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In Private Remarks to Arab Americans, Biden Aide Expresses Regrets on Gaza

by Lily Chang
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In a closed-door meeting with Arab American leaders in Michigan this week, one of President Biden’s top foreign policy aides acknowledged mistakes in the administration’s response to the war in Gaza, saying he did not have “any confidence” that Israel’s government was willing to take “meaningful steps” toward Palestinian statehood.

The remarks came after months of public and private admonitions from the Biden administration for Israel to take a more surgical approach in a conflict that has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, according to health authorities in Gaza. On Thursday, Mr. Biden himself declared that Israel had gone “over the top” in its response to the Hamas attack on Oct. 7.

The Biden aide, Jon Finer, a deputy national security adviser, offered some of the administration’s clearest expressions of regret for what he called “missteps” it had made from the beginning of the violence, and he pledged that it would do better.

During the meeting on Thursday with Arab American political leaders in Dearborn, Mich., Mr. Finer said, “We are very well aware that we have missteps in the course of responding to this crisis since Oct. 7,” according to a recording of the gathering obtained by The New York Times. A National Security Council official confirmed the recording was authentic.

Mr. Finer added: “We have left a very damaging impression based on what has been a wholly inadequate public accounting for how much the president, the administration and the country values the lives of Palestinians. And that began, frankly, pretty early in the conflict.”

The war in Gaza has become part of a cascade of political problems for Mr. Biden, who has remained publicly supportive of Israel and resisted demands within the Democratic Party to call for a cease-fire. His position since Hamas killed about 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7, along with his remarks casting doubt on the death toll from Israeli airstrikes and calling the loss of life “a price of waging war,” has angered young people, Black voters and progressives who are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Mr. Biden himself has acknowledged the pro-Palestinian protesters who have become a frequent presence at his public events. Last month, a campaign rally on abortion rights in Virginia was repeatedly interrupted by protesters urging Mr. Biden to call for a cease-fire.

After that rally, Mr. Biden met privately with about 40 invited attendees and urged them not to view demonstrators as political enemies, saying that they deserved sympathy and that their cause was “really important,” according to three people who attended the meeting.

A Biden campaign spokeswoman declined to comment.

But the recording of the Dearborn meeting provides an unusual behind-the-scenes glimpse at the administration’s attempts to shore up support in the critical battleground state of Michigan, which has a large Arab American population in Dearborn and other Detroit suburbs. Mr. Biden’s support in the state has eroded, polls show. His allies there have warned the White House in recent months that he runs the risk of losing the state, which he carried in 2020.

Mr. Finer and several other senior Biden administration officials, including Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, traveled to Dearborn on Thursday for a series of meetings, including the one in which Mr. Finer’s comments were recorded.

Those sessions came a week after Biden campaign aides, including Julie Chávez Rodríguez, the manager of his 2024 bid, quietly traveled to the city and met with a few officials, including Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American progressive who is at the forefront of Democratic calls for a cease-fire.

However, Mayor Abdullah Hammoud of Dearborn and several other local officials declined to meet with Ms. Chávez Rodríguez. Mr. Hammoud later issued a statement saying he wished to speak with policymakers instead of campaign officials. White House officials then scrambled to arrange a visit.

During the Thursday meetings, Mr. Finer articulated the American government’s efforts to bring a halt to the war in Gaza. Building a formal diplomatic relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, he said, is a critical step toward creating a Palestinian state. Doing so, he added, requires politically difficult sacrifices from both countries and the United States.

“We will have to do things for Saudi Arabia that will be very unpopular in this country and in our Congress,” Mr. Finer said. “Will Israel be willing to do the hard thing that’s going to be required of them, which is meaningful steps for the Palestinians on the question of two states? I don’t know if the answer to that is yes. I do not have any confidence in this current government of Israel.”

Mr. Finer also said the Biden administration should have been faster to publicly condemn statements made by some Israeli officials that, in his words, compared “residents of Gaza to animals.” He said officials had not done so because they were trying to work with the Israeli government.

“Out of a desire to sort of focus on solving the problem and not engaging in a rhetorical back-and-forth with people who, in many cases, I think we all find somewhat abhorrent, we did not sufficiently indicate that we totally rejected and disagreed with those sorts of sentiments,” Mr. Finer said.

