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Arab-American leaders say they ‘remained uncompromising’ in talks with top Biden aides

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Arab-American leaders say they ‘remained uncompromising’ in talks with top Biden aides

Feb 09, 2024 | 9:44 am ET
By Jon King
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Arab-American leaders say they ‘remained uncompromising’ in talks with top Biden aides
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State Rep. Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) speaks to students and activists at the Michigan Capitol following the Feb. 13, 2023 mass shooting at Michigan State University, Feb. 15, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

Senior Biden administration officials gathered Thursday in Dearborn with leaders from the Muslim and Arab American communities with each side approaching the meetings with different goals.

For Biden, trying to mend political fences with an important constituency in a battleground state is a priority heading into what is already shaping up to be a contentious election in November for the White House.

For Michigan’s Arab-American and Muslim leaders, getting Biden to demand an immediate ceasefire by Israel in the war with Hamas in Gaza is but a first step toward any reconciliation.

“This meeting was held to ensure that the White House and those with the ability to change the course of the genocide unfolding in Gaza very clearly hear and understand the demands of our community – directly from us,” said Dearborn Mayor

Arab-American leaders say they ‘remained uncompromising’ in talks with top Biden aides
Former Rep. Abdullah Hammoud was elected Dearborn mayor on Nov. 2, 2021 | House Democrats photo

after what he called a “two-hour-long policy discussion with senior advisors – not campaign staff – from the Biden Administration.”

Hammoud, a former Democratic state representative, headed up a pledge by 34 elected officials from across the region pledging not to cast a ballot for Biden in the state’s presidential primary later this month.

The officials, as well as many in the Arab-American community, hold Biden directly accountable for the civilian deaths in Gaza and “unequivocally” demanded that his administration call for an immediate permanent ceasefire. 

As of Friday morning, Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health ministry says nearly 29,000 people have been killed in the territory since the war began on Oct. 7 following terrorist attacks by Hamas, with more than 67,000 others wounded. 

The toll has resulted in a humanitarian crisis that Hammoud said could no longer be ignored and was directly addressed in the discussion.

We remained uncompromising in our values and our demands for a permanent ceasefire, ending unrestricted military support to the State of Israel, and expediting humanitarian aid and funding to UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), among others,” said Hammoud.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Thursday that while the specifics of the private conversations would remain private, the meetings came amid ongoing efforts at resolving the conflict and limiting further bloodshed.

“[Biden’s] working very, very hard… to stop the suffering of innocent Palestinians who have been caught in the middle of this conflict between Israel and Hamas. We mourn the innocent lives that have been taken here,” she said. “We are doing everything that we can to get another humanitarian pause, so that we can get these hostages home to their families and their friends … and get that much needed, critical humanitarian aid into Gaza.”

Arab-American leaders say they ‘remained uncompromising’ in talks with top Biden aides
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on recent unidentified aerial objects, Thursday, February 16, 2023, in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

In a press conference Thursday night, Biden stepped up criticism of Israel, saying its response to Hamas in Gaza “has been over the top,” and argued that he helped negotiate allowing humanitarian aid through Egypt.

But even the shared goal of providing humanitarian assistance has sparked division.

Israel has alleged a dozen of UNRWA’s 13,000 employees participated in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed more than 1,200 Israelis and took 253 hostages. The United States, UNRWA’s largest donor, has since paused funding while the United Nations investigates the charges.

Also taking part in the discussions was House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck), another of the signatories to the pledge not to vote for Biden in the primary.

Addressing student protesters Thursday afternoon on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Aiyash said the meetings were an opportunity to engage those with “direct influence” on administration policies and the decisions, but maintained it was not a negotiation.

“I let them know the pain that this community has suffered, and I demonstrated to them the impact,” he said. “We did not talk about the election, we did not talk about electoral politics. We centered the conversation around the Palestinian people and the subsequent attacks and the forever war that we are seeing in the Middle East. So the conversation was had. I told them very clearly, ‘There is not a follow up’ to try to reconcile.” 

But critical to Biden’s electoral success is trying to jumpstart some sort of rapprochement with a community that makes up approximately 5% of the electorate in Michigan, a state Biden only won over former President Donald Trump by less than 3 percentage points in 2020. 

Jean-Pierre said Thursday’s meetings, which included principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and United States Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, were part of an ongoing dialogue with affected communities.

“We have been consistent and have had constant communication with leaders in the community,” she said.  “This is something that we have done since this conflict began on October 7th.  The President has met with Arab Americans and also Muslim-American leaders.  And we are going to continue to have that engagement as we’re doing today.”

Arab-American leaders say they ‘remained uncompromising’ in talks with top Biden aides
State Rep. Alabas Farhat (D-Dearborn) takes questions from reporters following the 2024 State of the State Address. | Kyle Davidson

State Rep. Alabas Farhat (D-Dearborn), however, was clear in what he and others wanted to see from the administration.

“A concrete step towards a ceasefire, towards a just peace, would be to call out [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu for murdering tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians, and for refusing to sit at the negotiating table,” he said.

While Biden helped negotiate a temporary truce last year, Reuters reported that Netanyahu this week rejected terms for a 4 1/2 month ceasefire under which Hamas would free all remaining hostages, Israel would withdraw its troops from Gaza and an agreement would be reached to end the war.

Tensions between the Biden administration and Netanyahu have risen as the war has dragged on, including reports that Biden called Netanyahu a “bad f—ing guy” in private, although the White House has denied that.

Hammoud, however, says while foreign policy discussions were not the reason he ran to be Dearborn’s mayor three years ago, the decisions coming from the White House have directly impacted his constituents and it would be “irresponsible” to avoid conversations with the administration that could save innocent lives.

“As citizens of the United States of America and representatives of the City of Dearborn, we have done our duty; now it is incumbent upon the President to do the same,” he said.

Arab-American leaders say they ‘remained uncompromising’ in talks with top Biden aides
Pro-Palestinian rally at the Michigan Capitol, Oct. 12, 2023 | Lily Guiney