Senior US official to hold talks to defuse Israel-Hezbollah conflict

Fears of a full-scale open war between Israel and Hezbollah have grown in recent weeks as cross-border firefights have intensified. Israeli officials have spoken publicly of shifting their military focus from Hamas to Hezbollah, a far more advanced and powerful military threat.

Firas Maksad, senior researcher at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, wrote on social media that there was still time for key players to find a diplomatic solution. “The window for diplomacy is closing but it is not closed,” he said.

Mr. Blinken, speaking Monday at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, said Israel “has effectively lost sovereignty” near its border with Lebanon because Hezbollah attacks from across the border have forced large parts of the population from their homes. About 60,000 Israelis have fled the area, many of them living in Tel Aviv hotels for nine months. The fighting has also forced tens of thousands of people from southern Lebanon.

Mr. Blinken said he did not believe the key players in the border conflict, Israel, Hezbollah and Iran, actually wanted to go to war, but noted that that is where the “momentum” in the fighting could lead. U.S. officials fear such a conflict could force the United States to intervene on Israel’s behalf.

“Nobody really wants a war,” Mr. Blinken said. He said Iran, a determined enemy of Israel, “wants to make sure that Hezbollah is not destroyed and that it can hold onto it as a ticket if it needs to, if it ever comes into direct conflict with Israel.”

“If you don’t do something about the insecurity, people won’t have the confidence to come back,” Blinken said. Resolving the problem, he added, would require an agreement to withdraw forces from the border.

Mr. Blinken noted that Hezbollah has said that if a ceasefire is reached in Gaza, it will stop shooting at Israel. This “underscores why a ceasefire in Gaza is so critical,” he said. But the latest round of negotiations between Israel and Hamas appears to be stalled.

Mr. Hochstein has met in recent weeks with Israeli officials and also with Lebanese officials, who can pass messages to and from Hezbollah, in an effort to negotiate a Hezbollah withdrawal far enough from the border to satisfy Israel. In return, Israel could withdraw from some disputed border areas and the United States could provide economic assistance to southern Lebanon, analysts say.

Euan District contributed to the writing of the report.

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