Oct 8, 2023 - World

Hamas attack delivers major blow to Biden's push for Saudi-Israel normalization

Fire and smoke rise in Gaza City yesterday after an Israeli airstrike. Photo: Fatima Shbair/AP

Fire and smoke rise in Gaza City yesterday after an Israeli airstrike. Photo: Fatima Shbair/AP

President Biden's painstaking campaign to strike a historic peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel was delivered a blow by Hamas' surprise invasion of Israel.

The big picture: Now the White House and the world are bracing for an exponentially more powerful Israeli response — and fear prolonged, expanded fighting in the Middle East.

  • A ground invasion of Gaza by Israel, which could come in retaliation for Saturday's attack, risks escalating violence in other parts of the region.
  • That would make it harder, if not impossible, for Biden to broker a peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The latest: More than 600 Israelis and 370 Palestinians have died since the attack began, according to health authorities. Thousands have been injured.

  • Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel on Sunday. Israel said it responded with artillery fire.
  • An Egyptian gunman also opened fire on Israeli tourists in Alexandria on Sunday, killing two Israelis and one Eygpitan.

State of play: Like the Israeli government, the Biden administration was surprised by the Hamas invasion. Two U.S. officials said there was no intelligence that even remotely suggested such a scenario.

  • The West Bank, not Gaza, had appeared to have been the focus of the White House in recent months, along with negotiating with the Palestinian Authority on their part of the Saudi mega-deal.
  • The concern in recent weeks was around intelligence that showed Hezbollah might conduct an attack on the Israeli-Lebanese border, one U.S. official said.
  • Another U.S. official said a possible Hamas attack didn't come up in discussions with Israeli government officials in recent days.

Behind the scenes: The White House and State Department yesterday held a series of phone calls with countries in the region — including Egypt, Qatar and Turkey — and asked for help in de-escalating the crisis.

  • The Biden administration's diplomatic efforts on Saturday also focused on trying to prevent violence from expanding to other parts of the Middle East.
  • "Let me say this as clearly as I can: This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage. The world is watching," Biden said.

Zoom in: A senior U.S. official who briefed reporters on Saturday tried to downplay the potential impact of the current crisis on the Biden administration's efforts to get a mega-deal with Saudi Arabia and Israel.

  • "Hamas and the other terrorist organizations will not derail the normalization process we are working on — and in any case we said it still has a way to travel," the U.S. official said.

Reality check: The crisis has already appeared to hurt the normalization process in the region.

  • Blinken spoke to several foreign ministers from Arab countries that have peace agreements with Israel and asked them to condemn the Hamas invasion, according to another U.S. official. They did not.
  • Blinken also spoke to the Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud about the attacks. After the call, bin Farhan said in a statement that Saudi Arabia rejected the targeting of civilians but didn't condemn the Hamas attack.

What to watch: Blinken was planning to travel to the region in mid-October and visit Israel, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, U.S. and Israeli officials said. It is not clear now if the trip will take place.

  • Blinken's stop in Morocco was going to focus on a ministerial summit between Israel and four other Arab countries it has signed peace agreements with, according to two officials.
  • The summit, which was postponed several times in the last nine months because of escalating violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank, will likely be postponed again.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new details.

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