Biden Administration Scrambles to Deter Wider Mideast Conflict

REUTERS/Allison Bailey
Supporters of the Palestinian people from the Palestinian Youth Movement and other groups demonstrate outside the White House about the conflict between Israel and Hamas, during a protest in Washington, U.S., October 8, 2023.

The Biden administration on Sunday scrambled to prevent Hamas’s assault on Israel from escalating into a multifront, regional conflict, deploying a U.S. aircraft carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean and rushing arms to the Israeli military in a bid to deter the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and other actors from attacking.

The effort came amid close consultations between President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government formally declared war on Hamas on Sunday. U.S. officials expect Israel to unleash a broad-based ground assault against the militant group within the next 24 to 48 hours, following the sophisticated Hamas attack on Saturday that killed more than 700 Israelis. Israeli reprisals have killed more than 400 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

American citizens are probably among the hostages that Hamas is holding inside Gaza, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday. At least several Americans were killed in the attack, a senior administration official confirmed.

The toll ups the stakes for the Biden administration as it engages in a complicated multinational effort tamp down the possibility of more attacks on Israel. Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group and Lebanon’s largest political party, has a history of attacking Israel when Jerusalem is engaged in hostilities with Hamas.

“No one elsewhere should try to take advantage of this situation,” Blinken told CNN on Sunday. “It’s something we’re watching very carefully.”

The nascent war has dealt a blow to what would have been one of Biden’s signature foreign policy achievements, a bid to get Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel. The Saudis have predicated that deal on Israel making concessions to Palestinians – potentially pulling back settlements or increasing medical and financial assistance – but a broad-based Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip is unlikely to further that cause, policymakers said.

For now, the Biden administration has paused the Saudi initiative, concentrating its diplomatic outreach on getting Israel’s neighbors to stand aside as Jerusalem tries to dismantle Hamas.

Blinken and other top diplomats on Sunday worked the phones, calling officials across the region to pass messages to Hezbollah telling the group not to attack Israel. The deployment of the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean was also intended to send a deterrent message to the Lebanese militant and political force, according to a senior administration official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security calculations.

Asked whether Hamas may have acted in partnership with Iran to disrupt the effort to broker a Saudi deal, Blinken said “that could have been part of the motivation. Look, who opposes normalization? Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran.”

But, he said, “we have not yet seen evidence that Iran directed or was behind this particular attack.”

Washington’s direct military assistance for Israel is expected to backfill the munitions that Israel will draw down as it fights Hamas, as well as provide an additional deterrent against Hezbollah, Iran and others who might be tempted to strike Israel, the official said.

Israel’s request for Iron Dome interceptors – ground-to-air missiles that target incoming rockets – is a precautionary step in anticipation of future bombardments and not an indication that it is running low on a missile defense tool that has been key to shielding Israeli citizens from incoming fire, U.S. officials said.

Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials have had a raw tone in their conversations with American counterparts this weekend, clearly shaken by an assault that, proportionally to their country’s population, is a bigger blow than the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States, the senior administration official said.

In a call with Netanyahu on Sunday, Biden “pledged his full support for the Government and people of Israel in the face of an unprecedented and appalling assault by Hamas terrorists,” the White House said in a statement. “The leaders also discussed ongoing efforts to ensure that no enemies of Israel believe they can or should seek advantage from the current situation,” the statement added.

The U.S. government “will be rapidly providing the Israel Defense Forces with additional equipment and resources, including munitions. The first security assistance will begin moving today and arriving in the coming days,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Sunday in a statement.

The USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier – the U.S. Navy’s newest and most advanced platform – along with an accompanying strike group is being sent to the region. The U.S. Air Force will also deploy a significant contingent, Austin said. Combined, the deployments will involve thousands of military personnel.

Beyond the Iron Dome missiles, Israeli officials have made several specific requests to Washington in response to the military offensive by Hamas, including small diameter bombs, ammunition for machine guns and heightened cooperation on intelligence-sharing, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations. Some of Israel’s military requests, including those for small diameter bombs, were being processed and expedited, said one official.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the request. “We do not comment on the army needs that are discussed with the U.S.,” she said.

The Biden administration is also expected to add money for the Israeli government in a funding request to Congress on top of additional military support for Ukraine, said the officials.

The administration is still sorting out the legal implications of the absence of a House speaker, an unprecedented situation that may be a barrier to congressional authorization for aid, one official said.

