WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is sending senior aides to Michigan on Thursday to meet with Arab American and Muslim leaders, according to three people familiar with the matter, as his administration's handling of the Israel-Hamas war frustrates members of a key constituency in a 2024 battleground state.
Some community leaders invited to the meeting said they welcome the opportunity to make their case directly to top Biden aides to use the administration's leverage on Israel to press for an immediate cease-fire and allow more humanitarian relief into Gaza.
“I’m going into that room and making it clear that the frustrations are that a cease-fire needs to be called,” said Michigan state Rep. Alabas Farhat. adding that there also needs to be a release of hostages held by Hamas and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
The meeting could give the administration a chance to try to mend ties with a community that has an important role in deciding whether the president can hold on to a crucial swing in his campaign for a second term.
Biden has faced stiff criticism from the state's sizable Arab American and Muslim population since the start of the war on Oct. 7. Some activists even called for members of the community not to vote for the Democrat in November.
“I’m for the dialogue and I believe we owe it to our country and to our community and the people in Gaza, to listen and be heard,” Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News based in Dearborn, Michigan, told The Associated Press. Siblani said he was invited by the White House and planned to attend.
Administration officials making the trip to Michigan include Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and Steven Benjamin, who directs the Office of Public Engagement, a White House official said.
All who discussed the plans were not authorized to do so publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The officials did not offer any details about the community members expected to attend.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to confirm details of the Michigan meeting, but said the administration has been consistent in outreach efforts to U.S. communities impacted by the war.
“Obviously, we’re going to listen and hear what leaders of that community" have to say, Jean-Pierre said. “We are open to that, having a real honest dialogue.”
Others expected to attend the meeting are Tom Perez, who leads the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, as well as Mazen Basrawi, the White House liaison to American Muslim communities, and aides Jamie Citron and Dan Koh.
Biden's campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, and other campaign aides went to suburban Detroit late last month, but found a number of community leaders unwilling to meet with them.
Other community activists have gone even further as they press their disapproval of the president's handling of the war and have formed a group called “Abandon Biden,” a movement discouraging voters from supporting the president in November.
Siblani, the newspaper publisher, was one of the few Arab American leaders to meet with Rodriguez when she visited Dearborn at the end of January. He told AP at the time that he felt that was important because she made the effort to come to the community and listen.
Farhat said he expected Thursday's meeting to be the first in a series and “a new channel being opened up directly to the White House.” While the meetings are a step forward, Farhat said, “it’s not a substitute for a cease-fire or policy change.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., a longtime resident of Dearborn and close Biden ally, said that she believed the meetings represented important progress.
“I have lived in this community for 40 years and this is the most significant White House delegation I’ve seen come into Michigan in those 40 years,” Dingell said in an interview Wednesday.
The White House says administration officials have been in regular contact with Muslim and Arab American leaders in Michigan and across the country.
Michigan holds the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation and over 310,000 residents are of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry.
Many in the community have expressed anger that Biden hasn't called for a permanent cease-fire in the 4-month-old war that has killed more than 27,000 people in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.
Israel began its military operation after Hamas on Oct. 7 launched attacks that killed some 1,200 in Israel. More than 240 people in Israel were captured and taken into Gaza. The U.S. believes more than 100 remain in captivity.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was visiting Tel Aviv as part of a Mideast trip visit aimed at pushing forward negotiations brokered by the U.S., Egypt and Qatar for an extended pause in fighting in exchange for the release of the remaining hostages. U.S. officials believe such a deal could set a path to end the war.
But the effort appeared to suffer a setback as Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday rejected terms set by Hamas and called their demands “delusional.” Hamas has called for the hostages to be released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, including senior militants, and an end to the war.
Biden was in Michigan last week for a visit with union workers. He did not meet with Arab American and Muslim community members. As Biden met with the United Auto Workers, dozens of pro-Palestinian demonstrators stood near the UAW Region 1 building in Warren and made their frustrations clear.
During that visit, Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud said the White House had yet to have “a meaningful conversation for how you change course.”
Hammoud previously turned down a meeting with Biden’s campaign manager, but his office said in a statement that he had accepted the White House invitation to meet with officials on Thursday.
The statement added that the mayor intended to “engage in conversation about policy change, centering on the lived experiences of the people of Gaza and amplifying the demands of the Dearborn community.”
Plans for the Thursday meeting were first reported by CNN.
Cappelletti reported from Lansing, Michigan. Associated Press Will Weissert aboard Air Force One contributed to this report.