Meeting Gallant, Blinken calls for ‘avoiding further escalation’ on Lebanon border

Top US diplomat also presses defense minister on Gaza aid, ‘day after’ planning; Gallant warns Biden adviser that move to ‘phase 3’ of fighting in Strip will impact all fronts

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (L) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, June 24, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (L) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, June 24, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared to caution Israel against launching a major offensive against Hezbollah during his meeting on Tuesday with visiting Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Blinken “underscored the importance of avoiding further escalation of the conflict and reaching a diplomatic resolution that allows both Israeli and Lebanese families to return to their homes,” the State Department said in its readout on the secretary’s meeting with Gallant.

For his part, Gallant “raised the possible ways to change the security situation in the northern arena,” according to a readout from his office.

“Gallant emphasized the importance of the US standing with Israel in this mission and its impact on the actions taken by Hezbollah and Iran,” the Israeli readout added.

Blinken’s warning was the latest from a top Biden official, as the administration seeks to prevent a full-fledged war between Israel and Hezbollah, which began launching near-daily attacks on the north following Hamas’s October 7 onslaught.

Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. warned Sunday that any Israeli military offensive into Lebanon would risk an Iranian response in defense of Hezbollah and that US forces would be challenged to bolster Israel’s air defense umbrella.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) meets US special envoy Amos Hochstein in Washington DC, June 24, 2024 (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The top US envoy mediating between Israel and Hezbollah reportedly warned Lebanese officials last week that Washington would not be able to stop Israel from invading should Hezbollah continue its attacks.

US special envoy Amos Hochstein’s message was the latest effort by the US to try and prevent a full-fledged war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Axios news site reported Monday.

He advised Hezbollah to indirectly negotiate with Israel, rather than scaling up border tensions, Axios reports.

According to a Western diplomat cited in the report, Hezbollah sent messages back to the US after the envoy’s visit touting the terror group’s capabilities to deliver serious blows to Israel while clarifying that it doesn’t seek a full-fledged war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated in a Sunday interview his hope that there would be a diplomatic solution to the northern border skirmishes while asserting that Israel was bracing to address the threat militarily if need be.

Any diplomatic solution would have to include “the physical distancing of Hezbollah from the border, and we will need to enforce it,” Netanyahu told Channel 14.

Fires and smoke rise at houses in the northern border town of Metula after they were hit by Hezbollah shelling, as seen from the Lebanese town of Marjayoun, June 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Exchanges between Israel and the Iran-backed terror group have continued to intensify in recent weeks, with the US indicating that the only way to lower tensions is through a ceasefire in the Gaza war.

But that latter effort has yet to see a breakthrough, as Israel insists on continuing the war until Hamas has been defeated, while the Gaza-based terror group is refusing to release the hostages it is holding unless Israel agrees to a permanent ceasefire.

Friction over arms deliveries, hostage negotiations

Gallant’s trip coincided with another low point in ties between Netanyahu’s government and the Biden administration.

Last week, Netanyahu accused the US of withholding weapons from Israel — a charge Washington has vociferously denied, insisting that it has only withheld one shipment of heavy bombs it was concerned Israel would use in the densely populated southern Gaza city of Rafah.

A US official told The Times of Israel on Sunday that the Biden administration in recent months removed emergency procedures that were in place to fast-track weapons to Israel toward the beginning of the war.

The move has coincided with a significant slowdown in the IDF’s operations in Gaza along with concern in Washington about a potential Israeli preemptive offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon that could lead to a regional war, the US official said.

An Israeli official insisted that the return to the pre-war pace of US weapons shipments has not impacted the IDF’s operational capacity in Gaza or Lebanon.

Accordingly, Netanyahu’s decision to publicly attack the US has perplexed and frustrated the Biden administration, the US official said.

The US official speculated that Netanyahu either felt he might benefit politically at home by provoking a spat with Washington or that he is concerned Gallant would manage to convince the US to resume faster-paced weapons transfers during his meetings at the White House this week and that the premier would not be credited for resolving the issue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Knesset plenum session in Jerusalem on June 24, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu further angered the administration when he said Sunday that he only supported a partial ceasefire deal with Hamas because he intended to resume fighting after an initial group of hostages the terror group seized on October 7 were released.

The comments appeared to contradict the terms of the hostage deal proposal that Netanyahu himself had authorized last month and that the Biden administration has been seeking to advance.

That offer envisions an initial six-week ceasefire in exchange for the release of the remaining female, elderly and sick hostages. During that period, though, the sides would hold talks on the terms of a second-phase truce during which the remaining living hostages would be released. A third phase would then commence during which the reconstruction of Gaza would begin, while Hamas would release the bodies of all other hostages.

