Hamas attacks on Israel see Joe Biden wake up to a nightmare test of his foreign policy

WASHINGTON – Joe Biden was caught off-guard by the drama that unfolded in Israel while he snoozed at the White House.

The 80-year-old US president said he was first briefed about the unfolding situation only when he woke up on Saturday morning. In his own telling, he came to grips with the crisis “when I got up…at 7:30, 8 o’clock”.

Like the rest of us, America’s leader was taken unawares by the brazen and co-ordinated Hamas-led assault on Israel launched from Gaza. But given the presence of numerous American citizens living in the Israeli settlements that were coming under attack, it is at least unusual for a US leader not to have been apprised of events in real time.

America’s entire national security establishment spent the weekend in crisis management mode. Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin placed urgent calls to their counterparts in Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Tough statements were issued, with Biden describing the Hamas attacks as “a moment of tragedy” and “unconscionable”.

The president’s insistence of “rock-solid” support for the government and people of Israel was repeated like a mantra by his administration colleagues. While the Israeli government confronted a monumental failure by its intelligence agencies, a similar inquiry will now begin in America amid zero evidence that the US government was vaguely prepared for the weekend’s terror.

The USS Gerald R Ford, one of the world’s largest aircraft carriers, has been sent to the eastern Mediterranean (Photo: Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press via AP)

Biden immediately warned other actors in the region not even to think of widening the conflict. “This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage”, he said on Saturday afternoon. Indeed, for his administration, any efforts by Hezbollah or Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria to join the Hamas assault would immediately raise questions about the likelihood of US military reprisals.

Biden now finds himself having to juggle two crises: the one unfolding in the Middle East, and his urgent need to secure fresh funding to back Kyiv’s war effort in Ukraine.

America’s Ford carrier strike group, led by the navy’s most advanced aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R Ford, has been ordered to sail to the eastern Mediterranean. The show of force is meant to be ready to assist Israel and prevent an escalation of the conflict, whether by preventing further supplies of weaponry reaching Hamas or conducting surveillance.

Israeli army reinforcements take position outside the southern city of Sderot near the border with Gaza on October 9, 2023. Israel continued to battle Hamas fighters on October 9 and massed tens of thousands of troops and heavy armour around the Gaza Strip after vowing a massive blow over the Palestinian militants' surprise attack. (Photo by Jack Guez / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli army reinforcements take position outside the southern city of Sderot near the border with Gaza on 9 October (Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty)

From Washington’s perspective, the timing of the attacks could not have been any worse. Legislative activity on Capitol Hill is at a standstill, following last week’s defenestration of Kevin McCarthy, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives. It could take days, possibly longer, for his successor to be elected. Task number one facing Congress: restoring aid for Kyiv that fell victim to the compromise agreed last weekend to avert a US government shutdown.

There are also electoral politics at work with regard to the crisis in Israel, and they are not playing in Biden’s favour. His predecessor, Donald Trump, wasted no time blaming Biden and his team for being asleep at the switch and setting the stage for the weekend’s events. Blinken’s disclosure on Sunday that some Americans may have been killed in the violence and others seized by Hamas raises the stakes for Biden yet further.

Trump’s spokeswoman called the Hamas assault “predictable”. The former president accused Biden of squandering the hopes created by the Trump administration’s crafting of the September 2020 Abraham Accords. He also claimed that “American taxpayer dollars helped fund these attacks”, a false claim referencing the US government’s unfreezing of $6bn in Iranian funds as part of last month’s prisoner swap agreement with Tehran.

The Biden administration is also under fire from the left. Palestinian rights groups and student activists in America are expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza. The United States Council of Muslim Organisations condemned “unprovoked and continuous attacks by Israel on Palestinian towns”, but made no reference to Hamas whatsoever.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul, whose state is home to the largest Jewish population in America, called a planned Times Square rally “in support of the perpetrators of these horrific actions….abhorrent and morally repugnant”.

From day one of his administration, Biden has evinced no belief in any opening to pursue a long-term, two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Rather, he’s placed his focus on brokering the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. That process may now be delayed, and some foreign policy analysts in Washington wonder if the Hamas attacks were partly designed with that outcome in mind.

Biden has a fractious relationship with Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, but now Israel is suddenly atop Washington’s agenda. The ongoing crisis will further test his foreign policy mettle, and may end up looming large on next year’s presidential campaign trail.