Hamas attack challenges Biden's goals in Middle East

The unprecedented attack by Hamas against Israel has upended the Biden administration’s goals for peace in the region.

President Biden, who has affirmed rock-solid support for Israel, will be challenged to hold the line in giving Jerusalem the space it requests to retaliate against Hamas in the besieged Gaza Strip, pushing back against expected calls for Israel to exercise restraint or enter into a cease-fire with the Iranian-backed terror group.

A tweet from Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday night calling for a “ceasefire” was deleted. 

“Nobody wants to see anybody, an innocent civilian or family wrecked by violence, of course not,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on a call with reporters Monday night.

“We share values with Israel when it comes to law of war and, and respect for life. And … I won’t speak to whatever the Israeli Defense Forces are planning to do in their operations, I think I’ll just leave it there.”

The president is also faced with securing the release of any American hostages who may have been taken by Hamas from communities in Israel, and exacting justice for U.S. citizens killed in the assault, with people gunned down in their homes and on the street or killed by rocket fire on population centers.

“To get rid of this regime [Hamas], we need the backup of the Americans because it’s not going to be one day, it will be a very bloody conflict,” said Neomi Neumann, who served as head of research at Israel’s domestic security agency, the Shin Bet, until 2021 and is now a visiting fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“A lot of people will die, but we cannot let ourselves leave this regime that are radical fanatics.”

The scale of the devastation has been staggering over three days since Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, launched a highly sophisticated and coordinated attack from its Gaza Strip base over the border into Israel, with an estimated 900 people killed — including civilians, soldiers and police — more than 2,000 injured and more than 100 believed to have been kidnapped and taken hostage.

At least 11 Americans are known killed, Biden said in a statement Monday, and that Americans are likely among those taken hostage by Hamas. 

Israeli officials and their advocates are warning the world that they will be carrying out military operations with the goal of exacting a heavy price from Hamas. 

Neumann added that Israel’s military operations are likely to be carried out over a period of months and will be challenged by what is likely to be a high Palestinian death toll that will increase pressure from the international community on Israel to relent.

“The U.S. and moderate Arab countries will have to think about the solution for the Gaza Strip the day after the war and how we manage to make this area stable with good life for its people,” she said.

The Gaza Ministry of Health on Monday said the Palestinian death toll stands at 560 people and 2,900 people injured, but did not release figures on civilians versus Hamas fighters. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Israeli forces are working to expel Hamas fighters who infiltrated communities in the south, even as the Israel Defense Forces are undertaking “a massive attack against Hamas with an unprecedented intensity.”

Netanyahu thanked Biden for his support and the dispatch of a U.S. carrier strike group to the Mediterranean Sea, which has been interpreted as a major show of force to deter Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, a Tehran-backed military proxy, from opening a separate military front. 

“An American aircraft carrier, one of the largest in the world, is on its way to our region. Our common enemies understand very well the significance of this step,” Netanyahu said.

Neumann said U.S. support to deter Iran and Hezbollah is meaningful. 

“We need to avoid the infiltration of other players to this campaign; we need to focus on the Gaza Strip right now,” she said.

And while Israel’s military operations are zeroing in on the Gaza Strip, the diplomatic battle for influence is global.

The U.S. on Monday issued a joint statement with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom backing Israel’s right to defend itself and making a distinction between the depravity of Hamas and support for the aspirations of the Palestinian people. 

“Hamas does not represent those aspirations, and it offers nothing for the Palestinian people other than more terror and bloodshed,” the statement read.

A key priority for the Biden administration is countering Russian and Chinese efforts to exploit the situation, either to assert their own influence or weaken the position of the U.S.

“We’re in a pitched fight for great power influence in the Middle East. It’s the U.S. versus China, and Russia as well,” said Laura Blumenfeld, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies and who served as a senior policy adviser on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the Obama administration. 

“From an interest point of view, the U.S. needs to shove out Russia and China — and Iran is certainly part of that Russia-China axis.” 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is battling Russian forces that are supplied militarily by Iran and shielded diplomatically by China, warned that Moscow is interested in inciting war in the Middle East to “erode global unity and exacerbate cleavages and controversies, helping Russia in destroying freedom in Europe.”

And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who was in Beijing on Monday, pushed Chinese President Xi Jinping to issue a stronger statement on the attacks against Israel that condemned violence against civilians, going beyond the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s initial remarks that called for calm, exercise of restraint and a cessation of hostilities. 

The scale of brutality of Hamas’s assault is drawing comparisons to the worst atrocities of the Islamic State (ISIS) and allegations of war crimes for the targeted killing of civilians; the kidnapping of women, children, the elderly and infirm; and unconfirmed reports of sexual assault. 

“We’ve been in contact with our contacts across the [Middle East] region to urge them to acknowledge the horrific terrorism that took place,” said Ted Deutch, a former Democratic congressman from Florida who serves as the CEO of the American Jewish Community, an organization that is focused on deepening relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors as part of its global advocacy for the Jewish people. 

“The conversations about integrating Israel fully into not just the Middle East but the world stand in stark contrast to everything Hamas is and wants. Hamas’s goal is to draw Hezbollah and other terror groups into war with Israel because their goal is to destroy Israel,” he added.

The Biden administration had been cultivating for months, if not years, negotiations to open ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia that supporters hoped would deliver a new era of stability in the region and present opportunities to advance rights for Palestinians. 

Those talks are likely on ice, said Michael Koplow, chief policy adviser at Israel Policy Forum, a nonprofit education and analysis group based in Washington.

“The statement that the Saudis issued in the aftermath of this was, to my mind, extremely disappointing … I think that’s a sign of how difficult it’s going to be for the Saudis to keep on moving forward with this, with what we all expect to be coming, which is an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, which is going to result in many, many Palestinian casualties,” he said in a briefing with reporters.

While Israel is shoring up its defense, the country is also grappling with the fallout of how the security establishment was blindsided by such an attack. 

“The U.S. is doing what I think we expect the U.S. to do, which is really give Israel all the backing it needs and particularly at a time when there’s this outside perception that Israel is in chaos,” said Koplow.

“It’s good to see the United States stepping up and doing what it can to try and back down this notion that Israel is easily overrun or that Israel stands alone, in terms of what it means for a wider regional war.”

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