Ultimately, the proposal envisions turning a temporary ceasefire into a permanent one — as opposed to a resumption of fighting after six weeks, which Netanyahu indicated was his desire in the Sunday interview.

After his remarks began to make headlines, his office put out a statement saying the premier remains committed to the latest Israeli proposal backed by Biden, blaming Hamas for refusing to accept it.

As Netanyahu came under fire from the families of hostages, who accused him of walking back on his commitment to the latest Israeli offer and condemning the male hostages to die, Gallant told reporters in Washington that Israel is committed to returning all hostages, “with no exception.”

Friends of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, supporters of Hapoel Jerusalem and other Israelis call for his return and the rest of the hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as they demonstrate in Jerusalem on June 24, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gallant made the comments ahead of his meeting with CIA chief William Burns, who has been the lead US mediator in the talks between Israel and Hamas alongside Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and Egyptian intel chief Abbas Kamel.

During his meeting with Blinken, “Gallant discussed the need to exert additional pressure on Hamas in order to ensure the return of the hostages held in Gaza,” his office said.

Gallant also made a point of trying to smooth over ties with the US, further breaking from Netanyahu.

“The eyes of both our enemies and our friends are on the relationship between the US and Israel. We must resolve the differences between us quickly and stand together. This is how we will achieve our goals and weaken our enemies,” Gallant told Blinken, according to the Israeli readout.

On Tuesday, Gallant will meet with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin where the issue of US weapons shipments to Israel will likely be high on the agenda. While Gallant is sure to seek an acceleration of arms transfers, a US official said Washington has no plans to lift the hold on the shipment of heavy bombs that it withheld last month.

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Monday that other than that one shipment, the US is continuing to send arms.

“There are other weapons that we continue to provide Israel, as we have done going back years and years, because we are committed to Israel’s security. There has been no change in that,” Miller said.

Blinken stresses ‘day after’ planning, Gaza aid

During their Monday meeting, Blinken also pressed Gallant for Israel take additional steps to protect humanitarian workers and ensure the delivery of aid throughout Gaza, which has stagnated over the past month due to Israel’s operations in Rafah.

Blinken updated Gallant on US planning for the post-war governance of Gaza and “emphasized the importance of that work to Israel’s security,” according to the US readout. Washington has repeatedly criticized Jerusalem over this issue, arguing that failure to plan for “the day after” will lead to Israel either permanently occupying Gaza or a state of chaos in the Strip that will allow for Hamas to reconstitute.

“We don’t want to see in Rafah what we’ve seen in Gaza City and what we’ve seen in Khan Younis, which is the end of major combat operations and then the beginning of Hamas reasserting control,” Miller said, referring to two other major Gaza cities targeted by Israel earlier in the war.

Troops of the 401st Armored Brigade operate in southern Gaza’s Rafah, in a handout photo published June 23, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Gallant appeared receptive to the message, with his office saying he and Blinken “discussed the importance of promoting a governing alternative in Gaza.”

The issue has been another on which he has broken with Netanyahu, long arguing that delay in post-war planning has led to the resurgence of Hamas. Gallant has indicated support for bolstering the Palestinian Authority as a potential alternative — an idea that has been flatly rejected by Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners who liken the more moderate body to Hamas.

Gallant also met Monday with Hochstein, who has been the main US mediator between Israel and Hezbollah.

Gallant told Hochstein that moving to “phase three” of the Gaza war will affect all fronts, according to an Israeli readout.

Phase three refers to low-intensity conflict during which the IDF works to root out the remaining pockets of Hamas fighters in Gaza, while the political echelon works to find an alternative to the terror group as ruler of the Strip.

Gallant did not elaborate on how exactly the slowdown in Gaza fighting would impact the IDF’s operations against Hezbollah, but the comments indicated that it could free up manpower for the army to focus more intensely on combatting the Lebanese terror group.

The Defense Ministry said Gallant and Hochstein also discussed “the actions required to achieve a framework that enables the safe return of Israeli communities to their homes in the north.”

Gallant told Hochstein “Israel is preparing for every scenario both militarily and diplomatically,” his office added.

The defense minister arrived in Washington on Sunday, meeting that day with the leaders of the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Gallant has become the Biden administration’s preferred conduit with the Israeli government amid repeated spats with Netanyahu, particularly following National Unity chairman Benny Gantz’s departure from the emergency coalition earlier this month.

The defense minister was last in Washington in March, arriving days after Netanyahu ordered a delegation of top aides to cancel their simultaneous visit in protest of the administration’s decision not to veto a Security Council resolution opposed by Israel.

The resolution called for both a ceasefire in Gaza and a release of all remaining hostages but did not explicitly condition the former on the latter, angering Jerusalem, which characterized it as a reversal of the administration’s policy on the matter.

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