Biden officials meet with Muslim and Arab American community leaders in Michigan

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Biden administration officials traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, Thursday for private meetings with Muslim and Arab American community leaders, as the president seeks to repair relations with a key constituency upset about his support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

Abbas Alawieh, a Lebanese American and a Democratic strategist, said he was honored to attend the meetings alongside members of the Palestinian American community who advocated for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war and for ending military funding to Israel.

But he described it as a somewhat frustrating process. He added that two of the attendees currently have family members stuck in Gaza.

“The meeting was very tense at different times. There was crying at different times, there was yelling at certain times,” said Alawieh, who used to be Democratic Rep. Cori Bush’s chief of staff. “I think we certainly found that among the senior officials who were there, my impression was that they were interested in a meaningful back and forth, but also that they were not authorized to deliver meaningfully on any of the demands, the primary demands that the community came in with.”

More than half of Dearborn residents are of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

Officials did say there were missteps regarding Biden’s statement around the 100-day mark of the war and the fact that it did not reference Palestinian deaths, according to someone familiar with the meetings, who also said the White House expects there could be additional meetings with Muslim and Arab American community leaders in the future.

Alawieh was invited to attend in a personal capacity, but he also represented the “Listen to Michigan” campaign, which launched last week and calls for Democrats to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s Feb. 27 primary to pressure Biden to support a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

“The administration officials came in and spoke of missteps, specifically pointed to the statement that President Biden issued at the 100-day mark, as an example of a mistake,” said Alawieh, adding later: “We weren’t just looking for them to acknowledge mistakes and how they’ve talked about the war publicly, but also acknowledge that the president’s continued support for Netanyahu’s far-right government and his continued funding for Netanyahu’s most murderous instinct is the problem.”

The Biden administration officials he said were present during his meeting included Steve Benjamin, senior adviser to the president and director of the Office of Public Engagement; Tom Perez, senior adviser to the president and director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs; Jon Finer, principal deputy national security adviser; and USAID Administrator Samantha Power, among others.

Layla Elabed, the campaign manager for Listen to Michigan, said the Biden administration officials’ private acknowledgement of missteps contrasts with the president’s public inaction regarding stopping violence in Gaza — though on Thursday Biden commented that Israel’s military response in Gaza has been “over the top.”

Elabed did not attend the meetings on Thursday but spoke with Alawieh about it afterward.

“The fact that, you know, telling us privately that they’ve made mistakes, while continuing to fail to hold Netanyahu and his right-wing government accountable, it’s a blatant misstep of moral bankruptcy,” Elabed said.

Alawieh said he became emotional during the meeting when speaking about his own experience surviving war in Lebanon in 2006 and the ensuing nightmares he faced. He said that calling for a cease-fire is the “bare minimum” required for the Biden administration to prove it is serious about tackling Islamophobia.

“I asked them directly, I looked Mr. Perez in the eyes, I looked Mr. Finer in the eyes, and Samantha Power in the eyes, Mr. Benjamin in the eyes, and I asked, ‘Have you advised President Biden to call for an immediate cease-fire? Will you advise President Biden to call for an immediate cease-fire?’ And none of them could give me that commitment,” Alawieh said.

Alawieh said he attended one of a handful of meetings yesterday, adding that Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash also met with the Biden officials, but he was not present for those interactions.

Michigan is a critical battleground that Donald Trump won in 2016 and that Biden carried in 2020. Biden himself visited this month on the heels of an endorsement from the United Auto Workers, but did not meet with members of the Muslim and Arab American communities during the trip.

“I just feel like President Biden has put those of us who have been supporting him and the Democratic agenda for years at such risk,” Alawieh said. He added: “Not only is he threatening to lose this election to Donald Trump in November, but from what I’m seeing on the ground, the Democratic Party is at risk of losing Arab and Muslim Americans and many young voters for not just one election, but perhaps for a generation to come.”

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