Hamas’s carnage upends Joe Biden’s plans for the Middle East

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the latest number of Americans confirmed killed and the EU’s U-turn on freezing aid to the Palestinian Authority.

“THE MIDDLE EAST region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” The words of Jake Sullivan, America’s national security adviser, have come back to mock him. Just eight days after he uttered them on September 29th, Hamas’s slaughter of Israelis and others confronts President Joe Biden with an acute Middle Eastern crisis atop the chronic one in Ukraine and a looming one over Taiwan.

One immediate concern for his national-security team is to establish how many Americans have been killed (11 so far confirmed dead) or taken hostage (unknown). A second is to control the possible shockwaves across the region. On October 8th the Pentagon announced that a carrier strike group led by the USS Gerald Ford would steam to waters off Israel. Air-force squadrons in the Middle East would be reinforced, and arms supplies would be dispatched to Israel within days. These moves were intended “to strengthen the US military posture in the region to bolster regional deterrence efforts,” the Pentagon said.

For Martin Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel, this amounts to a “Kissingerian move” intended to reinforce Israel’s deterrence and give substance to Mr Biden’s warning to Iran and its proxies: “This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks.” Still, committing American forces to fight alongside Israel is a remote possibility, short of a regional conflagration.

As Israel mobilises to “avenge this dark day”, in the words of its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, the White House made no mention of a need for restraint or for limiting Palestinians casualties. “Israel has the right to defend itself and its people. Full stop,” said Mr Biden. The Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, spoke of the need for the “highest standards” to protect civilians, but his department’s tweets calling for restraint were deleted as Israel’s rhetoric hardened. The Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, ordered a full siege of Gaza, saying: “No power, no food, no gas, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.”

A consequence of the carnage is a rapprochement between the leaders of America and Israel. Worried by Israel’s turn to the nationalist right, Mr Biden has minimised direct contact with Mr Netanyahu in recent months. Now, much of the president’s Middle East strategy has been upended. His effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, arguably the most important Arab state, is on hold. The prospect of the “two-state” solution he advocates to settle the Palestinian question is more distant than ever. His hope of a less hostile relationship with Iran has become more improbable.  And his hopes of turning away from the Middle East to focus on the great-power contests with Russia and especially China have been dashed.

In his appearance at a conference organised by the Atlantic magazine, Mr Sullivan had noted with satisfaction: “The amount of time that I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today, compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11, is significantly reduced.” To be fair, Mr Sullivan was not entirely complacent, acknowledging that “everything can change.” Yet his hope to “depressurise, de-escalate and ultimately integrate the Middle East region” now risks going into reverse: Hamas’s assault has stirred admiration among some Arabs and Muslims; Israel’s expected retribution will inevitably bring outrage; and Arab leaders will be spooked by the risk of wider unrest.

Muhammad Deif, the leader of Hamas’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades, urged Arabs and Muslims: “Today, whoever has a gun, let him bring it out.” For now, though, the masses have barely stirred. Beyond token mortar and rocket fire at the Sheba’a farms, a contested parcel of territory on the borders with Lebanon and Syria, Hizbullah has not taken up Hamas’s call to open a northern front against Israel, as it did in a previous round of fighting in 2006. Nor have Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem or Israel proper risen up in revolt, though Palestinian sources reported three people were killed in stone-throwing clashes with Israeli soldiers outside Jerusalem. Elsewhere, In Egypt, a policeman killed two Israeli tourists and their guide. But the longer the fighting goes on in Gaza, the likelier violence is to spread. On October 9th Israel said it had killed at least two infiltrators crossing the border from Lebanon, but Hizbullah denied involvement.

Hamas’s violence is also a big problem for Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. Hamas’s actions highlight the failures of the peace process, and challenge his claim to lead the whole Palestinian movement. At the same time his inability to divorce himself entirely from violence—for example by supporting the families of Palestinian prisoners—discredits him in the eyes of Israel and some in the West. It is also causing divisions in Europe. On October 9th the European Union’s enlargement commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, announced that hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of aid the PA would be frozen, pending review into whether it was being used for incitement to hatred and terrorism; he was promptly countermanded the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, who said that “punishing all the Palestinian people” would have damaged the EU. The review would proceed, but payments would be maintained, he said.

