Senior Biden aide to travel to Israel amid tensions with Lebanon

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A senior Biden administration official will travel to Israel this week in the latest US effort to minimize the possibility of a full-blown war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, sources familiar with the matter said.

Amos Hochstein, who President Joe Biden instructed last month to lead efforts to prevent a potential war between Lebanon and Israel, is expected in Tel Aviv later in the week.

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He is not scheduled to visit Beirut at this time.

Washington has voiced fears that the fighting in Gaza could spill over into the region, specifically to Lebanon. Those fears increased Tuesday following a reported Israeli strike in Beirut, which killed Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri and several other members of the militant group.

Hezbollah said it struck Israeli military posts on the border, killing and injuring Israeli troops. The group’s secretary-general is scheduled to speak on Wednesday night to commemorate the slaying of Iranian Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani. The Iran-backed group released a statement after al-Arouri’s killing, saying it would not go unpunished.

US officials have repeatedly said that they do not support the Gaza conflict expanding into Lebanon.

Israeli officials have said in public that they are open to reaching a diplomatic deal with Hezbollah that would push them away from the border and allow Israelis to return to their homes in the north. Thousands have fled and been evacuated in recent weeks as the fighting escalates. The UN said that as of Dec. 12, more than 64,000 Lebanese individuals had been displaced from south Lebanon due to the ongoing hostilities along the Blue Line.

If no deal is reached, which the French have dubbed a “buffer zone,” Israel has threatened to turn Lebanon into Gaza.

One of the ideas being floated is a cessation of cross-border attacks between Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israel, allowing residents on both sides of the border to return to their homes. Israel has said it wants Hezbollah fighters to retreat north of the Litani River, which appears unlikely.

A potential agreement may be pitched where Hezbollah pulls away from the border under an agreed distance while the Israelis would also pull back the same distance on their side of the border.

In either case, “Hezbollah is not going to be able to sit at the border with their guns pointed at Israel when it’s all said and done,” a US official previously told Al Arabiya English.

Sources familiar with Hezbollah’s thinking say that the group will not discuss or approve of any potential deals until the fighting in Gaza ends.

Hochstein, previously the presidential special envoy for global infrastructure and energy security, moved from the State Department to the White House recently. He is now the president’s senior advisor for energy and investment. Hochstein has a history of shuttling back and forth between Lebanon and Israel dating back to his days in the Obama administration.

Biden asked Hochstein early in his term to see if a maritime border deal could be finalized after a decade of US diplomacy. He succeeded in mediating the deal that saw the two countries technically in a state of war agree on demarcating their maritime borders with the hopes of benefiting from offshore natural gas reserves.

Now, Biden wants to make sure another war does not start under his term, which has been haunted by foreign policy debacles, including the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the US deployed aircraft carrier strike groups and thousands of troops and other assets to the Middle East in what senior defense officials said was intended to serve as a deterrent signal to Iran, Hezbollah and any other proxy in the region thinking about opening a second front against Israel.

Officials from the White House, State Department, and Department of Defense have been in close contact with their counterparts in Lebanon and Israel so “both the Israelis and Lebanese can return to their homes and live in peace and stability,” a White House National Security Council official told Al Arabiya English.

US officials moved quickly after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel to dissuade the Netanyahu government from launching a preemptive strike on Iran-backed Hezbollah on its northern border with Lebanon. Washington feared such a move would spark a larger regional war.

Palestinian groups based in Lebanon began launching rocket attacks from the country’s southern border in tandem with the ensuing war that broke out between Israel and Hamas. While Israel held Hezbollah accountable for attacks launched from Lebanon and responded to these strikes, the Iran-backed militia began its own operations against Israel.

In the first days of the Gaza war, Hezbollah was targeting military sites and open areas while Israel would respond with white phosphorus, artillery, and airstrikes on Hezbollah outposts and empty civilian areas. However, there have been several instances of both sides widening their targets since then.

Israel has also killed multiple Lebanese journalists and several civilians, including a family of three sisters, between the ages of 10 and 14. Israel said it was investigating the killing of a Reuters journalist in Lebanon as a result of an attack, for which Beirut and the outlet of the reporter - Issam Abdullah - held the Israeli army responsible.

In early December, Israel struck a Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) base, killing a Lebanese soldier and injuring others. Although the Israeli military issued a rare public apology, it continued to strike civilian areas and kill more Lebanese civilians. The Israeli army also killed an elderly woman and wounded her husband last month.

Read more:

Israeli soldiers killed after Hamas official assassinated in Beirut: Hezbollah

Israeli drone strike in Lebanon’s Beirut kills Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri

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