Top Biden aide in Israel to try to head off war with Hezbollah

Special envoy Amos Hochstein meets with Netanyahu and Gallant, will hold talks with opposition leaders before flying to Lebanon amid spiraling conflict

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets with US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein in Jerusalem, June 17, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets with US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein in Jerusalem, June 17, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

A senior Biden adviser met with Israel’s war leadership on Monday in an attempt to avoid further escalation between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.

In his meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, special envoy Amos Hochstein will be looking to advance efforts to rein in hostilities along the “Blue Line” between Israel and Lebanon, said a White House official ahead of the meeting.

Netanyahu was joined by National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, Chief of Staff Tzachi Braverman, Military Secretary Roman Gofman, and Political Adviser Ophir Falk. US Deputy Ambassador Stephanie Hallett joined Hochstein.

The Israeli readout did not include any details of the content of the conversation.

A statement from the Defense Ministry said Gallant and Hochstein held an “extended one-on-one meeting” at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, before deliberations alongside their professional teams.

Gallant briefed Hochstein on the developments in the north, according to the statement, which said they “discussed the security situation at length and its impact on the region.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, right, meets with US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein in Tel Aviv, June 17, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Earlier in the day, Hochstein met with President Isaac Herzog.

According to the President’s Office, the two discussed “the urgent need to restore security to the northern border and the residents to their homes.” Some tens of thousands of Israelis who live along the border with Lebanon have been displaced from their homes amid Hezbollah’s daily rocket and drone fire.

President Isaac Herzog, left, meets with US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein in Jerusalem, June 17, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Herzog told Hochstein that facilitating the urgent release of the hostages held by the Hamas terror group in Gaza is “the key” to solving the conflict in the north.

Hochstein will also meet National Unity party chief and former war cabinet member Benny Gantz on Monday night, and will sit with opposition leader Yair Lapid separately.

It is Hochstein’s fourth visit to Israel since October 7.

Hochstein brokered an Israel-Lebanon maritime boundary agreement in late 2022, after two years of talks, which opened the way for both countries to develop natural gas and other resources in the region. Hochstein has since been working on a demarcation of the land border between the two countries that could have a number of phases, starting with residents in southern Lebanon and northern Israel moving back home during an initial ceasefire.

Israel has expressed openness to a diplomatic solution to the conflict but has said it would launch an all-out war against Hezbollah to restore security to the north if an agreement isn’t reached.

CBS News reported last week that US officials were increasingly concerned that an all-out war could break out after over eight months of escalating exchanges of fire since Hezbollah began attacking Israel in October in support of the Hamas terror group in Gaza.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire after missiles launched from Lebanon hit open areas near the northern city of Safed, on June 12, 2024. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

On Sunday, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said intensified cross-border fire from Hezbollah into Israel could trigger serious escalation.

“Hezbollah’s increasing aggression is bringing us to the brink of what could be a wider escalation, one that could have devastating consequences for Lebanon and the entire region,” Hagari said in an English-language video statement.

After rocket attacks caused massive fires in the north of the country, Israel last week killed commander Taleb Abdullah, the most senior official to die in the fighting. Hezbollah responded with unprecedented rocket barrages on northern Israel.

A speech made near the coffin of Taleb Abdullah, known as Abu Taleb, a senior field commander of the Hezbollah terror group who was killed in an Israeli strike, during his funeral in Beirut’s southern suburbs on June 12, 2024. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Two UN officials in Lebanon also warned Sunday there was a “very real” risk that a miscalculation along Lebanon’s southern border could trigger a wider conflict.

The United Nations special coordinator for Lebanon, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, and the head of UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, Aroldo Lazaro, said in a statement that they were “deeply concerned” about the escalation along Lebanon’s border.

Two missiles launched from Lebanon on Saturday struck the Israeli military’s sensitive Mount Meron air traffic control base. The IDF said there were no injuries and “no harm to the unit’s capabilities” in the attack.

As part of the diplomatic efforts to defuse the tensions, French President Emmanuel Macron announced last week that Paris, Washington and Jerusalem would form a contract group to work on doing so, though Gallant on Friday ruled out Israeli involvement, in comments that prompted a public spat with the Foreign Ministry.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron delivers remarks during a press conference held at the Pavillon Cambon Capucines in Paris, June 12, 2024. (Stephane de Sakutin / AFP)

Hezbollah has been attacking Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis since October 8, which it says it’s doing in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, amid the war started by ally Hamas’s terror onslaught.

The skirmishes on the border have resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 15 IDF soldiers and reservists. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Hezbollah has named 342 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 63 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and dozens of civilians have been killed.

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