Regrets 'missteps,' perceived lack of concern for Gaza civilians

Top Biden aide tells US-Arab leaders he has no confidence in Israeli government

In recorded meeting in Dearborn, deputy NSA Jon Finer also says administration finds some Israeli leaders ‘somewhat abhorrent’; constituency is key to Biden’s reelection hopes

In this image taken from video, Muslim community leaders from several swing states pledge to withdraw support for US President Joe Biden on December 2, 2023, at a conference in Dearborn, Michigan, citing his refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. (#AbandonBiden via AP)
In this image taken from video, Muslim community leaders from several swing states pledge to withdraw support for US President Joe Biden on December 2, 2023, at a conference in Dearborn, Michigan, citing his refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. (#AbandonBiden via AP)

A top White House official said he does not have “any confidence” in the current Israeli government, specifically regarding its readiness to take “meaningful steps” toward the creation of a Palestinian state, The New York Times reported Friday, citing a recording from a meeting between the official and Arab American leaders in Dearborn, Michigan.

US Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer reportedly made the comments Thursday during a visit to the city, which has a large Arab-American population. He visited alongside other Biden administration officials, including ex-UN ambassador Samantha Power, to plead the president’s case before a constituency that is crucial for his 2024 reelection bid, but has been outraged by his support for Israel during its war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

According to the report, Finer told attendees at the meeting about the Biden administration’s efforts to end the war in Gaza, and to establish formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which, he said, is a crucial step toward Palestinian statehood and would demand all parties to compromise.

“We will have to do things for Saudi Arabia that will be very unpopular in this country and in our Congress,” Finer was quoted as saying. “Will Israel be willing to do the hard thing that’s going to be required of them, which is meaningful steps for the Palestinians on the question of two states? I don’t know if the answer to that is yes. I do not have any confidence in this current government of Israel.”

Finer also called some unnamed Israeli officials “abhorrent” and said the administration should have taken a stronger stand against those who compared “residents of Gaza to animals.”

While he did not name names, the Times report specified that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was quoted in the first days of the war saying, “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.”

Gallant was referring to Palestinian terrorists behind the October 7 massacres in Israel and not all residents of Gaza, but his quote has been widely used as ostensible proof of Israeli dehumanization of the Gaza population.

US Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer speaks during a joint statement with Colombia’s President-elect Gustavo Petro, in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, July 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

“Out of a desire to sort of focus on solving the problem and not engaging in a rhetorical back-and-forth with people who, in many cases, I think we all find somewhat abhorrent, we did not sufficiently indicate that we totally rejected and disagreed with those sorts of sentiments,” Finer said.

He also expressed regret at the “missteps” the Biden administration has made handling the war, particularly with regard to a perceived lack of concern about the civilian casualties as it refused to back calls for a ceasefire.

(L-R) Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Q. Brown Jr., US President Joe Biden, CIA Director William Burns, Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer, and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meet for a briefing on Ukraine, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 5, 2023. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

“We are very well aware that we have missteps in the course of responding to this crisis since October 7,” Finer said.

“We have left a very damaging impression based on what has been a wholly inadequate public accounting for how much the president, the administration and the country values the lives of Palestinians. And that began, frankly, pretty early in the conflict,” he added.

Most explicitly, he expressed remorse that a Biden statement marking 100 days of war did not mention Palestinians killed in Gaza.

Naim Kayed of American Muslims for Palestine-Philadelphia holds an anti-Biden flag purchased on site during an anti-Israel demonstration at Montgomery County College, where US President Joe Biden was to speak, January 5, 2024, in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe LAMBERTI / AFP)

“It did not in any way address the loss of Palestinian life during the course of the first 100 days of the conflict,” Finer said, according to the Times. “There is no excuse for that. It should not have happened. I believe it will not happen again. But we know that there was a lot of damage done.”

Finer declined The New York Times’ request for comment.

The Associated Press later reported that a White House National Security Council spokeswoman had confirmed the reported comments’ veracity, but sought to downplay them, saying that “the President and Mr. Finer were reflecting on concerns we have had for some time and will continue to have as the Israeli operation proceeds, about the loss of Palestinian lives in this conflict and the need to reduce civilian harm.”

The comments reported in the Times come as the White House has stepped up public criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resistance to the prospect of Palestinian statehood, and his prosecution of the war, which Biden said Thursday was “over the top.”

War was triggered by Hamas’s brutal October 7 onslaught, in which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel to kill nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and taking 253 hostages.

Israel’s ensuing campaign in the Gaza Strip has claimed the lives of over 27,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-ruled health ministry, whose figures cannot be independently verified, and do not distinguish between civilians and combatants, of whom the Israel Defense Forces claim to have killed upward of 10,000. An additional 1,000 Hamas terrorists were killed inside Israel on October 7.

Among those present at the Thursday meeting were Osama Siblani, publisher of the Dearborn-based Arab American News, one of whose previous meetings with Biden administration representatives was slammed by the Anti-Defamation League due to the publisher’s remark at an October rally that Hamas “is not a terrorist organization.”

Finer also reportedly met with Abdullah Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn, who, in a November rally, articulated Arab Americans’ growing disenchantment with Biden ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

“If American democracy depends on our current president being reelected, then why is being bedfellows with the terrorist Netanyahu, worth sacrificing American democracy?” Hammoud was quoted by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Washington-based think tank.

Illustrative: A pro-Palestinian demonstration, during the Israel-Hamas war, in Dearborn, Michigan, on October 14, 2023. (Jeff Kowalsky/ AFP)

Hammoud has recently found himself at odds with MEMRI after a senior figure from the think tank published a Wall Street Journal op-ed dubbing Dearborn America’s “jihad capital,” which led the mayor to beef up security in the Michigan city, and elicited condemnation from President Biden.

Michigan is a battleground state in the 2024 US presidential election in November. Biden won it in 2020 with a margin of under 3 percent. Arab Americans make up some 2 percent of Michigan’s population.

Dearborn, which has America’s highest per-capita population of Arab Americans, is represented on Capitol Hill by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American elected to Congress, who has fronted progressive Democratic calls for a ceasefire.

Agencies contributed to this report

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