Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel comes at a time when the country faces historic domestic political division, rising attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians, and high-stakes negotiations between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
After its members killed 200 Israelis and kidnapped dozens more, Hamas said it was taking revenge for a series of recent actions by Israel at Jerusalem’s Al Asqa mosque and in the West Bank. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government has been conducting an escalating crackdown against what it says are rising Palestinian terror attacks for more than a year.
Former U.S. intelligence and military officers said they believed the timing of the Hamas attack was primarily aimed at disrupting negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia as Riyadh appeared on the verge of a historic step to normalize relations with Israel.
Iran is seeking “to put pressure on their implacable foe Israel” with this attack, said retired Navy admiral James Stavridis, the former commander of NATO.
In an interview with NBC News‘ Lester Holt last month, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said, “we are against any bilateral relations between our regional countries and the Zionist regime,” a reference to Israel. Raisi added, “We believe that the Zionist regime is intending to normalize this bilateral relations with the regional countries to create security for itself in the region.”
In recent weeks, diplomats from the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia have told NBC News that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Joe Biden have all expressed support for an agreement that would result in Saudi Arabia recognizing Israel diplomatically.
Diplomats say that if Saudi Arabia agreed to recognize Israel it would lead other Arab states to do so. A series of such agreement would end decades of hostility between Israel and its neighbors dating back to 1948.
All three sides, though, have complex conditions for such an agreement. Breaking with past Saudi rulers, bin Salman has signaled that he is willing to recognize Israel, given the vast economic benefits it would provide to Saudi Arabia. Before the Hamas attack, there were reports that Saudi Arabia had told the White House it would agree to increase its oil production to help cement a deal, something the Biden White House has sought for two years.
But the Saudis want the U.S. to help them develop a civilian nuclear program, something opposed by hard-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition and by members of the U.S. Senate, which would have to approve any such deal.
Separately, President Biden told Prime Minister Netanyahu when they met in New York last month that any agreement would have to include land for the Palestinians so that they could establish a viable state, something Netanyahu’s settlement extensions in the West Bank would prevent. Last week, a bipartisan group of Senators raised the same concerns in a letter to the White House.