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diplomatic tour

Blinken back in Israel with hopes to stave off escalation in Lebanon

Israeli FM Katz says, ‘Israel will only be able to bring its hostages home and return residents to their homes in the south and north … if the Hamas terrorist organization is defeated and Hezbollah retreats’

Kobi Gideon (GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a private meeting with Secretary of State Tony Blinken at the Kiryah in Tel Aviv on January 9, 2024.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken landed in Israel on Monday night with a mission to cool tensions on two fronts – Gaza and Lebanon.

Blinken’s fourth visit to Israel since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks comes amid heightened tensions with Hezbollah following the assassination of two senior terrorists in Lebanon and another in Syria, and as Israel announced its move to a less intensive stage in the fighting in Gaza.

Sirens blared across Israel’s north, warning of Hezbollah shelling as Blinken met with Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Tuesday morning, after an earlier meeting with President Isaac Herzog. Shortly after, Blinken sat for a one-on-one with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which was still ongoing at press time, and was set to meet later Tuesday with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Benny Gantz, the former defense minister and current war cabinet member,  hostages’ families and others. 

Amid the exchange of fire along Israel’s northern border on Tuesday, three Hezbollah terrorists were killed in a strike on a car in Ghandouriyeh in southern Lebanon. The strike came a day after Israel killed Wissam Tawil, the commander of Hezbollah’s special forces, called Radwan, who was responsible for much of the onslaught on Israel from Lebanon, which began at a lower intensity long before Oct. 7 and internally displaced tens of thousands of residents of Israel’s north. The uptick in fire comes a week after the assassination of senior Hamas official Saleh Al-Arouri in Beirut, an act that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who alleged Israel was behind the attack, pledged would bring a reprisal.

Blinken warned at the start of his Middle East tour — during which he also visited Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — that the war in Gaza “could easily metastasize, causing even more insecurity and even more suffering.” White House Senior Advisor Amos Hochstein, who traveled to the region last week, is working to reach a diplomatic solution that would force Hezbollah to comply with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, moving it away from the Lebanon-Israel border. 

The trip comes amid a number of American media stories quoting anonymous officials offering opposition to a war with Hezbollah, which could expand to include its sponsor Iran. “An American intelligence assessment found that it would be difficult for Israel to succeed in a war against Hezbollah,” The Washington Post reported. Multiple media outlets reported recently that President Joe Biden talked Netanyahu out of launching a war against Hezbollah in October, even though multiple Israeli sources told Jewish Insider that the prime minister was never in the camp, led by Gallant, that advised fighting a two-front war.

While the leak of nearly three-month-old events, in addition to Blinken’s visit, may be a subtle way to send the message that Washington still doesn’t want Jerusalem to escalate the war with Hezbollah, Israel’s top echelon is holding the line. Additionally, polling shows that most Israelis think the threat from the Iran-backed proxy should be addressed militarily. 

Katz told Blinken that “Israel will only be able to bring its hostages home and return residents to their homes in the south and north and bring back a sense of security if the Hamas terrorist organization is defeated and Hezbollah retreats.”

A day earlier, Netanyahu and Gallant gave the Likud faction an overview of the security and diplomatic situation. The prime minister’s spokesman said they told Likud lawmakers that “the prolonged war is not about to end – not in the south and not in the north – and it will continue for many more months. To continue to manage this war for many months, we need room to maneuver internationally, and we are acting to preserve that.”

The statement underscored efforts by Israeli leadership to simultaneously send two messages at once to different audiences. For the U.S., Israel wants to show that the war is moving into the “less intense” mode that it has sought, to dissipate some of the pressure from Washington. At the same time, the war cabinet wants to project that the war is not over, both to deter Israel’s enemies and to send a message to Israelis — among whom about 200,000 are internally displaced — and many more who want to see decisive action.

Many residents of Israeli communities close to the Gaza border are resisting the government’s call to return home, saying that the area is not yet safe; Gallant came under fire this week for dismissing the concerns of “some woman from Sderot or Ofakim” about the downscaling in the war’s intensity. 

That dynamic is a factor in Israel’s prepared response to Blinken’s expected demand that residents of northern Gaza be allowed to return to their homes now that Israel has moved to special operations striking at “pockets of resistance” in the area. 

Multiple Israeli outlets reported that Israeli officials plan to tell Blinken that northern Gaza residents will only be able to return to their homes in the context of a hostage deal. Hamas continues to hold 136 Israelis hostage in Gaza, including U.S. citizens.

Over the course of his Mideast trip, Blinken has also rejected statements by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir — neither of whom sit in Netanyahu’s war cabinet — calling to encourage voluntary migration by Palestinians from Gaza, saying that “Palestinian civilians must be able to return home as soon as conditions allow. They cannot, they must not, be pressed to leave Gaza.”

Smotrich, however, focused on a different point of tension between him and Blinken: frozen Palestinian tax funds. The finance minister deducted the amount meant to go to Gaza from the taxes Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority, a move that the U.S. has asked Israel to reverse. On Monday, Smotrich said: “Friends and partners disagree sometimes. I heard the State Department and the secretary of state asking us to free the money the Palestinian Authority transfers to terrorists’ families and to Nazi terrorists in Gaza. I asked our friends in the U.S., would it be imaginable that Washington would send hundreds of millions of dollars each month to Al-Qaida and the planners and executors of the 9/11 terrorist attack?”

Blinken left Saudi Arabia on Monday for Israel with one optimistic message: normalization between the countries is still possible.

“There’s a clear interest in the region in pursuing that, but it will require that the conflict end in Gaza and it will also clearly require that there be a practical pathway to a Palestinian state,” the secretary of state said. “But the interest is there, it’s real and it could be transformative.”

However, Blinken said, “for that to happen, we need to see the establishment of an independent Palestinian state” – something that even Herzog, the former leader of Israel’s Labor party, said cannot happen without Israel fully processing its “trauma” and regaining “a full sense of security.”

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