News Analysis: U.S. struggles with how to help restore calm in Middle East in wake of deadly Hamas attack
Its hands largely tied, the Biden administration is weighing options for next steps in working with its longtime ally Israel, but aware that the traditional formulae for restoring calm in the volatile Middle East region no longer apply.
Never has Israel suffered this number of casualties — 700 dead at latest count — in such a short period of time as in Saturday’s surprise cross-border attack on civilians and military targets from the Gaza Strip by Hamas militants. It is a unique moment when Israeli casualties exceed those among the Palestinians incurred in numerous fights throughout the decades. At least four U.S. citizens were among the dead, U.S. officials said.
Like the United States, world leaders Sunday urged restraint. But Israel will not be able politically or psychologically to back down yet. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed “mighty revenge,” and Israel is also confronted with the deadly dilemma of rescuing more than 100 hostages — including some Americans — seized by Hamas militants whose multi-front offensive against Israel launched on Saturday stunned the country and the world.
This also leaves the United States in an awkward position.
“What can the United States do about this is, simply put, not much at this stage,” said Martin Indyk, a former Middle East envoy and U.S. ambassador to Israel. “I think President Biden’s instinct is to put his arm around Netanyahu, reassure him of American support, and try to encourage some restraint, although that’s likely to fall on deaf ears at this point.“
The decision, highly watched by the South Asian community, came on day 33 of a hunger strike by Dalit activists backing the civil rights legislation.
In addition to speaking with Netanyahu, Biden and his top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, have held dozens of urgent telephone consultations in the last 24 hours with an array of Arab leaders, including those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as with the West Bank-based Palestinian leadership, which is distinct from the Hamas militants who brutally attacked or kidnapped scores of civilians in Israel.
“Right now the entire focus is on supporting Israel, making sure that it has what it needs … to deal with this attack from Hamas, to make sure that it has control over its own territory, and that it takes the necessary steps so that there’s accountability, and to try to ensure, to the best of its ability, that this doesn’t happen again,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Challenged about what appears to have been a massive Israeli intelligence failure that did not anticipate the offensive, Blinken said Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., European Union and Israel, was not involved in any of the talks over the conflict that have gone on in recent months. This may have left some of its planning undetected.
The Gaza Strip, with 2 million residents, is essentially sealed off by Israeli armed forces on its northern, eastern and seaside borders, and by Egypt to the south. Surveillance in the extraordinarily densely populated area the size of a major U.S. city is considered among the most intense in the Middle East.
However, experts say, Israel has been distracted for most of the year. Violence has spread in the other Palestinian territory, the West Bank, with Palestinian militant groups springing up and repeated cases of Jewish settlers rampaging bloodily through Palestinian villages.
Netanyahu’s right-wing government — the most extreme in Israeli history — has expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal, and all but destroyed Palestinian, and U.S., hopes for an independent state.
At the same time, some of Netanyahu’s more controversial policy moves, such as gutting the Israeli judiciary, have triggered massive protests across the country. Demonstrators have included members of the tough, loyal military, and in some cases, reservists have said they would not report to duty out of protest.
There has been “the sense that this was a dysfunctional government of the far right that placed greater emphasis on protecting settlers in the West Bank than it did on protecting kibbutzniks on the border with Gaza,” Indyk, speaking in a teleconference sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, said. Kibbutzim, farms and villages in Israel that border Gaza were the principal targets of Hamas attackers and scenes of most lives lost.
Israel’s next steps could include a massive assault on Gaza and possibly a full-on invasion, 18 years after Israel withdrew from the desolate, impoverished zone. Already Israeli air strikes have leveled a number of Gaza high-rise residential buildings. But the presence of civilian hostages that Hamas has hidden away in Gaza will complicate how Israel proceeds.
Most analysts agree that Iran has played a major background role in this conflagration. U.S. officials said they could not say for certain that Tehran had direct participation but it certainly has financed, trained and encouraged Hamas.
“There is no doubt that Hamas has been funded, equipped and armed by Iran,” a senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said. “Hamas would not exist without Iran’s support over the years and decades.”
In Washington, Biden’s Republican opponents are seeking to blame his recent dealings with Iran, which secured the release of five U.S. citizens from Iranian jails while unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues, for emboldening the Islamic Republic and leading to the attack on Israel. Administration officials say that equation is absurd.
“Let’s be clear: The deal to bring U.S. citizens home from Iran has nothing to do with the horrific attack on Israel,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. “Not a penny has been spent, and when it is, it can only go for humanitarian needs like food and medicine. Anything to the contrary is false.”
Iran’s lurking in the background, nevertheless, threatens to expand the conflict beyond Israel and Gaza. Already, a brief skirmish took place overnight between northern Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants based in Lebanon. The two parties waged a war in 2006 that led to a temporary Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
Iran also hopes to scuttle U.S.-backed efforts to open relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a highly prized development that would recast Middle East dynamics.
“Hamas wants to prevent a broader peace in the region,” former U.S. envoy for the Middle East, Dennis Ross, said on X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter. “Israel will respond in an unprecedented way to what has been their 9/11. Hamas knew that, but cares little about the consequences for Gazans.”
Administration officials are also concerned about the current paralysis of the U.S. House of Representatives, without a speaker following the ouster of Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), which could complicate authorizing additional aid for Israel. The U.S. is also without an ambassador in Israel, with Biden’s nomination of former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew awaiting confirmation in a Senate where Republicans have slow-walked hundreds of Biden appointments.
The Pentagon on Sunday, meanwhile, announced it was moving craft, including an aircraft carrier and guided-missile cruiser, into the Mediterranean to “bolster regional deterrence efforts.”
The U.S. will also provide Israel with additional equipment including munitions and other materiel that will “begin moving today and arriving in the coming days,” the Pentagon said.
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