(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden came into office thinking the Middle East wouldn’t be a top priority, but turmoil there has now become a central issue for his presidency and one that threatens his chances of reelection.

The sudden death of one key Mideast leader and the prospect that another may soon follow are the latest sign that any hopes the president may have had of resolving the current tensions, kicked off by Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, are rapidly diminishing before the election in November.

Israel’s campaign in Gaza has opened fissures in Biden’s Democrat coalition and set back the administration’s hopes of landing a major diplomatic deal in the region. Now with Iran and maybe Saudi Arabia in leadership transition, the outlook is even more unstable. The move by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court to indict Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for war crimes - a move Biden denounced as “outrageous” - only highlighted the tensions as efforts to reach a cease-fire have stalled.

The turmoil in the region consumes hours of Biden’s time every day, from meeting with top national security aides to frequent calls to leaders, according to a person familiar with the efforts who asked not to be identified discussing private matters. Biden has been personally involved in decisions on a deal with Saudi Arabia, the person said.

“This is not where the focus was going to be, but the Middle East has a way of imposing itself, and it has once again,” said Dennis Ross, who served as the White House Middle East envoy under President Bill Clinton and is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is an administration that basically was going to relegate the Middle East to a kind of secondary status.” 

The death Sunday in a helicopter crash of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, along with the country’s foreign minister and other officials, will kick off a new round of elections that looks to further entrench hardline leaders at the top of the country. Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, the 88-year old King Salman bin Abdulaziz is being treated for lung inflammation, which caused his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to postpone a trip to Japan.

The Biden administration came into office in January 2021 hoping to shift the US’s foreign policy focus from the Middle East to competition with China. As recently as last fall, his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine saying that the Middle East “is quieter than it has been in decades.” The version that went to press in early October cited Biden’s “disciplined” approach as one reason for de-escalation there.

Then Hamas attacked Israel and Israel responded with a devastating assault on the Gaza Strip. The US has been dragged into a proxy war with Iran, trading missile and drone attacks with militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. And last month, Iran attacked Israel directly for the first time, prompting fears of a wider regional war.

Back home, Biden has faced increasing criticism from Democrats to reduce support for Israel, while former President Donald Trump and his supporters have portrayed him as weak. Protests across college campuses have descended into acrimony and violence. They’ve subsided somewhat with the end of the academic year but could resume in the fall — just weeks before the election — if the conflict continues, as now appears likely.

No Good Options

Biden is “in a situation where every choice is going to anger someone,” said Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. 

One silver lining of sorts for the administration has been that oil prices have barely moved, allaying for the moment fears of higher gasoline costs in a close election year.

The administration has for months sought to reach a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, but those efforts have stalled in recent weeks. The US and European Union have designated the Palestinian group as terrorist.

The US has pushed Israel to hold off on its planned military operation in Rafah, the last major city in Gaza its forces haven’t moved on, despite signs that Israel is going ahead anyway. With more than a million civilians seeking refuge there, Washington fears a Rafah invasion may cause even more civilian casualties. 

Meanwhile, US-led efforts to deliver aid to Gaza’s trapped civilians over a new pier have struggled amid security problems, with trucks targeted by looters desperate to ease what the United Nations says are near-starvation conditions.

A cease-fire could lead the way to negotiations and “shift the narrative in the United States away from the daily bombardment and killing of Palestinian lives to, basically, Trump,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.  

But time isn’t on Biden’s side heading into a debate with Trump set for June 27. And foreign leaders may start hedging their bets — and refuse to commit to any of Biden’s proposals — given he trails Trump in many polls.

“If he cannot get it by the first debate, it’s going to be hard after that to get it, because why would the Saudis bet on a deal with Biden if he cannot deliver?” she said. “And why would the Israelis go with Biden if they think the same?”

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