The attack, likened to the surprise Arab invasion that triggered the Yom Kippur War a half century ago, marked the bloodiest single day in modern Israel’s tumultuous history. It upends the hardened assumptions around the scope of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and pour furthers dirt on the grave of the two-state solution, the political vision for separate Israeli and Palestinian states existing side-by-side.
The brazen nature of Hamas’s raid also exposed the fragility of one of the world’s most technologically advanced militaries. Experts are still puzzling over the depth of the intelligence failure of an Israeli security apparatus that has some of the world’s most cutting-edge surveillance tools — from drones in the sky to sensors detecting underground tunnels — trained on the crammed Gaza Strip, where Hamas has held sway since 2007.
In Washington, the White House is also grappling with a crisis it had not foreseen. Since President Biden came to office, his administration has tried to keep the vexing conflicts of the Middle East at arm’s length, prioritizing instead the historic challenge posed by China’s ascendancy, while also leading the West’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Many officials in the Biden administration disapprove of the previous Donald Trump administration’s de facto embrace of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the broader Israeli settlement project. But by their own admission, they devoted only a limited amount of attention to redressing Trump’s legacy there, and seized upon his attempts to normalize Israeli relations with a clutch of Arab monarchies and states through pacts grandiosely dubbed the Abraham Accords. At an event hosted by the Atlantic magazine at the end of last month, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan suggested that the region, at least for now, was “quieter today than it has been in two decades.”
“Challenges remain,” he elaborated. “Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. But the amount of time I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today, compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11, is significantly reduced.”
It’s safe to say Sullivan and his colleagues will be spending a lot of time on the region in the coming weeks. While promising Israel “unwavering support,” Biden was more circumspect over the weekend about how far Israel’s retaliation should go and what efforts Washington may expend to secure peace. The White House’s focus leading up to the new war had been on advancing the prospects of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a diplomatic agreement that could involve Washington gifting the kingdom a majority security alliance.
But hopes for a breakthrough there are fading as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reasserts itself. “Riyadh, as the self-styled leader of the Arab world, wants Netanyahu’s government to improve Palestinian lives, including commitments not to annex Palestinian territory on the West Bank, and to make major concessions toward the dismantling of Jewish settlements,” explained my colleague Karen DeYoung. “Although the Saudis are reportedly willing to accept lesser demands, the current explosion of violence and Israel’s promises of further retaliation lessen the likelihood that public opinion across the Arab world will acquiesce.”
“The optics are so bad for us right now,” one Saudi official anonymously told the Wall Street Journal. “Things will be on ice for a while.”
The long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been shaped by bleak certainties. We track the wretched cycles of provocation and retaliation, the asymmetries of power between the Middle East’s greatest military and a population largely under occupation, the fanaticism and nihilism of those driven to violence, and the misery and tragedy experienced by ordinary people on both sides.
Israelis and onlookers elsewhere are stunned by the scale and horror of Hamas’s invasion, which saw myriad innocent civilians killed and children taken hostage. Palestinians respond that such hideous actions don’t occur in a vacuum, pointing to the daily injustices and brutality of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, the vigilante terror of emboldened Jewish settlers, and the generation-spanning economic blockade of Gaza that has made life miserable for the strip’s 2 million residents.
Now, in the wake of Hamas atrocities and Israel’s pummeling airstrikes on Gaza, any prospect of diplomatic compromise seems distant. “Whatever influence the U.S. administration thought it had on Netanyahu to get him to make concessions to the Palestinians as part of an Israeli-Saudi deal has been reduced to an optical zero,” Aaron David Miller, a veteran former U.S. diplomat, told me in an email. “Indeed, any massive Israeli attack in Gaza will likely result in hundreds if not thousands of Palestinian casualties further chilling hopes for normalization.”
The moment underscores how absurd it was to link any genuine notion of peace to the Abraham Accords, which in reality were pragmatic business deals between Israel and wealthy autocratic states including the United Arab Emirates that had little bearing on the Palestinians. “What is clear for now is that Israeli-Saudi normalization is, as it ever was, a side show,” Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and the president of the U.S./Middle East Project, told me. “Israel and Saudi [Arabia] are not at war. Today’s events are a stark reminder that the issue is the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israel’s occupation and denial of Palestinian rights.”
To some advocates of the Palestinian plight, the fact that it took extremist militant violence to focus global attention on the conflict is itself part of the problem. Khaled Elgindy of the Middle East Institute noted on X (formerly Twitter) that it’s “a massive political [and] moral failure” of the United States, European Union and international community, which “have been mostly content to maintain the status quo as long as it was mostly Palestinians that paid the price.”
Now, in the tragic accounting of one of the world’s most entrenched conflicts, everyone is.