A somber Secretary of State Antony Blinken stood at Biden’s side as he spoke. Blinken and other top officials gathered at the White House as the situation developed with incoming video of exploding buildings and captured Israeli soldiers. CIA Director William J. Burns canceled a scheduled talk at a security conference on the Georgia seacoast to stay in Washington “to help provide support to the President and national security discussions as the crisis in Israel unfolds,” a CIA spokesperson said.
Among a flurry of administration calls, Biden spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Blinken with his Saudi and Egyptian counterparts and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin with Israel’s defense minister.
“We are in deep talks with the Israelis about some of their particular needs as they respond to this,” a senior administration officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under White House-imposed rules. The official, who declined to address any specific assistance, noted the potential difficulty of passing supplemental funding for aid to Israel while the House of Representatives is without a speaker.
But beyond the outrage and reassurance, administration officials and regional experts struggled to understand how Hamas’s preparations for such a massive attack — with thousands of rockets raining down on Israeli cities and simultaneous assaults by gunmen crossing into southern towns and villages — could have escaped Israel’s vaunted intelligence and defense apparatus.
While the United States had “a general concern about rising tensions in the West Bank,” it had no “specific warning or indication” of any Hamas action “at the level of sophistication of what transpired,” the senior official said.
Perhaps more important for the administration was what the shocking invasion could mean for U.S. efforts to forge a normalization accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a goal that has become one of Biden’s major foreign policy priorities.
“It’s way too early to tell,” said Tom Nides, who served as Biden’s ambassador to Israel until July. “I think given the current state of events,” amid reports of hundreds of Israelis dead and wounded, Hamas’s claims of holding dozens of military and civilian hostages, and Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes inside Gaza, “we’ve got to get through this first before we can even see if we can put Humpty Dumpty together again.”
“This is going to be weeks if not months of a really complicated period of time for Israel and its security … until we understand the enormity of this tragedy,” Nides added, calling it a “huge setback” and “probably the most severe terrorist attack that has ever happened in Israel.”
As part of high-level negotiations, Blinken was due to visit both Israel and Saudi Arabia this month. “The trip was going to focus on details” of normalization, said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator in both Democratic and Republican administrations, and currently a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It’s now crisis diplomacy,” Miller said.
U.S. lawmakers and governments in much of the world condemned Hamas and expressed condolences to Israel. But several in the Middle East said Israel was to blame. Qatar’s Foreign Ministry “holds Israel solely responsible for the ongoing escalation due to its ongoing violations of the rights of the Palestinian people,” a statement said.
Saudi Arabia called on both sides to show restraint, but referred to its “repeated warnings of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continuation of the occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights and the repetition of systematic provocations.” The Saudi government statement called for the international community to “activate a credible peace process that leads to the two-state solution” for Israel and the Palestinians.
Administration officials, despite reports of progress in their energetic pursuit of a Saudi-Israeli deal that it hopes will undercut Chinese influence in the Persian Gulf region, have been more tempered in private about the likelihood it can be achieved. The agreement would require both sides to dilute their demands and accept conditions that could be difficult if not impossible.
Saudi Arabia wants a U.S. defense accord, including the sale of advanced arms systems, and a full-cycle civilian nuclear program that would allow it to enrich its own uranium. Israel is leery of such concessions, and many U.S. lawmakers — most of them Democrats critical of the Saudi human rights record and distrustful of Riyadh’s recent warming — have made clear they will not accept them.
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. 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.
Israel and the United States are seeking a united front in the region against Iran and its support for terrorist groups such as Hamas and Lebanon-based Hezbollah. While Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing coalition is unlikely to bend on either annexation or settlements, some U.S. officials are hopeful that his desire to achieve a legacy of peace with the larger Arab world could move him to reorganize his government.
The hope has been that Saudi Arabia would follow in the footsteps of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, establishing diplomatic and economic relations with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords signed during the Trump administration. Last month, the Biden administration also signed a non-treaty security pact with Bahrain that it anticipated would serve as a template for other agreements in the region.
But the scale of the attack on Israel, Hamas’s holding of hostages, and the prospect of further violence has upset all projections. If the upheaval continues as previous, albeit smaller, incidents have, “the most likely scenario is an Israeli attack on Gaza that lasts for a while, with a significant amount of death and destruction,” said Jonathan Panikoff, a former deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East and now director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
But “the longer it goes on, the more the Arab street will get angry and the harder it is to have a situation in which Saudi Arabia says okay, as soon as this ends, we’ll get back on track,” Panikoff said.
In statements Saturday, Hamas invited others to join them in the fight, although it appeared unlikely any Arab states would take up the offer. One concern, however, was the possibility that Hezbollah — like Hamas, armed and backed by Iran — would move into Israel from the north.
Biden, in his statement, stressed that others should stay out of the fight, a message that appeared aimed at Iran, which issued its own statement supporting Hamas. “Let me say this as clearly as I can,” Biden said. “This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage. The world is watching.”
The senior administration official dismissed as “irresponsible” and “completely false” suggestions by some Republican lawmakers that $6 billion in Iranian assets, unfrozen last month by South Korea at the time five Americans were freed from Iranian detention, had financed Hamas. The Iranian government has no access to the money, which is to be distributed only to non-Iranian vendors for approved humanitarian goods, the official said.
Meanwhile, intelligence and regional experts wondered how the surprise incursion could have happened in the first place.
A former CIA officer who spent most of his career in the Middle East and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence said he was baffled. “It is almost inconceivable. The amount of logistics, planning, prep that would go into a complex, multi-domain attack and everyone missed it?”
“What happened here is total system failure,” Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel said during an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations on Saturday. “It was a complete surprise, hard to believe given the way Israel has penetrated all forms of communication in Gaza.”
Indyk rattled off the deficits: “Failure to prepare. Failure to have troops along the border. Failure of the fence along the border that they paid billions of shekels for. Failure that the Hamas infiltrators came across, grabbed Israeli civilians and soldiers, failure to capture them take them [as they returned] back into Gaza without being apprehended.”
He warned that the recriminations and soul-searching in Israel could be devastating to Netanyahu. The intelligence failure combined with “the sense that this was a dysfunctional government of the far right that placed greater emphasis on protecting settlers in the West Bank than it did on protecting the kibbutzniks on the border with Gaza has the potential to be explosive politically in Israel.”
The unprecedented “Blitzkrieg” nature of the Hamas assault and the fact that “Israel was caught sleeping” make this attack different, Bilal Saab, head of the defense and security program at the Middle East Institute said. But “ultimately, the result will not be that different from past episodes. Innocent civilians will die, so will the idea of peace.”
“Saudi-Israeli normalization seemed close for a moment, but after this, thanks to Iran and its Palestinian ally who never miss an opportunity to spoil, it’s doom and gloom in the region all over again,” Saab said.
Michael Birnbaum, Shane Harris, Missy Ryan and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.