Experts will disagree on the extent to which Hamas’s latest carnage was deliberately timed to destroy efforts to normalise relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and whether it was directed by Iran. Hamas did not require either impulse to mount the operation. However, Ismail Haniyeh, one of Hamas’s senior leaders, declared: “We say to all countries, including our Arab brothers, that this entity, which cannot protect itself in the face of resisters, cannot provide you with any protection.” Iran’s clerical leaders and Hizbullah rejoiced, too.

Last month the Saudi crown prince, and de facto ruler, Muhammad bin Salman, told an American interviewer that a deal with Israel was on the cards: “Every day we get closer.” But the Saudi foreign ministry has in effect now blamed Hamas’s attack on Israel owing to “the continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations against its sanctities.”

The Saudi deal would extend the existing Abraham accords between Israel and four Arab states: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. But it was never easy to secure, given the prince’s demands for, among other things, a formal defence treaty with America and the means to enrich uranium. Mr Netanyahu risked losing his far-right allies if he made any concession to Palestinians. Now, says Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank, America’s ability to bring about an Israel-Saudi deal “has been reduced to zero”, at least for now: no Israeli leader will make concessions to Palestinians amid the bloodshed; Saudi Arabia will be similarly constrained; and Prince Muhammad may in any case be reluctant to rush into a pact with American and Israeli leaders who may soon lose power. The Biden administration seems resigned to an indefinite delay. “That process has a ways to travel,” said a senior American official.

The bigger political danger for Mr Biden is the fury against Iran. The American and Israeli governments say there is no evidence of direct Iranian involvement in planning the operation, though Iran is an important supporter of Hamas. Nevertheless, Republicans are drawing a direct connection between the attack on Israel and Mr Biden’s policies towards the clerical regime. He came to office hoping to revive an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear programme, which Barack Obama signed over the objections of Mr Netanyahu, and Donald Trump tore up. There was no deal, and Iran is now much closer to being able to make a nuclear bomb.

Republicans criticise Mr Biden’s easing of the policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, especially his deal to secure the release in September of five imprisoned Americans. This involved the unfreezing of $6bn in Iranian oil revenues in South Korea, now held in escrow in Qatar. The administration says the money has not yet been disbursed and will be used only to pay non-Iranian contractors for food and other humanitarian supplies. “Nobody in Iran will ever touch a single dinar or cent or rial from those funds,” insisted a senior official.

For Mr Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee, “American taxpayer dollars helped fund these attacks.” He later lamented that “we are perceived as being weak and ineffective, with a really weak leader.” The detail matters little to Mr Biden’s critics. They sense the president is vulnerable because he tried to reach an accommodation with Iran, the main sponsor of terrorists who have wantonly killed hundreds of innocent Israelis.

That said, Republicans are not helping Israel much. Their divisions, and the fever generated by the approaching 2024 elections, have made Congress dysfunctional. The Senate has not confirmed Mr Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, nor hundreds of senior military appointments. The defenestration of the speaker of the House of Representatives last week means the budget process—including military aid for Ukraine and possibly for Israel—is at a standstill. And a government shutdown looms in November.

The weapons and munitions Israel needs most urgently—interceptors for its Iron Dome air-defence system and precision-guided munitions—are for the most part different from those being supplied to Ukraine or those America might need in a war over Taiwan. Nevertheless it highlights the fact that America faces many demands on its resources, arsenal, armed forces and national-security establishment. Partisanship and paralysis in Washington can only impede a coherent response.

For now, both out of sincere belief and out of political necessity, Mr Biden will hug Israel close. Mr Netanyahu appeared to thank him for granting “freedom of action for Israel”. Even assuming Hamas can be destroyed, neither Mr Biden nor Mr Netanyahu can answer the hard questions about what happens after Israel’s retribution: who will run Gaza, and what will be the status of the Palestinians in Israel’s midst? As Israel learnt in its misbegotten invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and America found in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11th 2001, it is easy to be drawn into a war against terrorists. It is much harder to get out.