'It was a hot conversation': White House team meets Arab-American leaders

Community officials demand a ceasefire, aid for Gaza and conditions on military assistance to Israel

Protesters gather outside The Henry hotel hoping to be heard by members of the White House delegation who met Muslim and Arab-American leaders in Dearborn, Michigan. AP
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A delegation from Joe Biden's administration met Arab-American leaders in Dearborn, Michigan, on Thursday in an effort to win back support from a critical voting bloc furious over the President's handling of the Israel-Gaza war.

More than 30 officials and community leaders attended a series of meetings at a hotel in Dearborn, the so-called Capital of Arab America.

“It was a good meeting,” Osama Siblani, publisher of The Arab American News, who attended the meetings, told The National.

“It was a hot, hot conversation and I think they heard us.”

Mr Siblani said that they had presented the White House delegation with seven points, which included a demand for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Yemen, followed by US help in the rebuilding of Palestinian homes and infrastructure in the strip.

They also demanded a resumption to and increase funding for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

Mr Biden's delegation included deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and USAID head Samantha Power, Tom Perez, director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, director of the Office of Public Engagement Steve Benjamin and White House Liaison to American Muslim Communities Mazen Basrawi, among other senior officials.

The visit comes amid intense anger among Arab as well as Muslim Americans over his staunch support for Israel in a war that has killed more than 27,800 Palestinians, most of them civilians, since October 7.

Michigan is home to one of the largest Arab and Muslim-American populations in the US. It is also a critical battleground state and a must-win for Mr Biden, who is running for re-election.

Dearborn is home to Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi and Yemeni Americans.

Late last month, Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, a Democrat, as well as other leaders refused to meet Mr Biden's campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, who had reached out to set up a roundtable.

On Thursday, a group protesters wearing keffiyehs waved Palestinian flags and chanted slogans outside The Henry hotel in Dearborn, where the meetings were held.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Mr Hammoud said he had attended the meetings on Thursday, as it would be “irresponsible to walk away from difficult policy conversations that can lead to saving the lives of innocent men, women and children”.

“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, among others,” he wrote.

Four years ago, residents of Dearborn and the wider Wayne County overwhelmingly voted for Mr Biden. This year, they have been rallying around a campaign to “Abandon Biden” – an effort to ensure he does not win a second term in office.

On Tuesday, more than 30 elected officials in Michigan signed a letter titled “Listen to Michigan”, pledging to check “uncommitted” on their ballots in the Democratic primaries, which will be held on February 27.

“We had a pivotal meeting today and we made it very clear that our communities are unwavering in our need for ceasefire,” said Abraham Aiyash, a Michigan state representative and a Yemeni American who attended the meetings.

He said their delegation presented policy recommendations around a permanent ceasefire, as well as ending unrestricted aid to Israel, providing humanitarian relief for Gaza as well as assistance towards rebuilding efforts.

“We made it clear that any future engagement with the administration will be conditional upon real action, and whatever develops will serve as the benchmark for that,” Mr Aiyash, who is a Democrat, told The National.

“They heard our message clearly and we're now going to see what happens next.”

Updated: February 10, 2024, 5:19 AM