Biden sends aides to woo Michigan Arab and Muslim leaders amid anger over Gaza war

USAID head Samantha Power among those said heading to meeting to defuse frustration among members of key constituency in 2024 presidential race

Men pray at the Islamic Center of Detroit in Detroit, January 26, 2024. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Men pray at the Islamic Center of Detroit in Detroit, January 26, 2024. (Paul Sancya/AP)

WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden is sending several senior aides to Michigan to meet with Arab American and Muslim leaders, according to three people familiar with the matter, as his administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war frustrates members of a key constituency in a 2024 battleground state.

Those making the trip for Thursday’s meeting include Samantha Power, head of the US 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.

All who discussed the plans were not authorized to do so publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The officials did not offer any details about the community members expected to attend.

Also expected to attend are Tom Perez, who leads the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, as well as Mazen Basrawi, the White House liaison to American Muslim communities, and aides Jamie Citron and Dan Koh.

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.

Other community activists have gone even further as they press their disapproval of the president’s handling of the war and have formed a group called “Abandon Biden,” a movement discouraging voters from supporting the president in November.

USAID Administrator Samantha Power speaks during an event announcing the launch of the Bureau of Global Health Security and Diplomacy at the US State Department, at the State Department in Washington, August 1, 2023. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Osama Siblani, the publisher of the Arab American News based in Dearborn, Michigan, told The Associated Press by text Wednesday that he had been invited to the meeting and was planning to attend.

“I’m for the dialogue and I believe we owe it to our country and to our community and the people in Gaza, to listen and be heard,” Siblani said.

Siblani was one of the few Arab American leaders to meet with Rodriguez when she visited Dearborn at the end of January. He told AP at the time that he felt that was important because she made the effort to come to the community and listen.

Michigan state Rep. Alabas Farhat also said he would be at the meeting.

“I have to bring the voices of the community that I represent to the table and hold the people accountable for their decisions,” Farhat said. “I’m going into that room and making it clear that the frustrations are that a ceasefire needs to be called and there needs to be an unconditional release of the hostages.”

Farhat said he believes this will be the first in a series of meetings and “a new channel being opened up directly to the White House.” While the meetings are a step forward, Farhat said, “it’s not a substitute for a ceasefire or policy change.”

US President Joe Biden meets with UAW members during a campaign stop at a phone bank in the UAW Region 1 Union Hall, in Warren, Michigan, February 1, 2024. (Evan Vucci/AP)

US Rep. Debbie Dingell, Democrat-Michigan, a longtime resident of Dearborn and close Biden ally, said that she believed the meetings represented important progress.

“I have lived in this community for 40 years and this is the most significant White House delegation I’ve seen come into Michigan in those 40 years,” Dingell said in an interview Wednesday.

The White House says administration officials have been in regular contact with Muslim and Arab American leaders in Michigan and across the country.

Michigan holds the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation and over 310,000 residents are of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry.

Many in the community have expressed anger that Biden hasn’t called for a permanent ceasefire in the 4-month-old war.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstrators march during a visit by US President Joe Biden in Warren, Michigan, February 1, 2024. (Paul Sancya/AP)

War was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught that killed some 1,200 Israelis and saw another 253 people taken hostage, of whom 132 remain in captivity in Gaza.

Israel subsequently launched a counteroffensive aimed at dismantling Hamas and returning the hostages. More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. These figures cannot be independently verified, are believed to include fatalities caused by failed rocket fire by Gaza terror groups, and do not distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Israel says it has killed 10,000 Hamas gunmen in Gaza, as well as 1,000 terrorists in Israel on October 7. Two hundred and twenty-seven IDF soldiers have been killed in Gaza.

Plans for the meeting were first reported by CNN.

Biden was in Michigan last week for a visit with union workers. He did not meet with Arab American and Muslim community members.

As Biden met with the United Auto Workers, dozens of pro-Palestinian demonstrators stood near the UAW Region 1 building in Warren and made their frustrations clear.

During that visit, Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud said the White House had yet to have “a meaningful conversation for how you change course.”

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