Biden aides meet in Michigan with Arab American and Muslim leaders, aiming to mend political ties

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DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) — Top Biden administration officials met Thursday with Arab American and Muslim leaders in Michigan in an effort to mend ties with a community that has an important role in deciding whether President Joe Biden can hold on to a crucial swing state in the 2024 election.

He is facing increasing backlash from Arab Americans and progressives for his vocal support of Israel's war in Gaza since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas against Israel, although Biden has insisted he is trying to minimize civilian casualties there.

More than 27,000 people, mostly women and minors, have been killed in Gaza since militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. Hamas killed more than 1,200 people and kidnapped about 250 more, mostly civilians, in its attack.

The meetings began Thursday morning and stretched throughout the afternoon. State Rep. Abraham Aiyash, the second-ranking Democrat in the Michigan House, spoke to The Associated Press following a nearly two-hour meeting with the Biden officials Thursday afternoon in Dearborn, describing the conversations as “intense” but “direct.”

“I relayed the emotions and the concerns of our community, and we gave them tangible steps,” said Aiyash, who is also the state’s highest-ranking Arab or Muslim leader. “We want to see a permanent cease-fire. We want to be able to see restrictions and conditions on any military aid that is sent to Israel. And we want to see the United States take a serious commitment towards rebuilding Gaza.”

Aiyash added that “there will not be engagement beyond this if we do not see any tangible changes after this discussion.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Thursday that the meetings were “private.”

“We want to give them the space to have a meeting that certainly has candor, certainly where -- we can hear directly from them,” said Jean-Pierre.

“We want to hear directly from them. We want to hear their concerns. We believe it’s important for these leaders to be able to speak directly to officials in the White House.”

Michigan holds the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation and more than 310,000 residents are of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry. Nearly half of Dearborn’s roughly 110,000 residents claim Arab ancestry.

“Dearborn is one of the few places where you have Arab Americans in such a concentrated area that your vote can actually matter,” said Rima Meroueh, director of the National Network for Arab American Communities. “So it gets the attention of elected officials, because if they want to win the state, they’re going to have to address this population.”

After Republican Donald Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016, Wayne County and its large Muslim communities helped Biden retake the state for the Democrats in 2020 by a roughly 154,000-vote margin. Biden enjoyed a roughly 3-to-1 advantage in Dearborn and 5-1 advantage in Hamtramck, and he won Wayne County by more than 330,000 votes.

The White House — and Biden's campaign — are keenly aware of the political dynamics.

Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, and other campaign aides went to suburban Detroit late last month, but found a number of community leaders unwilling to meet with them. Biden traveled to Michigan last week to court union voters but did not meet with any Arab-American leaders.

Administration officials making the trip to Michigan on Thursday included Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and Steven Benjamin, who directs the Office of Public Engagement, a White House official said.

Dearborn's mayor, Abdullah Hammoud, met individually with administration officials for nearly two hours Thursday morning. The discussion revolved around the administration's steps towards a cease-fire, increasing oversight of military support to Israel and resuming funding to the aid agency known as UNRWA, according to Hammoud.

“There was a willingness to have a conversation on every policy topic that we brought forward,” Hammoud told AP.

“Taking this meeting was to ensure that the White House understood very clearly from us directly where we stand on all these issues,” Hammoud said. “But what’s most important is what comes out of this meeting. We did our duty. We met, we expressed, we described, we demanded.”

In addition to Aiyash and Hammoud, the administration also met with other Arab American and Muslim leaders, including Wayne County Executive Assad I. Turfe and Arab American News publisher Osama Siblani.

Some community leaders, including Dearborn Heights Mayor Bill Bazzi, said they had declined invitations from the White House.

Aiyash, Hammoud and Turfe are among more than 30 elected officials in Michigan who have signed on to a “Listen to Michigan” campaign and pledged to vote “uncommitted” in the state's Feb. 27 presidential primary. Both Hammoud and Aiyash said that Thursday's meeting did not sway their decision to vote “uncommitted.”

Hammoud, who turned down a meeting with Chavez Rodriguez last month, added that he would not entertain meeting with Trump's team in the near future, saying that Trump “has done nothing for this community and will continue to do nothing.”

Imran Salha, imam of the Islamic Center of Detroit, told reporters before a protest Thursday in Dearborn that he is calling for “all people of conscience to vote ‘uncommitted’" in the state's upcoming primary.

“We’re going to have the conversation at the ballot,” Salha said. “The main thing ... it’s about the bombs. While people are talking, bombs are falling. The only way for us to converse is to add pressure.”

About three dozen demonstrators chanting “free, free Palestine” and “stop the genocide” marched from a shopping mall parking lot to near a hotel where the meeting took place. Some walked with children or pushed kids in strollers.

“I’m 100% Palestinian,” said Amana Ali, 31, who said she was born in the United States. “I feel the need to fight for where I came from and where my people came from.”

Aruba Elder of Dearborn said new words are needed to describe the atrocities being committed in Gaza by the Israeli army.

“We’ve passed brutality. We’ve passed every word you can think of to describe a humanitarian crisis," Elder said. She said she hopes this protest and others like it continue to create awareness.

“You can’t give up. It’s worked in the past, hasn’t it?” she said.

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Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.