President Joe Biden and his team have been working towards creating peace in the Middle East in order to shift the focus towards the more pressing issue of China. However, their efforts are now threatened by the recent attack launched by Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, against Israel.
As Israel responds, there is a potential for a larger conflict in the region, requiring more of President Biden’s focus. The death toll has risen to hundreds. With the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Biden administration may have limited capacity to allocate attention towards Beijing.
The White House is facing a challenging situation as they had achieved significant but unrecognized accomplishments in the Middle East. (This is not a code or math formula, so I can reword it.) This is not a new issue, as many past presidents who have tried to shift their focus away from the Middle East have also faced difficulties. These achievements include halting the conflict in Yemen and making progress in efforts to improve relations between Israel and formerly hostile Arab nations, with even the Palestinians participating. The Biden administration referred to this strategy as promoting regional “integration,” but the ongoing conflict puts this progress at risk.
However, it is still in the early stages, which means there are more questions than answers at this point. Here are some of the questions that national security experts in Washington and beyond are considering:
What will be the eventual size of this?
The current conflict between Israel and Hamas could escalate into a larger war, causing upheaval in a region with various rivalries and the presence of American troops.
Hamas may hope for support from its Iranian allies and sympathetic Arab governments. Other militant organizations, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, could offer manpower or take advantage of the situation to instigate violence in other areas. On Sunday, there were reports that Hezbollah had launched mortar attacks on Israeli positions.
The conflict may also escalate beyond the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip and reach the West Bank. In this region, there has been an increase in tensions between Palestinians and Israelis due to Israel’s construction of settlements on Palestinian claimed territory.
However, every government or group also has motivations to steer clear of conflict, such as preserving their relationship with Washington and avoiding the loss of lives and resources in a war with no definite resolution.
US government representatives are urgently working to manage the conflict. On Saturday, President Biden cautioned “against any other group that opposes Israel using this situation for their own gain.” In the meantime, his advisors are making numerous phone calls.
A U.S. official, who was granted anonymity to protect the sensitivity of the issue, stated that everyone with influence has been consulted.
An Israeli official cautioned against hostile actors becoming involved, stating that any attempt to expand the conflict against Israel will result in a forceful and deadly response from Israel.
Is Iran responsible?
Certain hawks, both in Washington and elsewhere, have swiftly accused Tehran of being the real perpetrator of the Hamas attack. This is because Iran has a history of providing financial and military support to Hamas.
According to a report, a representative of Hamas claimed that Iran backed the attack that took place over the weekend. Iranian officials have also expressed their approval of the attack. A Sunday report from the Wall Street Journal, based on statements from high-ranking members of Hamas and Hezbollah, stated that Iranian security officials were involved in planning the attack.
However, organizations such as Hamas still maintain some level of autonomy from Tehran, and United States officials have not yet attributed any blame to Iran.
“At this moment, we don’t have anything that shows us that Iran was directly involved in this attack, in planning it or in carrying it out, but that’s something we’re looking at very carefully,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday morning on NBC’s Meet the Press.
This does not indicate that Iran will escape without consequences. The US has the ability to impose additional sanctions on Tehran, specifically for their overall backing of Hamas.
Can the Saudi-Israel relationship come to an end?
The assault by Hamas jeopardizes a peace plan supported by the U.S., which aims to establish diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel in return for security assurances and other benefits from the United States.
However, it is premature to declare that the plan has been derailed. It will, however, experience a delay.
When Hamas launched an attack, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations released statements that were more supportive of the Palestinians rather than Israel. However, these prompt reactions do not overshadow the other aspects that the Saudis, Israel, and the United States take into account when working towards a significant peace agreement.
The current leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, does not prioritize resolving the Palestinian conflict as much as previous leaders. Similar to Israel, he views Iran, a key supporter of Hamas, as a danger to his nation. Saudi Arabia and Israel have already been collaborating informally against Iran, and formalizing their relationship would further bolster their defense against Tehran.
Israel has already formed diplomatic agreements with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco. It has several motivations, including economic benefits, to establish a similar agreement with Saudi Arabia, which is home to the most sacred locations in Islam.
The United States would welcome anything that promotes peace in the Middle East, as it has an impact on various policies such as counterterrorism and energy. One of the main reasons for this is to counter the increasing influence of China in the region.
