By Matt Spetalnick, Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Until last weekend, the Biden administration was counting on the Middle East to remain relatively calm as it quietly pursued its main policy goals: brokering an Israeli-Saudi détente and containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Those hopes were shattered when Palestinian Hamas militants infiltrated from Gaza and rampaged through Israeli cities on Saturday, killing hundreds of people and kidnapping dozens more. Israeli forces responded by striking the coastal enclave, killing hundreds of people and imposing a total blockade.
After keeping the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict at arm’s length, President Joe Biden now finds himself embroiled in a crisis that could reshape his Middle East policy and an uneasy alliance with far-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This week he will send US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to meet with Israeli leaders in a show of support.
It’s a politically risky situation for a president seeking re-election in 2024, one that could have significant implications for global oil prices and divert U.S. resources and attention from what has thus far been its defining challenge in foreign policy: Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The surprise attack by Hamas, a designated terrorist group by the United States, dealt a blow to Biden’s efforts to broker a historic normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia and complicated Washington’s approach to benefactor Iran long-standing leader of Hamas.
While U.S. officials say their attempt to establish ties between longtime enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia can survive the crisis, many experts take a more pessimistic view.
“Quite simply, all normalization efforts are on hold for the foreseeable future,” said Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, contradicting the official US government line.
Bringing together Washington’s two most powerful allies in the region was seen by the US administration as a way to strengthen a bulwark against Tehran and counter China’s incursion into the oil-rich Gulf.
White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters that he would not go so far as to say that normalization talks have been suspended or are on the back burner, but that Washington’s focus for now is on helping Israel defend itself.
Jonathan Panikoff, a former deputy national intelligence officer for the US government in the Middle East, said that “the Arab streets will not support normalization after a prolonged war in which Israeli attacks destroy much of Gaza.”
Echoing this sentiment, a source close to Saudi thinking said it would be difficult “to talk about normalization during another Arab-Israeli war.”
The crisis has also sparked criticism of the Biden administration’s Israeli-Saudi diplomatic effort for what was widely seen as a sidelining of the Palestinians’ quest for statehood.
Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser on Palestinian negotiations, accused the United States of leading a normalization process that bypassed the Palestinians.
“This kind of negligence is part of the reason we’re seeing what we’re seeing,” said Elgindy, now at the Middle East Institute.
According to Palestinian officials and a regional source, Hamas was partly conveying the message that the Palestinians could not be ignored if Israel wanted security and that any Saudi deal would set back the kingdom’s recent rapprochement with Iran.
U.S. officials said it was not the right time to attempt a resumption of long-suspended Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, largely due to intransigence on both sides.
In the long term, Riyadh could return to the negotiating table for US security guarantees against Iran, Panikoff said.
The Biden administration – while helping Israel fight Hamas and free dozens of hostages, including Americans – could try to develop a strategy to keep the option of a Palestinian state alive, analysts say.
But Netanyahu, who has already resisted compromises with Palestinians sought by both Washington and Riyadh, will be reluctant to make concessions, given the growing death toll and hostage crisis he faces.
THE WHITE HOUSE TAKEN BY GUARD
“The Middle East region is calmer today than it has been in the last two decades,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said at a conference just over a week ago, signaling that the administration may be focusing more on on priorities such as the conflict in Ukraine and China. growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Biden aides, who had led efforts to normalize Israeli-Saudi ties in exchange for a U.S. defense pact that Riyadh is seeking, were caught by surprise by the Hamas assault, U.S. officials said. The initiative had already been questioned in Congress, largely due to the Saudis’ human rights record.
The Hamas onslaught is already pushing the administration to become more involved in the volatile Middle East, with Biden vowing to provide further military assistance to Israel and dissuade any entity from exploiting the situation.
At the White House, Biden spoke of the “pure, unadulterated evil” unleashed by Hamas and described in stark detail the atrocities committed against Israelis. “We are on Israel’s side,” she promised.
The immediate challenge is to prevent the war from escalating into a regional conflict, administration officials say, particularly preventing the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah from opening a second front on Israel’s northern border.
Biden aides have since been disappointed by the Saudis’ failure to denounce the Hamas attack, a U.S. official said.
The United States pushed for Saudi condemnation, most likely in a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Prince Faisal bin Farhan, but the Saudi foreign minister pushed back, according to a source familiar with Saudi thinking.
“Saudi Arabia is not close to Hamas, but it cannot ignore the way Israel has blocked Gaza for years and what they have done in the West Bank,” the source told RockedBuzz via Reuters.
By contrast, the United Arab Emirates, which along with Gulf neighbor Bahrain recognized Israel in 2020 under a Trump administration-brokered deal called the Abraham Accords, called the Hamas attack a “serious escalation.”
Citing mutual national interests, Ebtesam Al Ketbi, president of the Abu Dhabi-based think tank Emirates Policy Center, said the two Arab states’ nascent relations with Israel have “underpinned previous cycles of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and will likely endure the ‘current one.’
AN ENCOURAGED IRAN?
In the wake of the attack, the United States may also be forced to review its approach to Iran, which has praised the Hamas attack but denied a direct role.
Since taking office, Biden’s policy toward the Islamic Republic has been characterized by failed efforts to negotiate a return to the Iran nuclear deal. Tehran denies it wants to have a nuclear weapon.
U.S. officials have said Iran was complicit in the attack because of its long-standing support for Hamas, but they have no evidence directly implicating Tehran.
Iran may be emboldened to intensify its “shadow war” with Israel after seeing a militant raid undermine the Israeli military’s reputation for invincibility and use its regional proxies to target US interests in the region, analysts say .
“Iran may be less deterred nowadays, rightly or not, because it sees the administration as less willing to engage in a military conflict or take actions that risk one,” said Panikoff, now a fellow at the think tank of the Atlantic Council.
Biden also had to fend off Republican criticism over last month’s prisoner swap with Iran, which U.S. officials suggested could be a confidence-building step for further discussions, and over the thawing of $6 billion in Iranian funds restricted to humanitarian purposes.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis, David Brunnstrom, Steve Holland in Washington; Alexander Cornwell and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Riyadh; Writing by Matt Spetalnick. Editing by Heather Timmons, Howard Goller and Gerry Doyle)