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The Biden Administration Rises to New Challenges in the Middle East
The road ahead is rocky, but a brutal wakeup call offers a clarifying moment.
President Biden condemned the horrific attack on Israel this past weekend as an “act of sheer evil” and pledged support to Israel as it takes steps to defend itself against Hamas, the terrorist group that killed at least 1,200 people and has taken more than 100 others hostage in the Gaza Strip.
Much has happened in the 100 hours since the attack took place on October 7th on a Saturday morning during a holiday weekend in Israel. The United States has been quick to act, deploying additional military assets to the region to safeguard against a wider regional conflict and sending America’s top diplomat this week in a show of support.
The response to this assault is still in its early stages. It seems likely the Biden administration, which initially sought to limit America’s involvement in the Middle East because of other priorities at home and overseas, will be drawn into playing a more active role. How it manages this Middle East crisis and meets the new challenges likely to emerge in the coming months will shape the trajectory of events in the region and America’s role in the world for years to come.
Shocking atrocities still being revealed
The world is still absorbing the shock of the murderous rampage in southern Israel last weekend. As in the past, this attack began with a barrage of thousands of missiles wantonly shot against Israel’s cities and towns, something that has happened with depressing regularity over the past decade. But it didn’t just stop at that.
The terrorist group infiltrated Israel’s border and then took over military bases and equipment, killing and capturing several Israeli soldiers including some top commanders. The attackers murdered innocent civilians resulting in the worst loss of Jewish lives since the Holocaust. The appalling images of terrorists kidnapping babies and the elderly from their homes and gunning down entire families on a holiday weekend evoked images of what the Islamic State did in parts of Iraq and Syria about a decade ago.
As the attack was unfolding, I reached out to friends and colleagues who live in Israel and the Gaza Strip. In one exchange with Esther Solomon, editor-in-chief of Haaretz English newspaper, she indicated that a colleague of hers, Amir Tibon, was living with his family in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, and that he was “in much more tangible danger.” Amir and his family thankfully survived the attack, in large part due to the bravery of his 62-year-old father, and his personal account of what happened, recounted also in the New York Times and The Atlantic, offers a glimpse of the chaos and fear he and his family experienced.
The Tibon family’s escape to safety had a happy ending. But for far too many families in Israel, they have seen the worst of all endings. Some still face no clear resolution because their loved ones are still held hostage or missing.
Five key challenges ahead for the Biden administration
This security crisis has several dimensions, and it will likely take many more months to play out, if not longer. With the Biden administration trying to toggle between offering steady support to Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s brutal assault and managing a complicated relationship with China, it already has its hands full in its foreign policy and may face some bandwidth challenges as it gets more involved in the Middle East.
Here are five key challenges—four of them immediate, one more long-term, that the Biden administration should prepare to meet.
1. Work with Israel to eliminate security threats while keeping innocent civilians safe. Israel was caught off guard by the initial attack by Hamas, but its nimble and well-trained military has quickly rebounded, taking back control of towns in southern Israel, mounting an air campaign against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, and calling up 300,000 reservists for what looks to be an unprecedented ground offensive into the densely populated Gaza Strip. With more than a hundred Israelis, Americans, and other nationalities held hostage in the Gaza Strip and Hamas threatening to murder these people, the task of eliminating security threats while keeping people safe is very complicated. Add to it the continued rocket attacks that extremist groups in Gaza continue to conduct against Israeli cities, and this remains one of the most complicated military operations ever undertaken.
2. Secure the safe passage for Palestinian civilians and address the rising humanitarian problems resulting from the war. At the start of the military campaign, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on anyone in areas where Hamas operates to “leave those places now,” but that is difficult for most Palestinians because of the severe restrictions that limit their ability to travel. The Gaza Strip has been essentially blockaded by land and sea for sixteen years, with Palestinians facing severe limitations on movement and access in order to ensure Israel’s security (and yet last weekend’s assault raises questions about how effective that blockade was in preventing such attacks). The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt to the west is the only way out now, and an Israeli airstrike yesterday reportedly made that crossing impassable.
During the past few days, I’ve been in regular touch with a long-time friend of mine who lives in Gaza City with his family. We first met in 1996 when we worked together on development projects in the Gaza Strip. “Not sure if we’ll make it this time,” he texted me over the weekend as Israeli military strikes started hitting Gaza.