A senior official from the Biden administration stated to POLITICO last week that China is not only making an appearance, but also providing significant offers to these nations. However, the details of this “grand bargain” and potential security guarantees offered to Saudi Arabia were not disclosed by the official, before the recent Hamas attack.
According to the official, Palestinians have also been taking part.
The official stated that they are eager to participate in this process and it would not be possible without their involvement. This is a significant shift from their previous policy of refusing to engage in any process involving an Arab state establishing ties with Israel unless there is also progress towards a Palestinian state.
The official did not clarify which Palestinians were being referred to, but it is probable that they were associated with the Palestinian Authority.
The governing body in the West Bank is a feeble opponent of Hamas and consistently provokes Israel. However, the outcome of the current conflict may have an impact on its future. As a former high-ranking official from the State Department pointed out, there is uncertainty about who will govern Gaza once the fighting comes to an end.
Why did Israel not anticipate this?
The question of how Hamas was able to carry out a complex attack without detection from Israel or the U.S. remains unanswered.
Jonathan Schanzer, from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, predicted that there will be a national commission established to investigate the intelligence failures that took place.
According to Schanzer, the prevailing belief in Israel is that Hamas has typically posed a “tactical” threat – significant, but not one that could ultimately jeopardize the existence of Israel. However, it is possible that Israel did not fully recognize that, with support from Iran, Hamas has become a more strategic threat, as pointed out by Schanzer.
In 2021, Israel engaged in conflict with Hamas and carried out airstrikes on various targets in Gaza for 11 days. This resulted in the death of at least 260 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis. Some question if Israel ended the fight prematurely, without causing significant damage to Hamas’ capabilities.
During that period, the United States actively tried to persuade Israel to shorten the operation. However, according to Schanzer, Israel had also reached a point where the effectiveness of their strikes had decreased due to the limited number of targets available.
This ongoing battle may extend beyond 11 days, primarily due to the possibility of Israel launching a ground invasion and Hamas holding multiple hostages.
Will this have an impact on Ukraine?
The United States is already increasing its supply of military gear, ammunition, and other supplies to Israel. It is also positioning ships and aircraft in the vicinity of Israel as a display of solidarity.
The recent actions are a result of a political dispute over whether the United States should continue offering military and financial assistance to Ukraine in its conflict against Russia’s invasion.
The GOP members who have voiced concerns about continued assistance for Ukraine swiftly showed their support for providing aid to Israel. This is a prominent issue for evangelical Christians, who make up a significant portion of the Republican Party’s base.
At present, government officials in the United States maintain that providing assistance to Israel in terms of military support will not impact the aid given to Ukraine. This is because there are various systems at play in different situations.
Ukrainians may feel let down by the differential treatment they receive from America compared to Israel, a nation whose military strength they aspire to emulate. The fact that Israel has not provided as much assistance as it could has further strained their relationship.
Israel declined to provide Ukraine with the Iron Dome, an anti-aircraft system, in order to assist in safeguarding its citizens and military bases from potential Russian assaults.
How does China factor into this?
Earlier this year, authorities in China expressed their readiness to facilitate peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. This came after China played a significant role in restoring diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
However, China’s response to the recent outbreak of violence could potentially diminish Israeli interest in Beijing’s progress.
On Sunday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement urging Israel and Palestine (instead of specifically mentioning Hamas or Palestinians) to maintain peace, show restraint, and cease hostilities to protect innocent civilians and prevent the situation from worsening. They also advocated for a two-state resolution.
For Israelis, this is infuriating. The latest attacks are arguably the worst violence they’ve experienced in 50 years. They come from a heavily armed outfit that took control of a territory after Israel had dismantled settlements there in the hopes of paving the way for long-term peace.
Many Israelis believe that they are justified in retaliating against Hamas.
Yuval Waks, a high-ranking representative of the Israeli embassy located in Beijing, voiced dissatisfaction with China’s declaration. In his statement to reporters, Waks stated that during times of violence and bloodshed in the streets, it is not appropriate to propose a two-state resolution.
However, China’s presence in the region is becoming more significant, and countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are not likely to reject their involvement in the near future.
This report was created with contributions from David Cohen and Lara Seligman.