US leaders are mounting an urgent effort to prevent Israel’s war against Hamas and a resulting civilian catastrophe in Gaza from escalating into a widening regional conflict that could snowball into an even greater geopolitical crisis after this month’s horrific attacks.
As a second US aircraft carrier strike group steams to the region, President Joe Biden told “60 Minutes” that he has Israel’s back as it avenges its darkest day in 50 years – and as he focuses on the plight of Americans among the more than 150 people taken hostage during the Hamas incursion. But he also said, again, that it would be “a big mistake” for Israel to occupy Gaza and called for a return to a negotiation toward a Palestinian state.
His comments came after a weekend of frustration for American citizens stuck at the exit between Gaza and Egypt, as the Biden administration also sought to ease the already dire humanitarian conditions for Palestinian civilians without foreign passports who are trapped with no clear relief from relentless Israeli airstrikes.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s Middle East shuttle mission shows that the United States, despite its efforts to extricate itself from the region, is still uniquely positioned to influence Israel as well as key Arab power brokers at a moment of deep peril – and still willing to take on the task of projecting leadership in the Middle East, in spite of the domestic turmoil in Washington.
Administration officials speaking Sunday made clear they are also looking ahead, desperately trying to preserve the hope of a reshaped Middle East that would draw Israel and Saudi Arabia toward a diplomatic normalization that the Hamas attacks may now threaten.
The US task in balancing a quickly widening crisis is hugely complex and some of its aims could be irreconcilable with others: For example, Israel’s desire to stamp out Hamas once and for all could result in such enormous destruction and loss of life that it will alienate America’s Arab allies.
“We are talking to the Israelis about the full set of questions, looking out into the future to ensure that Israel is safe and secure and also that innocent Palestinians living in Gaza can have a life of dignity, security and peace in the future as well,” Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Sullivan also warned that the war between Israel and Hamas could be just the start. “There is a risk of an escalation of this conflict, the opening of a second front in the north and, of course, Iran’s involvement,” he told CBS.
The comments came as the full scale of an unfolding human tragedy in impoverished, densely populated Gaza is beginning to emerge, as UN officials warn of hellish conditions after over eight days of Israeli bombardments that have killed more than 2,600 Palestinians in response to Hamas’ brutal hostage-taking and killing of 1,400 in Israel.
Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, warned of severe shortages of water, electricity, food and medicine as thousands of Gazans flee from northern districts after an Israeli order to evacuate but as the territory’s southern border with Egypt remains closed. “Gaza is being strangled and it seems that the world right now has lost its humanity. If we look at the issue of water – we all know water is life – Gaza is running out of water, and Gaza is running out of life,” Lazzarini said.
Israel has said it tries to mitigate civilian suffering, and blames Hamas, an Iran-backed militant group that has embedded its rocket launchers in packed urban areas and refugee camps, for hiding behind civilians. Hamas has urged civilians to ignore Israeli warnings to evacuate the northern part of Gaza.
Blinken is on a frantic swing that has included stops in Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain. He said in Cairo on Sunday that there was a determination throughout the region to prevent the Hamas attacks from spiraling into a larger regional war. The State Department said he’d return to Israel for further consultations on Monday.
Israel has also invited Biden to the country for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and both sides were considering the visit, a source familiar with the matter told CNN. But the possibility of the president visiting a war zone and putting his personal prestige on the line at this stage would be fraught with complications.
Washington is walking a knife-edge as it stresses its unshakable support for Israel’s right to try to eradicate Hamas but also attempts to mitigate the worst civilian blowback of the coming offensive while pursuing its own interests in heading off a situation that could force it to plunge back into the Middle East.
Blinken spelled out the multipronged US strategy.
“I don’t think we could be more clear than we’ve been, that when it comes to Israel’s security, we have Israel’s back,” he said in Cairo. But he also warned: “The way that Israel does this matters. It needs to do it in a way that affirms the shared values that we have for human life and human dignity, taking every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians.”
The top US diplomat also delivered a wider message of deterrence, adding: “No one should do anything that could add fuel to the fire in any other place. I think that’s very clear.”
There were signs of modest success for US entreaties on Israel on behalf of Palestinian civilians on Sunday when Blinken promised that the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt would open. The frontier has been closed, with Cairo citing a lack of immigration controls on the Gaza side and fear for the safety of aid convoys entering the bombarded territory.
