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Biden ally meets Arab American leaders in Michigan, tries to lower tensions

In World
February 23, 2024

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) — 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 President Joe Biden over the growing number of Palestinians killed in the Israeli offensive after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. 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.

“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 Oct. 7 attack, in which Hamas militants killed 1,200 people and abducted another 250. 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 Israeli 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 by Israel.

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.”

“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.

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 cease-fire 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.

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.”

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 cease-fire 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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