In an exchange yesterday, my friend in Gaza told me:
“Worst night of our lives. We evacuated two U.S. expatriates to the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] compound that is no different from all parts of Gaza, just so they could be in the company of other internationals. Israel bombed Rafah crossings today, preventing any civilian departure or arrivals and preventing the departure of injured to Egyptian hospitals.
I moved the 2 Americans to the UNDP, but what I really wanted to do was bring them to my home. I wanted to bring them home. The problem is that my home’s GPS coordinates are not registered with the Israeli side like the UNDP is. I would have preferred to have them here to feel more secure.”
I asked my friend if there was any way for him and his family to get out, given the messages Israel has sent telling Palestinians in Gaza to get out. As of yesterday, this was his response:
“No way out, my friend. Israel bombed the Rafah terminal with Egypt and is forcing people who had coordinated to travel out to remain in Gaza.”
Stuck for now in the Gaza Strip, my friend later mused about the fate of the innocent civilians who were taken from their homes in southern Israel and now being held somewhere around him in the Gaza Strip:
“Some may find it strange, if there is a chance for me to host all of the civilian hostages at my home, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to do that until they go back to their families”
I’m sharing these exchanges with my friend’s permission to show that there are many more Palestinians like this who are simply caught in the crosshairs and want to get out of harm’s way.
Discussions about Palestinians are very polarized in America these days, especially at times like this, and I’ve often felt that the voices of regular people who are living over there are often not reflected or conveyed in our policy and political discussions. Whispered in Gaza, a project last year, aimed to bring a wider diversity of voices from Gaza into the discussion and explain what life was like living under Hamas rule. But at challenging times like this, it is important to remember this basic fact: most Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are people, not props or pawns.
Protecting civilians and dealing with the growing humanitarian crisis should be a top U.S. policy priority, particular as the crisis is getting worse after Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced on Monday that Gaza would receive “no electricity, no food, no fuel.”
3. Contain the risk of a broader regional spillover. The main reason why the Biden administration has stepped up America’s military presence in the region is to send a message of deterrence to other terrorist groups and countries like Iran that might want to step up their actions to undercut regional stability. The most immediate worry right now after the Gaza war is the potential for attacks and incursions on Israel’s northern borders, where the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon and a combustible mix of groups in an unstable Syria pose enduring threats. There is also a risk of instability spreading to the West Bank and inside of Jordan, and that’s why a steady U.S. approach to the region, rather than disengagement and pulling back, is essential. Also, it is important to maintain ongoing diplomatic consultations with key actors like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco, among others. The overarching regional security threat continues to come from Iran, which praised the attack on Israel and has spent years building networks and offering support to groups working to undercut regional security.
4. Inoculate against cheap partisan attacks and political dysfunction at home. The sad truth is that America’s partisan divisions complicate the effort by the Biden administration to deal with these complex security challenges in the Middle East. For several years now, strident voices on the hard right and left have used Middle East policy questions to divide the country. This crisis comes at a time of particular dysfunction in America’s politics at home, with the House Republicans still trying to get their act together and find a new Speaker, and certain isolationist factions in both parties trying to use tough problems like Iran and the Ukraine war for narrow ideological gains. The best way to inoculate against this is to do what President Biden and his team did yesterday: speak clearly and often about why America is doing what it is doing in this crisis.
5. Craft a plan to win the peace. A bloody and complicated war is just beginning, and there are so many variables and uncertainties that it is difficult to predict where it will end. But if the recent past is any indication, even bigger questions arise after the conflict is over. Things like: who will govern the Gaza Strip, and who will lead the reconstruction efforts? What are the ways to improve the living conditions and security for Palestinians and Israelis alike? How might the end of the conflict open up a pathway towards greater stability and prosperity in the region? In the fog of war, it’s hard to find time to answer these questions, but it’s not too soon to start answering them for one simple reason: failing to answer them in the past has contributed to this latest round of violence.
In the months before the October 7th attacks, the buzz about the Middle East focused more on the future and the opportunities like a possible normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel and a new regional infrastructure project announced last month at the G-20 summit that would help integrate the region. But this war reminds us all that some deep, dark forces are still at work trying to hold back the future—and they are willing to use brutal measures to advance their agendas.
The Biden administration’s initial response to the early days of this crisis deserves praise, but there is a long and rocky road ahead.