US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin receives Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant at the Pentagon in Washington on June 25, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant at the Pentagon on Tuesday, warning that a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah could spark a regional war and urging a diplomatic solution.

“Another war between Israel and Hezbollah could easily become a regional war, with terrible consequences for the Middle East,” Austin said.

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Shelling on Israel’s northern border has led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from areas on both sides of the frontier, and has escalated in recent weeks, leading to fears of an all-out Israel-Hezbollah war.

“Hezbollah’s provocations threaten to drag the Israeli and Lebanese people into a war that they do not want. Such a war would be a catastrophe for Lebanon and it would be devastating for innocent Israeli and Lebanese civilians,” Austin said.

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“Diplomacy is by far the best way to prevent more escalation. So we’re urgently seeking a diplomatic agreement that restores lasting calm to Israel’s northern border and enables civilians to return safely to their homes on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border,” he added.

Israel’s national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi has said that it will spend the coming weeks trying to resolve the conflict with Lebanon’s Iran-backed, heavily armed Hezbollah group and would prefer a diplomatic solution.

Hanegbi said Israel had been discussing with US officials the possibility that an expected end of intense Israeli military operations in Gaza would allow an “arrangement” to be reached with Hezbollah.

At the Pentagon, Gallant said that he would discuss military readiness with Austin. “We are working closely together to achieve an agreement, but we must also discuss readiness on every possible scenario,” Gallant said.

Meanwhile, Canada on Tuesday urged its citizens in Lebanon to leave “while they can,” warning of the risk of escalating violence between Israel and Hezbollah in the region.

Foreign Minister Melanie Joly in a statement called for Canadians to depart while commercial flights remain in operation.

“The security situation in Lebanon is becoming increasingly volatile and unpredictable due to sustained and escalating violence between Hezbollah and Israel and could deteriorate further without warning,” she said.

Gallant also met CIA chief Bill Burns, the key US pointman in negotiations to free hostages from Hamas.

“I would like to emphasize that it is Israel’s primary commitment to return the hostages, with no exception, to their families and homes,” Gallant said before starting his meetings.

“We will continue to make every possible effort to bring them home,” he said.

The minister made no further comment as he left the meeting with Blinken, as a few dozen protesters outside the State Department chanted to call him a “war criminal.”

Arms shipment dispute

President Joe Biden on May 31 laid out a plan for a ceasefire in Gaza and release of hostages.

Hamas, which launched the conflict with its October 7 attack on Israel, has come back with its own demands, and the United States hopes the gaps can be bridged.

Netanyahu, who has faced major protests calling for him to accept the deal, in recent days has annoyed the Biden administration by accusing Washington of cutting back arms and ammunition deliveries.

Gallant took a different tack, saying: “The alliance between Israel and the United States, led by the US over many years, is extremely important.”

Other than Israel’s own military, “our ties with the US are the most important element for our future from a security perspective,” he said.

Biden, who has faced criticism from parts of his own base over his support for Israel, held back a shipment that included heavy 2,000-pound bombs.

Netanyahu - who has close relations with Biden’s rivals in the Republican Party - told a cabinet meeting on Sunday that there was a “dramatic drop in the supply” of US weapons around four months ago.