their homes near the border with Lebanon is one of the goals of the war "and will be achieved through diplomacy or through military means," the Prime Minister's Office said.

What to watch: Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Thursday will head to the Middle East for the fourth time since the war began.

  • It will include stops in Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, Crete, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the occupied West Bank and Egypt.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details.

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