Israeli defense minister in US to discuss hostages, Hezbollah crisis

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant planned to meet with senior Pentagon officials Sunday to discuss Israeli security, as tensions rise between the country and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Gallant said the meeting would be focused on discussing the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza as well as the Israeli military’s actions in Lebanon.

“These meetings are of crucial importance at this time,” he said in a social media post, translated from Hebrew. “The United States is our main ally and the deep ties between the countries are more important than ever.”

The visit fulfills an invitation extended by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier this month and marks his first time in the U.S. since the International Criminal Court (ICC) recommended criminal charges against him for war crimes last month.

The ICC recommendations have been widely denounced by U.S. lawmakers and the Biden administration.

The Biden administration has pressured Israel in recent weeks to cool the rising tensions with Hezbollah in Lebanon, wary of a two-front conflict that could extend into a larger regional war as Israel continues to fight Hamas in Gaza.

The Hezbollah militant group has stepped up rocket fire into Israel and border skirmishes with Israeli troops in recent weeks, citing the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein and the Biden administration have proposed a diplomatic plan to solve the growing crisis, which reportedly includes enforcing a United Nations resolution, called 1701, that helped end a brief war Israel had waged against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.

The resolution demands a de-arming in the southern area of Lebanon, from the Litani River to the Blue Line, a U.N. demarcation line dividing Lebanon from Israel and the Golan Heights. In the U.S. plan, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and a U.N. peacekeeping force would be allowed to operate in the area, and there would be a phased withdrawal of Hezbollah fighters.

But that is likely only to be possible after a cease-fire in Gaza. And it’s unclear if Hezbollah would agree to the deal. Israel has threatened to enforce the lines by force if needed.

Work toward a cease-fire in Gaza has also slowed, as both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas leaders have shown reluctance to accept a Biden-led effort to pause the fighting.

In recent weeks, Israeli officials have increasingly warned that a wider conflict is inevitable with Hezbollah. As the cross-border shelling has become more intense, Netanyahu warned earlier this month that “one way or another” Israel “will restore security to the north.”

Gallant is considered to be more hawkish than Netanyahu over Lebanon. The defense minister has repeatedly warned of a looming conflict with Hezbollah since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby stressed Thursday that “conversations are ongoing” between officials in the region who are still holding out hopes for a diplomatic solution.

“We still don’t want to see a second front opened up,” he told reporters. “Obviously, we take the tensions and the rhetoric seriously by both sides. And we’re doing everything we can to try to prevent that outcome.”

The Hill has reached out to the Department of Defense for comment.

Brad Dress contributed.

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