For months, the Biden administration has been pursuing an ambitious diplomatic project to design a new Middle East for a new era. But the old Middle East, it turns out, still has something to say about it.
The stunning Hamas assault on Israel on Saturday served as a gut-wrenching reminder that the decades-old conflict with Palestinians remains a cancer that has not gone away even as leaders in Washington, Jerusalem, Riyadh and other Arab capitals would prefer to focus on building a revamped region.
American officials said it was too early to say whether the attack was explicitly motivated by a desire by Hamas or its patron Iran to disrupt President Biden’s effort to broker a landmark deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia that would profoundly reorient the Middle East. But they acknowledged that it could complicate the already delicate negotiations and make it that much harder to reach an agreement akin to the Abraham Accords between Israel and smaller Arab nations.
“This will slow considerably if not kill the Saudi Abraham Accords deal,” said Mara Rudman, a former Middle East peace diplomat under President Barack Obama. “It strikes at the heart of key elements for Saudi entry, a pathway forward for Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza,” she added. “And on the Israeli side, there will be zero appetite across a wide political spectrum for helping Palestinians, despite the fact that so doing could actually enhance, not detract from, Israeli security.”
In the short term, at least, Mr. Biden’s sweeping aspirations will have to take a back seat to managing the clash now consuming Israel and Gaza, one unlikely to be resolved as quickly as the bursts of violence that have periodically erupted over the years. The Hamas strike represented the most extensive invasion of Israeli territory in decades, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could feel compelled to send ground forces into Gaza to exact retribution and rescue hostages.
In a brief televised statement on Saturday, Mr. Biden condemned the Hamas attack as “unconscionable” and called his support for Israel’s right to defend itself “rock solid and unwavering.” He warned against escalation by unnamed others, almost certainly meaning Iran. “This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage,” he said.
But as he huddled with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and other advisers at the White House and consulted long distance with Mr. Netanyahu and King Abdullah II of Jordan, Mr. Biden did not indicate publicly how far he thought Israel should go in responding to the attack, nor did he speculate on how it would affect his broader goals for the region.
The president’s Republican opponents wasted no time turning the conflict in Israel into an attack line against Mr. Biden. Led by former President Donald J. Trump, Republicans asserted that the administration’s recent hostage deal with Iran had enabled Hamas’s actions. “Sadly, American taxpayer dollars helped fund these attacks, which many reports are saying came from the Biden administration,” Mr. Trump said in a statement.
In fact, no American taxpayer dollars were involved in the hostage deal. The Biden administration signed off on the release of $6 billion of Iranian oil revenue frozen in South Korea and decreed that it be kept in a bank in Qatar available only for humanitarian purposes. Officials said Saturday that none of that money had been spent.
The crisis nonetheless underscored how quickly things can blow up in a volatile region. Just last week, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, noted at The Atlantic Festival that “the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” a comment quickly recycled on Saturday by the Republican National Committee. But what the Republicans did not highlight was that Mr. Sullivan had made sure to add a caveat, saying, “I emphasize ‘for now’ because all of that can change.”
And change it did on Saturday. For years, the Palestinian issue had largely receded from the global agenda. But it never receded for the millions living in Gaza and the West Bank, where anger and resentment at Israeli controls and settlements remain combustible.
The scale of the Hamas incursion and the inevitable magnitude of the Israeli response will put it back on the front burner for the foreseeable future. And national security veterans predicted it would push it to the center of the discussions of a new Middle East.
Until now, the Palestinian conflict was deemed something of a secondary issue in the talks that Mr. Biden’s envoys have conducted with the Saudis, one that had to be addressed to smooth the larger rapprochement but that was not the heart of the deal. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cares little about the Palestinian cause but his father, King Salman, does and so the prince has made clear that Israel must make some concessions as part of any agreement.
The larger impetus of the talks has been forging a broad alignment against Iran, cementing the Saudi-American alliance and preventing China from making further inroads into the region. Prince Mohammed has sought a mutual defense treaty with the United States and cooperation on developing civilian nuclear energy. Mr. Netanyahu has suggested that normalizing relations with the leading Arab power would transform Israel’s place in the region.
The possibility of an Iranian role in Saturday’s attack quickly generated speculation. A senior Biden administration official, who could not be identified under White House ground rules, told reporters that the United States did not have anything to indicate that Iran was involved but noted that Hamas would not exist without Iranian support.
A former administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to be more candid, said Iranian influence over Palestinian militants had grown over the past year in both Gaza and the West Bank. For months, the official said, Tehran has seen an opportunity to stir the pot by encouraging violence between Palestinians and settlers in the West Bank.
“In the past few weeks, as the Israeli-Saudi normalization process has proceeded forward, the rhetoric from Iran has become much harsher,” said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Traditionally, Iran has relied on its proxies and rejectionist forces to disrupt regional trends it dislikes.”
“Hamas is an independent actor with its own agenda,” he added. “But it has maintained close ties to Iran. Given the scale of this attack, I am not sure it was done without an Iranian foreknowledge — not necessarily consent, although they would readily agree.”
John Hannah, a national security adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney and a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, said it seemed “highly probable to me” that the attack had origins in Iran and Lebanon, the base of Hezbollah, with the goal of “derailing the momentum toward peace” between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“Israel-Saudi normalization poses a mortal threat to the genocidal project that lies at the core of the Iranian revolution: wiping Israel off the map,” Mr. Hannah said. By whipping up conflict, “Hamas and its Iranian and Hezbollah backers are no doubt hoping to use the pain and deaths of their own people to inflame hatred of Israel across the Middle East, including the streets of Arabia, thereby making it impossible for the peace train between Riyadh and Jerusalem to pick up more speed.”
The Saudi reaction to the Hamas incursion on Saturday disappointed Israel and its supporters. A statement released by the foreign ministry did not condemn the attacks but instead noted that the Saudis had long warned about “the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights.”
If the war proves to be a prolonged one, it could narrow the room for both Saudis and Israelis to make a deal. If the Israelis use overwhelming force in Gaza, the Saudis may feel pressured to make critical statements that limit their bargaining space and raise the cost that Israel would have to pay for a normalization deal. Likewise, the war will galvanize hard-liners in Mr. Netanyahu’s government to resist any agreement making concessions to the Palestinians.
But administration officials said the talks were still months away from their final stage and that it was premature to assume they would be thwarted. Mr. Hannah agreed, adding that Prince Mohammed, known by his initials, M.B.S., despises Hamas and has told associates that he was aware that there could be violence to try to stop progress with the United States and Israel.
“It may throw some hiccups into the diplomatic efforts between Israel and the Saudis, but it won’t destroy a process that M.B.S. is convinced will best serve Saudi national interests,” Mr. Hannah said. “As the saying goes, the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”