US seeking diplomatic deal to prevent Israel-Hezbollah conflict, Pentagon chief says

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States is urgently working toward a diplomatic agreement that would allow Israeli and Lebanese civilians to return to their homes on both sides of the border, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday.

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 at the start of his meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at the Pentagon.

"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 Israel 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 U.S. officials the possibility that an expected end of intense Israeli military operations in Gaza would allow an "arrangement" to be reached with Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has been trading fire with Israel for more than eight months in parallel with the Gaza war.

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.

Gallant told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday that Israel would prefer a diplomatic resolution to the conflict with Hezbollah, the State Department said.

"We think a diplomatic resolution is possible. We think it is in the interests of all parties," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Tuesday.

Gallant, at the Pentagon, said he would discuss close defense ties between Israel and the United State but also areas of disagreement.

The Biden administration in May paused a shipment of 2,000-pound and 500-pound bombs due to concern over the impact they could have in densely populated areas, but Israel was still due to get billions of dollars worth of U.S. weaponry.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich and Leslie Adler)