The Hamas militant attack on Israel and the massive retaliation it provoked from Jerusalem have thrust President Joe Biden into a Middle East crisis that risks expanding into a broader conflict and has left him fending off criticism from GOP presidential rivals that his administration’s policies led to this moment.
The potential for prolonged and expanding violence could test Biden’s leadership on both the world stage and at home as he tries to navigate between demonstrating unflinching support for Israel and fostering a broader peace in the combustible Mideast, where sympathetic militants were quick to loudly praise the action by Hamas. Hundreds have been killed on both sides, and the U.S. was trying to determine whether there were Americans among the dead and those taken captive.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah group welcomed the attack as a response to “Israeli crimes.” The Iran-backed group, which holds similar goals as Hamas for the destruction of the Israeli state, fired rockets and shells on Sunday at three Israeli positions, drawing a response from Israel’s military with armed drones. A senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader lauded the operation by Hamas, which said it was ready for a potentially long fight.
Several 2024 Republican presidential contenders immediately tried to pin a portion of the blame on Biden. They sought to tie his recent decision to release $6 billion in blocked Iranian funds in exchange for freeing five Americans who had been detained in Iran to Saturday’s complex attack by air, land and sea. The White House pushed back fiercely against the GOP criticism, noting that the money unfrozen last month in the prisoner swap has yet to be spent by Iran and can only be used for humanitarian needs.
Iran has historically maintained strong ties with both Palestinian Hamas and Hezbollah.
“Hamas wouldn’t be around in the way that it is without the support that it’s received from Iran over the years,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during interviews on the Sunday news shows, but he acknowledged that “we have not yet seen evidence that Iran directed or was behind this particular attack.”
Biden spoke on Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Israeli officials. In remarks at the White House on Saturday, Biden called the attacks “unconscionable” and pledged his administration would ensure Israel has “what it needs to defend itself.”
“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,” Biden said.
The attack only adds new complications as his administration and Iran are locked in disputes over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is peaceful, but it now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels. Still, the administration hasn’t given up hope on reviving a deal brokered during the Obama administration — and scrapped during the Trump White House — that eased sanctions on Iran in return for curbs to its nuclear program.
Biden administration officials have also been working on brokering a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the most powerful and wealthy Arab state. Such a deal has the potential to reshape the region and boost Israel’s standing in historic ways.
But brokering such a deal was already seen as a heavy lift as the kingdom has said it won’t officially recognize Israel before a resolution to the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The new conflict adds an enormous new roadblock to Biden’s ambitions.
“It’s no surprise that those opposed to the efforts to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and more broadly to normalize Israel’s relations with countries throughout the region and beyond — who opposes it? Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran,” Blinken said. “So to the extent that this was designed to try to derail the efforts that were being made, that speaks volumes.”
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry in a statement did not condemn the Hamas attack, but noted the kingdom’s “repeated warnings of the dangers” of the situation as a result of the continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations against its sanctities.”
Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst at the Washington think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Biden did “a good job” at keeping Israel’s critics, particularly his fellow Democrats, at bay while Netanyahu sought to achieve his military objectives against Hamas during their last major conflict, an 11-day war in 2021. It will likely be tougher this time around.
“There will be mistakes that often happen on the battlefield, no military is perfect. That’s when I think the president will come under fire from his left flank,” Schanzer said.
Some in the 2024 Republican field were quick to place blame squarely on Biden for the Hamas assault.
Former President Donald Trump charged that the U.S. is perceived as being “weak and ineffective” on the global stage under Biden, opening the door to hostility against Israel. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis accused Biden of “policies that have gone easy on Iran” and have “helped to fill their coffers.” And South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott alleged the attack was “the Biden $6 billion ransom payment at work,” a reference to the prisoner deal.
“Some who are advancing this false narrative, they’re either misinformed or they’re misinforming. And either way, it’s wrong,” Blinken said in the broadcast interviews, calling it “deeply unfortunate that some are playing politics when so many lives have been lost and Israel remains under attack.”
Asked about the argument that Iran, in anticipation of using the money — now held in Qatari banks — for food, medicine, medical supplies and agricultural products, may have diverted other funds to Hamas or other proxies, Blinken said those assets have been available to Tehran, under the law, for humanitarian purposes. But he also said Iran “has unfortunately always used and focused its funds on supporting terrorism, on supporting groups like Hamas.”
In a briefing with Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff on Saturday, administration officials said the U.S. had warned Iran “through interlocutors” that direct involvement in the Gaza situation would imperil any future initiatives the U.S. might consider with the Islamic Republic, according to a congressional aide familiar with the session.
The officials did not elaborate on who the interlocutors were or what future initiatives would be in jeopardy, although acting deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the top U.S. diplomat for the Mideast, Barbara Leaf, both spoke to officials in Lebanon about the situation. Some Lebanese officials maintain contact with Iran, which supports the militant group Hezbollah in the country.
Another point of criticism leveled at the administration by Republicans is that its decision shortly after taking office to reverse a Trump-era ban on assistance to the Palestinians, including civilians in Gaza, may have helped fund the operation.
Administration officials roundly rejected this, saying their efforts to help Palestinian civilians in Gaza and elsewhere do not involve money that Hamas can use or divert.