'Mistakes and missteps': Biden advisers apologize to Arab Americans over Gaza war response

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DEARBORN, Mich. – Senior advisers to President Joe Biden admitted “mistakes” and apologized privately to Arab Americans in Michigan for the way the administration has handled the war in Gaza and for how it has talked publicly about Palestinians during the deadly conflict with Israel.

Biden on Thursday dispatched several of his top aides to Dearborn, the U.S. city with the highest percentage of Arab Americans, for a series of private meetings with politicians, community advocates and faith leaders for discussions about the war in Gaza.

Abbas Alawieh, a Dearborn activist who attended one of the meetings, said the officials admitted “mistakes and missteps” in the administration’s response to the conflict.

But Alawieh, who is one of the leaders of a campaign encouraging Michigan residents to vote “uncommitted” in next week’s Democratic primary instead of casting their votes for Biden, said the administration’s mea culpa rang hollow.

“The president’s refusal to change course or even publicly acknowledge his mistakes is a grave insult to people here in Michigan – to Michigan Democrats in particular,” Alawieh said. “The hypocrisy of telling us privately that the administration has made mistakes while continuing to fail to hold (Benjamin) Netanyahu accountable publicly – it’s a blatant display of moral bankruptcy that will have political consequences here in Michigan.”

More: Biden is getting squeezed over Israel-Hamas war. Will it cost him the White House?

Tensions rise as a cease-fire for Palestine protest spills into the parking lot of The Henry Hotel in Dearborn before government officials meet with community leaders in Dearborn on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.
Tensions rise as a cease-fire for Palestine protest spills into the parking lot of The Henry Hotel in Dearborn before government officials meet with community leaders in Dearborn on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.

Ali Dagher, a Dearborn attorney who also attended one of the meetings, said Deputy National Security Adviser Jonathan Finer apologized for how the Biden administration at times has talked about Palestinians.

"Jon Finer specifically apologized for the language being used,” Dagher said. “He apologized for the administration's failure to stop the dehumanizing of Palestinians. He apologized for ... how the president has talked about the Palestinians."

The meetings came as Biden is facing mounting anger from Arab Americans, a key voting bloc in the swing state of Michigan, heading into this year’s presidential election. Arab, Muslim and progressive groups are demanding that Biden call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and have put him on notice that he will no longer get their vote.

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, who has been hammering the Biden administration for months on the war, declined a meeting last month with Biden's campaign manager, saying the administration should be sending policy makers to Dearborn, not campaign officials.

On Thursday, Hammoud hosted one of the meetings with Biden’s senior advisers at Dearborn City Hall. Hammoud said his message was heard and this time, the officials in attendance were those who focus on foreign policy issues, not electoral politics.

"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," Hammoud said in a statement after the meeting. "We remained uncompromising in our values and our demands for a permanent cease-fire, ending unrestricted military support to the State of Israel, and expediting humanitarian aid and funding to UNRWA, among others."

After the meeting with Hammoud, Biden officials held a meeting with Palestinian Americans; a meeting with other elected officials that included Michigan Majority Floor Leader State Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Wayne County Circuit Judge Mariam Bazzi, among others. A fourth meeting was held in the late afternoon with community and faith leaders that included Dagher, Osama Siblani, publisher of the Dearborn-based Arab American News, and two leaders in Detroit's African American Muslim community.

Siblani said he conveyed seven points that he read and distributed to the officials. The points called for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Yemen and other areas; the release of all hostages and prisoners on both sides; assistance for Palestinians to rebuild lives; a resumption of aid to UNRWA, the U.N agency for Palestinian refugees; and tangible steps to create a Palestinian state.

"Our community is rightfully angry and will not accept future engagements or dialogues with this administration unless and until an immediate cease-fire is implemented," Siblani said he told the officials.

More: Joe Biden reaches out to Michigan's Arab-American, Muslim community as he faces criticism over Gaza

The Biden advisers who attended the meetings included Finer, who serves under National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Samantha Power, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and author of an influential book: "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide." In recent months, some Arab American advocates have criticized Power for her stance on what they describe as a genocide currently taking place in Gaza.

Dagher said Power spoke during the meeting about UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), to which the U.S. recently suspended funding amid accusations some of its members were linked to terrorism.

Power said the U.S. "will not be abandoning UNRWA," Dagher said. "They're waiting for UNRWA to complete its investigation."

Other Biden officials who attended the Dearborn meetings included Steve Benjamin, senior adviser and director of the Office of Public Engagement; Tom Perez, senior adviser to Biden and director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs; Dan Koh, director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and Mazen Basrawi – National Security Counci director for Partnerships and Global Engagement.

While the group met, about 50 protesters gathered outside The Henry Hotel in Dearborn, many wearing black-and-white keffiyehs and waving Palestinian flags. Chants broke out among the crowd, including "stop the genocide" and "cease-fire now." A handful of police gathered nearby as did hotel staff, but the protest remained peaceful.

Ali Sobh, 22, of Dearborn, was among the protesters, saying: "If you have any ounce of empathy, you can feel for the Palestinian people."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden advisers apologize to Arab Americans over response to Gaza war