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Blinken Says Hezbollah Attacks Have Cost Israel Sovereignty in North

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Israel “has effectively lost sovereignty” in its north because Hezbollah attacks launched from southern Lebanon have driven much of the population away, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said this week, underscoring the stakes of cross-border attacks that have threatened to ignite a larger regional war alongside the conflict in Gaza.

Mr. Blinken spoke ahead of a trip by a senior White House official, Amos Hochstein, for talks in Paris on how to defuse the escalating border fire between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Mr. Hochstein, the top White House official for global energy and infrastructure, has become President Biden’s de facto envoy in the quest to resolve the border conflict.

Mr. Hochstein’s plan to meet with French officials was confirmed by a person close to the talks, who spoke on the condition on anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy. Lebanon was a French protectorate after the World War I; France still has some influence there and has offered proposals to halt the fighting. The White House had no immediate comment.

U.S. officials have worked for months to prevent a war between Israel and Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and has launched rocket attacks on northern Israel in solidarity with Hamas, the armed group that governed Gaza and started the current war when it attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

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

Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, wrote on X, there was still time for the key players to find a diplomatic solution. Mr. Hochstein ’s trip, he said, would likely happen on Wednesday. “The window for diplomacy is closing but not closed,” he said.

Mr. Blinken, speaking on Monday at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., that he did not believe that the key actors in the border conflict — Israel, Hezbollah and Iran — actually wanted to go to war, but that that’s what the “momentum” of the clashes could lead. U.S. officials fear that such a conflict could force the United States to come to Israel’s defense.

“No one actually wants a war,” Mr. Blinken said. He said that Iran, a determined foe of Israel, “wants to make sure that Hezbollah’s not destroyed and that it can hold onto Hezbollah as a card if it needs it, if it ever gets into a direct conflict with Israel.”

Some 60,000 Israelis have fled the area of the border clashes, many of whom have been living in Tel Aviv hotels for nine months. Referring to that situation, Mr. Blinken said that “Israel has effectively lost sovereignty in the northern quadrant of its country because people don’t feel safe to go to their homes.” The fighting has also displaced tens of thousands of people from southern Lebanon.

“Absent doing something about the insecurity, people won’t have the confidence to go back,” Mr. Blinken said. Resolving the issue, he added, will require an agreement to pull back forces from the border.

Mr. Blinken noted that Hezbollah has said that if a cease-fire were reached in Gaza, it would stop firing into Israel. That “underscores why a cease-fire in Gaza is so critical,” he said. But the latest round of negotiations between Israel and Hamas appear deadlocked.

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 pullback to a position far enough from the border to satisfy Israel. In return, Israel might withdraw from some disputed border areas, and the U.S. could provide economic assistance for southern Lebanon, analysts say.

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