Humanitarian supplies have been piling up at checkpoints on the wrong side of the border from where they’re urgently needed. And Sullivan told CNN’s Jake Tapper that while Israeli and Egyptian officials were willing to allow the evacuation of US citizens in Gaza through the Rafah crossing, Hamas was preventing it. Sullivan also told CNN that Israel had agreed to turn water supplies back on for Gaza, a concession confirmed by Israeli officials, but one that Gazan officials said could not be verified because electricity necessary to pump water for use had not been restored.
Blinken also announced the appointment of David Satterfield, former US ambassador to Turkey, to help coordinate aid efforts. The new US envoy will be in Israel on Monday.
The fear of escalation is linked to an expected Israeli ground offensive inside Gaza, which could result in heavy fighting with Hamas and appalling civilian casualties. Experts worry that scenes of civilians caught in the crossfire could spark violence among Palestinians on the West Bank. They could also prompt Hezbollah, a Lebanese-based Islamist party and militant group that – like Hamas – is designated as a terrorist organization by the US, to send thousands of missiles into Israeli cities, opening a second front in the war.
Hezbollah is far more powerful than Hamas, and Israel has warned it would launch a destructive counterattack into Lebanon if the group steps up border skirmishes that have already broken out between the two sides. A double assault on Israel by Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas could also lead to Israeli retaliation against the Islamic Republic, raising the risks of US involvement to protect its ally Israel. Iran’s mission to the United Nations warned on social media Saturday that if Israel’s strikes on Gaza don’t stop, “the situation could spiral out of control & ricochet far-reaching consequences.”
For the United States, there is the risk that a wider conflict could lead to reprisals by terror groups of Iran-backed militias against its remaining troops in Iraq and Syria, where they are engaged in missions to counter ISIS. A fearsome Israeli ground offensive in Gaza would also narrow the diplomatic room that key Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have to de-escalate the situation. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for instance called for the “immediate lifting of the siege on Gaza” when he met Blinken on Sunday and rejected the “targeting of civilians, the destruction of critical infrastructure, and the disruption of essential services.”
With his vehement support for Israel and repeated personal contacts with Netanyahu after the Hamas attacks, Biden laid the ground for Israel to defend itself. But he also created political room for the US to seek to constrain the worst impacts of what is expected to be a ruthless Israeli operation in Gaza and to try to keep longer-term regional peace efforts alive. Given the complexity of the situation and the trauma the Hamas assault created in Israel, it’s not certain that the president’s balancing act is sustainable. But he has to try, since a major war in the Middle East would stretch US resources even further as Washington maintains a multibillion-dollar lifeline for Ukraine, and could foster an impression of global chaos that could harm Biden’s reelection bid next year.
The president said in his interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” Sunday that the US could support both Israel and Ukraine and that it had no choice but to intervene because “we are the essential nation.”
“We’re the United States of America for God’s sake, the most powerful nation in the history – not in the world, in the history of the world,” Biden said. “We can take care of both of these and still maintain our overall international defense.” He added: “And if we don’t, who does?”
Biden’s effort to rush more aid to both nations is being complicated by chaos in the House of Representatives, which is paralyzed by the divided Republican Party’s failure to elect a new speaker. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted Sunday that the US had to send Israel the support it needed to defend itself. The New York Democrat said a delegation he was leading to Tel Aviv – which also includes Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah – was rushed to a shelter after an air-raid alert.
His post underscored the feeling of foreboding in Israel that is unfolding as Palestinians across the border in Gaza brace for even more relentless attacks, with hundreds of thousands of Israeli reservists poised for an order to move into the territory. Back in Washington, the administration is expected to offer a full classified briefing on the situation to senators Wednesday.
As the week begins, there is a daunting sense that as bad as the situation is, it’s about to get much worse. Veteran US Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller said that the Israeli offensive was coming within days and would be agonizing, but he expressed the hope that diplomatic progress could eventually emerge.
“Whether it is 24 hours, 48 hours, whether it is by next week, the fact is, it’s coming,” he said. He added he hoped “like many crises in this region involving an extraordinary amount of pain, in large measure to civilians … there will be some prospect for turning that extra amount of pain into gain.”