There was widespread – but not total – agreement at a closed-door session of the United Nations Security Council on Sunday afternoon over how the blame should be spread for the current crisis.

“There were a good number of countries that condemned the Hamas attacks,” Robert Wood, the alternate U.S. representative, told reporters as he left the meeting. “But obviously, not all.”

While there was widespread horror at the attacks – and particularly the military and civilian hostages being held by Hamas – others emphasized concern about Palestinian civilians, the need for a “proportionate” Israeli response and the lack of progress in resolving the underlying Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Speaking separately to reporters before the meeting, both Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Gilad Erdan and Riyad Mansour, representative of the Palestinian Authority’s U.N. observer mission, were far less judicious in their remarks.

Erdan, showing photos and videos of dead Israelis and civilians being dragged away to Gaza, compared the attacks to the “pogroms” and “Nazi death squads in the 1940s.” He said Israel wanted full condemnation of Hamas, but would forge its own path regardless.

“Today, many members of the international community are supporting us. Yes. But if history has taught us anything, we know that tomorrow that may not be the case,” Erdan said. Terror against Israelis “quickly becomes a side note. But this time it will not be the same. We will not let the world forget.”

Mansour was equally critical of the international body, but from the opposite perspective.

“This is not the time to let Israel double down on its terror choices,” he said. “We know only too well that the messages about Israel’s right to defend itself will be interpreted by Israel as a license to kill, to pursue on the very path that led us here.”

As Israeli forces prepare for a Gaza incursion, the government requested heightened cooperation with the United States and its wide-ranging surveillance powers.

Israeli intelligence efforts – once thought to be omnipresent in Gaza – have been in the spotlight following the failure to spot the Hamas incursion.

It’s “unbelievable, intolerable.” said Yigal Unna, a former senior official in Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, as well as a former officer with the Israeli military’s famed Unit 8200 hacking and espionage arm.

Even worse was the operational failure by the military “because you would expect that Israel’s most sensitive and dangerous border would be defended better than that,” Unna added.

The fact that it was a holiday is not an excuse, he said. “This is the most dangerous front line of Israel and we spent billions on technology,” that, for instance, allowed Israel to detect underground tunnels. For it to have been so poorly defended is “unconscionable.”

Shin Bet and Israel’s military intelligence corps have Gaza blanketed with surveillance, through human spies, sensors and other technical means including intercepts, cameras and drones.

Intelligence services may have mistaken Hamas movements for exercises, echoing a similar mistake in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel misread the initial steps of an invasion by Syria in the north and Egypt in the south as a practice defensive deployment.

“Hamas exercises all the time,” said Unna, who is currently with Reichman University’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. “They do exercises of invading settlements. They train. We watch it. It was only exercising. Yesterday it became reality.”

Stephen Slick, a former CIA station chief in Tel Aviv who now directs the intelligence studies project at the University of Texas at Austin, said that given the scale and variety of the Hamas attacks, “it is highly unlikely that the planning, training and positioning of this number of fighters would have escaped Israel’s collection systems. It’s more likely that relevant information was not processed or evaluated correctly or recognized as an indicator of hostilities.”

Hamas leaders and military commanders appear also to have exercised “extraordinary operational security and communications discipline,” Slick said. “Hamas will have learned from the multiple previous instances where its rocket attacks on Israel prompted an immediate Israeli military response that was informed by voluminous intelligence on the location of their weapons, leaders and fighters.”

Norman Roule, a veteran CIA officer who managed several Middle East programs for the intelligence community, said it appears that Hamas leaders “dramatically altered their modus operandi” to keep their plotting and training secret. Like Unna, he noted that the surprise attack was aided by the lack of a timely response by Israeli security forces.

Slick noted that Shin Bet and the Directorate of Military Intelligence have in recent years “achieved extraordinary levels of awareness of developments in Gaza including the activities of Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group.”

After Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the government prioritized an increase in intelligence and surveillance capacity to ensure that extremists who ultimately took control there would not threaten southern Israel, he said. “It’s possible that Israeli officials become complacent.”

On the diplomatic front, the attacks and Israeli military response “will complicate but need not derail” the Saudi-Israeli normalization talks, Slick said.

“Israel remains committed to the relationship, while the Saudi resolve will be tested by the foreseeable criticism that will accompany Israel’s military actions in Gaza,” he said.