By Matt Spetalnick, Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Until last weekend, the Biden administration was counting on the Middle East to remain relatively calm while it quietly pursued its main policy goals there: brokering Israeli-Saudi detente and containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Those hopes were shattered when Palestinian Hamas militants infiltrated from Gaza and rampaged through Israeli towns on Saturday, killing hundreds and abducting scores more. Israeli forces have retaliated by pounding the coastal enclave, killing hundreds and imposing a total siege there.
After keeping the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict at arm’s length, President Joe Biden now finds himself thrust into a crisis likely to reshape his Middle East policy, and into an uneasy alliance with far-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It is a politically risky situation for a president seeking re-election in 2024, one that could have significant implications for world oil prices and pull U.S. resources and attention away from what until now has been his defining foreign policy challenge – Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The surprise Hamas attack has dealt a blow to U.S. efforts to broker a landmark normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia and complicated Washington’s approach toward Iran, Hamas’ longtime benefactor.
While U.S. officials insist that their bid to establish ties between longtime foes Israel and Saudi Arabia can survive the crisis, many experts take a more pessimistic view.
“Quite simply, all efforts at normalization 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 U.S. government line.
Bringing together Washington’s two most powerful allies in the region was seen in the U.S. administration as a way to bolster a bulwark against Tehran and counter China’s inroads in the oil-rich Gulf.
John Kirby, a spokesperson for the White House National National Security Council, told reporters late on Monday he would not go so far as to say normalization talks had been paused or were on the back-burner but that Washington’s focus for now was on helping Israel defend itself.
While predicting that an Israeli-Saudi deal would eventually be achieved, a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “It’s a question of when and does this close the window for a certain period of time. Maybe. Maybe not.”
Jonathan Panikoff, the U.S. government’s former deputy national intelligence officer on the Middle East, said “the Arab street is not going to be supportive of normalization after an extended war in which Israeli strikes destroy much of Gaza.”
The crisis has also stirred new criticism of the Biden administration’s push to open relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which had been widely seen as giving short shrift to the Palestinians’ quest for statehood.
Khaled Elgindy, a former Palestinian negotiations adviser, accused the Biden administration of leading an Israeli-Saudi normalization process that mostly bypassed the Palestinians.
“That sort of neglect is part of why we’re seeing what we’re seeing,” said Elgindy, now at the Middle East Institute.
Hamas was in part delivering a message that the Palestinians could not be ignored if Israel wanted security and that any Saudi deal would slam the brakes on the kingdom’s recent rapprochement with Iran, according to Palestinian officials and a regional source.
U.S. officials said previously the time was not right to attempt a resumption of long-suspended Israeli-Palestinian negotiations due to the intransigence of both sides.
Longer-term, Riyadh might return to the negotiating table for U.S. security guarantees to safeguard against Iran, Panikoff said.
The Biden administration – even while helping Israel battle Hamas and free scores of hostages, possibly including Americans – could try to craft a strategy at least to keep alive the option of Palestinian statehood, analysts say.
But Netanyahu, whose far-right government has already been resistant to compromises with the Palestinians sought by both Washington and Riyadh, will be loath to make any concessions, given the rising death toll and the hostage crisis he faces.
WHITE HOUSE CAUGHT OFF GUARD
“The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said a little more than a week ago at a conference sponsored by The Atlantic magazine, signaling the administration could focus more on priorities such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s growing clout in the Indo-Pacific.
Biden’s aides who had been driving the effort to normalize Israeli-Saudi ties, in return for a U.S. defense pact that Riyadh is seeking, were caught completely off guard by Hamas’s attacks, U.S. officials said. The imitative was already being questioned in Congress, because of the Saudis’ human rights record.
The devastating Hamas attack – the worst incursion into Israel in five decades – will likely force Biden into deeper diplomatic engagement in the troubles of the Middle East.
The immediate challenge is preventing the war from spiraling into a broader conflict, administration officials say, especially preventing the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah from opening a second front on Israel’s northern border.
Some Biden aides since have been disappointed by the Saudis’ failure to directly condemn the Hamas attack, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
AN EMBOLDENED IRAN?
The U.S. may be forced to review its approach to Iran, analysts say.
Since taking office, Biden’s policy has involved a failed effort to negotiate a return to the Iran nuclear deal. Tehran denies seeking a nuclear weapon.
U.S. officials said Iran was complicit in the Israel attack because of its longstanding support for Hamas but they had no evidence directly linking Tehran to the attack. Tehran has denied any involvement.
Iran could be emboldened to step up its “shadow war” with Israel after seeing a militant raid pierce the Israeli military’s reputation of invincibility, and use its regional proxies more to target U.S. interests in the region, some analysts said.
“Iran may be less deterred nowadays, rightly or not, because it views the administration as less willing to engage in a military conflict or take actions that risk one,” said Panikoff, now at the Atlantic Council think-tank.
Biden has also had to fend off Republican criticism of last month’s prisoner swap with Iran, which U.S. officials suggested could be a confidence-building step, and the unfreezing 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 the Gulf; writing by Matt Spetalnick. Editing by Heather Timmons and Howard Goller)