He did not clarify which Israeli officials he was referring to, but in the conflict’s early days, Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, said, “We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly.” Some other Israeli officials have also faced criticism for dehumanizing language.

Mr. Finer’s most explicit note of contrition was for a statement released under Mr. Biden’s name on Jan. 14, marking 100 days since the conflict began. The statement focused on the plight of American and Israeli hostages being held in Gaza and made no reference to Palestinians who had been killed.

“It did not in any way address the loss of Palestinian life during the course of the first 100 days of the conflict,” Mr. Finer said. “There is no excuse for that. It should not have happened. I believe it will not happen again. But we know that there was a lot of damage done.”

Mr. Finer, who declined to comment, is the second-ranking official on the National Security Council, under Jake Sullivan, who is Mr. Biden’s national security adviser.

Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said: “The president and Mr. Finer were reflecting on concerns we have had for some time, and will continue to have as the Israeli operation proceeds, about the loss of Palestinian lives in this conflict and the need to reduce civilian harm.”

The Michiganders who attended the Thursday meetings with Biden administration officials described them as intense and said they were disappointed that the delegation from Washington had not committed to policy changes.

For example, administration officials declined to say whether they had advised or would advise the president to call for a cease-fire, which attendees asked for.

“You’re not going to get that answer,” said Steve Benjamin, the director of the White House’s public engagement office.

But the officials committed to issuing a letter clarifying the administration’s support of the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which the United States temporarily cut funding for after Israel accused some of its staff members of participating in the Oct. 7 attack. The Biden officials did not engage with questions from the Michigan leaders about the president’s electoral prospects in the state.

“We emphasized that beyond communication, there needs to be a change in policies,” said Abraham Aiyash, a Democratic state representative who is the majority leader in the Michigan House of Representatives. “We were clear that there would be no follow-up meetings in any capacity if there was not a shift in policy based on the tangible steps that we outlined for them today.”

Abbas Alawieh, a former congressional aide who attended the meeting, said it was “outrageous” that it had taken more than 100 days after the war started for the administration to engage with Dearborn, and that Mr. Biden had not visited himself.

Mr. Biden met with Arab and Muslim American leaders in October, amid growing tensions inside and outside the White House, and apologized for questioning the Gaza death toll and for other messaging from the administration. But he largely defended his support for Israel’s war, pointing to foreign policy considerations.

In November, administration officials also met by videoconference with Palestinian American leaders who expressed concern about surveys showing the plunging support for Mr. Biden in their communities. The officials told them that polling numbers did not dictate the president’s foreign policy decisions.

“People feel not just a vague sense of betrayal, but a bone-deep sense of betrayal by President Biden,” Mr. Alawieh said.

Assad I. Turfe, the deputy Wayne County executive, who also heard from the Biden aides on Thursday, said Mr. Biden should be judged by how soon the conflict in Gaza is resolved.

“The Biden administration must act swiftly and decisively to end this violence, honoring the principles of justice and human rights,” Mr. Turfe said.

On Tuesday, a group of Arab American and Muslim leaders in Michigan, led by Ms. Tlaib’s sister, announced a campaign to persuade Democrats angry about Mr. Biden’s stance on Israel to vote “Uncommitted,” against the president, in the state’s Democratic primary election on Feb. 27. Though such a move would most likely have little practical effect, it could embarrass the president if enough voters chose to participate.

Former Representative Andy Levin of Michigan called the campaign “a constructive thing for the president” and said he was encouraging fellow Democrats to vote Uncommitted — though he declined to say how he planned to vote in the primary.

“On Gaza, we’re going to have to keep pushing him,” Mr. Levin said in an interview.

Osama A. Siblani, the influential publisher of The Arab American News, a Dearborn newspaper, had meetings with both Ms. Chávez Rodríguez and Mr. Finer’s delegation. He said Arab American voters in Michigan felt betrayed after backing Mr. Biden in large numbers in 2020, arguing that they had “received nothing” since then “but lip service.”

“I’ve been involved in this community day in and day out every single day for 40 years,” Mr. Siblani said. “I can tell you right now, I cannot convince my community to vote for Biden if I kiss their feet. They will not do it.”

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