US pushes for halt in Lebanon fighting in meeting with Israeli defence minister

The US called for a diplomatic solution to fighting in Lebanon, even as it warned Hezbollah that it would back Israeli offensive

MEE staff

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin holds a press conference in Brussels at the end of a two-day meeting of Nato defence ministers, on 15 February 2023 (AFP)

US President Joe Biden’s administration is continuing to push for a diplomatic solution to the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah with senior Israeli officials visiting Washington.

“Another war between Israel and Hezbollah could easily become a regional war, with terrible consequences for the Middle East,” US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday.

“Diplomacy is by far the best way to prevent more escalation.”

Austin made the remarks as he met his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant at the Pentagon near Washington DC.

“We are working closely together to achieve an agreement but we must also discuss readiness [for] every possible scenario,” Gallant said, alluding to Israel’s statement last week that its military had prepared plans for an offensive against Hezbollah.

US officials said that Gallant however has said Israel’s preference is a diplomatic deal that averts a wider war.

“We think a diplomatic resolution is possible. We think it is in the interests of all parties. And I will say that Minister Gallant confirmed to the secretary yesterday that that is Israel’s preferred outcome,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on Tuesday.

Israel and Hezbollah have exchanged near-daily fire since 8 October, but the conflict ratcheted up in June after Israel killed Taleb Sami Abdullah, one of the most senior members of Hezbollah. The group responded by launching hundreds of drones and rockets at Israel.

In a speech on Thursday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah doubled down on military action, saying Hezbollah had “a complete bank of targets”, against Israel that includes the Mediterranean.

“The enemy should expect us on land, sea and air, and we will fight without restraints, rules or limits,” he said. 

US officials have been rushing to seal a diplomatic deal between Israel and Hezbollah to prevent a war. They have pinned their strategy on a carrot-and-stick approach, signaling to Hezbollah that should the two sides fail to reach a deal they would fully support Israel in its offensive.

US signals to Hezbollah it will back Israeli offensive, as frustration with Gaza ceasefire grows

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Middle East Eye first reported the “blunt” warnings US envoy Amos Hochstein delivered to Hezbollah in private backchannel talks last week, citing a senior Arab official.

“The US will stand by Israel and not condemn them publicly if it launches an offensive against Hezbollah,” Hochstein warned the Lebanese officials, according to the Arab official.

Washington hopes that by standing firm they can drive a wedge between Hezbollah and Hamas. The Lebanese group has insisted that it will only halt fighting once there is a ceasefire in Gaza.

But Hochstein communicated to Hezbollah that Israel plans to pause wide-scale fighting in Gaza in the next five weeks. He informed them that the lull is an opportunity to end conflict and start negotiations, with or without a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, the senior Arab official told MEE.

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