Michigan Arab leaders warn Biden campaign in trouble over handling of Gaza war

Democrats hope to avoid embarrassment of ‘uncommitted’ vote in party’s primary next week, as American Arabs demand pressure for a ceasefire in the Strip

File: Lexis Zeidan yells chants to about three dozen people protesting Israel's attacks in Gaza, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024 in Dearborn, Michigan (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
File: Lexis Zeidan yells chants to about three dozen people protesting Israel's attacks in Gaza, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024 in Dearborn, Michigan (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

MICHIGAN — As Thursday dawned in Dearborn, Michigan, Arab American leaders entered a local coffee shop and greeted Rep. Ro Khanna of California before pulling up chairs at a table.

Over the next two hours, the leaders spoke about how they were personally affected by the war in Gaza and criticized US President Joe Biden over the growing number of Palestinians killed in the Israeli offensive after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel. Khanna, a Biden campaign surrogate who organized the meeting independently, listened intently.

It was a rare unfiltered conversation between two sides that have grown further apart. And after a day of meetings, it seemed unlikely that the two sides could come back together unless the administration changes course on a ceasefire in Gaza, which both the White House and Israel oppose.

While Biden is expected to cruise to victory in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, the president’s allies are also looking to stave off potential embarrassment from a statewide push for Michigan Democrats to vote “uncommitted.” Michigan’s Arab American community has largely refused to meet with anyone connected to Biden in recent weeks, and many leaders — including Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib — have pushed for an “uncommitted” to send a message about Biden’s handling of the war.

Khanna, who has also called for a ceasefire, was not visiting Michigan on behalf of the campaign.

He argues Democrats don’t need to wait until Tuesday’s primary to see that Biden’s reelection campaign is in trouble in a battleground state he almost certainly can’t afford to lose in November.

US Rep. Ro Khanna speaks to a group of college Democrats in Ann Arbor, Michigan, February 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

“I’ll feel the same way on Monday that I do Wednesday,” Khanna said. “We need to change course, and we need to do it quickly.”

Biden has backed Israel since the October 7 attack, in which Hamas terrorists murdered some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted 253. He has pushed Congress to fund additional weapons and aid for Israel as it mounts an offensive to capture Hamas operatives and rescue Israeli hostages.

The White House has also publicly signaled its disagreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on issues such as a two-state solution, which Biden supports even as Netanyahu and many in his far-right governing coalition oppose it, and on the number of civilians killed in Gaza.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza claims that more than close to 30,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel in the war, but the number cannot be independently verified, and it is believed to include both Hamas terrorists and civilians, some of whom were killed as a consequence of the terror group’s own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 12,000 terror operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 who were killed inside Israel on and immediately following October 7.

In a statement, Biden campaign spokesperson Ammar Moussa said that Biden “is working closely and proudly with leaders in the” Muslim and Arab American communities “to listen to them about a wide range of issues.”

Rep. Andy Levin speaks about the resolution he introduced on the rights of congressional workers to unionize during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, February 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

“He has urged Israel to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties,” Moussa said. “He has also successfully pressed for humanitarian aid to be delivered in Gaza.”

Khanna invited an Associated Press reporter to join some of his meetings in Michigan.

First was a breakfast with former Rep. Andy Levin, who joked Thursday that his new job title is “local activist.” Levin is a self-proclaimed Zionist and former synagogue president who has called for a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. Levin lost a Democratic primary two years ago to fellow Rep. Haley Stevens, with over $4 million spent by pro-Israel groups against him.

Levin relayed that he doesn’t see how Biden “can win Michigan without changing course.”

“What do you think would happen if the election was tomorrow?” asked Khanna.

“It would be a disaster for Democrats,” Levin responded.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, February 16, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The former Democratic congressman supports Michigan Democrats voting “uncommitted” in the upcoming primary, saying that “if everyone just sat home, we’d have no way to measure it.” Many leaders in the “uncommitted” push have been clear that they want to send a message, but that they don’t plan to support Trump’s reelection bid.

Leaders from the Arab-American community soon arrived to join Levin and Khanna. Among them were leaders from the Muslim advocacy group Emgage Action and Deputy Wayne County Executive Assad I. Turfe.

When asked by Khanna what policy changes they’d like to see, Turfe — a prominent local leader — said that a ceasefire in the war is only a start and that humanitarian aid and the rebuilding of Gaza must follow. Resuming funding to the main United Nations agency supporting people in Gaza, known as UNRWA, is also a requirement of the communities.

Multiple countries, including the US, froze their funding for the organization after Israel accused certain UNRWA members of taking part in the October 7 attacks. Following the accusation, the organization announced that it had fired several members.

Michigan’s Arab American leaders depict an unprecedented unity within their community. In the past divided by issues like book bans and LGBTQ rights, the Gaza conflict has brought solidarity among Palestinians, Lebanese, Yemenis and others in a state that holds the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation.

“We’re in an emotional state, which drives this passion,” said Turfe. “But address the changes we want, and those emotions will come down.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American in Congress, is joined at left by Rep. Nydia Velazquez as she speaks at an event to call for a ceasefire by Israel in Gaza, at the Capitol in Washington, December 14, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

During a drive from Dearborn to an event in Ann Arbor, Khanna told The Associated Press that he was struck by how “deeply personal” the issue was to the community and how “raw the anger is.”

“This is not electoral for this community. It’s emotional and personal,” said Khanna. “No shift in campaign language can fix this, only policy change.”

Khanna hosted a ceasefire town hall with Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell and University of Michigan students Thursday afternoon. Students spent close to an hour questioning Khanna’s stance on the war, his support of Biden and how to address voter apathy, especially among young voters on campus.

Later on Thursday, Khanna sat next to Tlaib at a UAW hall in Dearborn filled with residents from across Detroit’s Wayne County. While the “Take Back Our Power” event focused on decreasing the political influence of utility companies, Tlaib’s speech shared distinct similarities to her push for voters to send a message to Democrats on Tuesday.

“Transformative change doesn’t come with who’s in Congress, who’s in the establishments, organizations and institutions,” Tlaib said. “It comes from the streets.”

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