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Biden Faces Anger from Key Arab-American Voters in Michigan Primary

A man explains the importance of voting ‘uncommited’ as he hands out fliers outside the Islamic Center of Detroit to ask voters to vote ‘uncommitted’ in Michigan Primary elections on Tuesday, in Michigan, United States on February 26, 2024. 

Mostafa Bassim | Anadolu | Getty Images

Palestinian keffiyehs and signs that read “Abandon Biden”: Arab-American demonstrators in Warren, Michigan made no secret of their anger at the president in early February as he visited the key swing state that helped carry him to victory in 2020.

As voters head to the polls for Michigan’s Democratic primary on Tuesday, there is a local campaign urging Democrats to choose “uncommitted” on the ballot as a form of protest vote again the administration’s support for Israel in its war in Gaza.

In January, Biden’s reelection campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez canceled a meeting with Arab-American activists in Dearborn because of backlash over the administration’s policies. The U.S. has sent billions of dollars in advanced weapons to supply Israel before and since the terror attack led by Palestinian militant group Hamas on Oct. 7. The attack killed some 1,200 people there and took a further 240 hostage, according to Israeli authorities.

The Israeli military’s response, which has been sharply criticized by numerous world leaders and aid organizations, has displaced some 1.9 million people in Gaza, according to the United Nations, and killed nearly 30,000, according to Gaza’s health ministry, which is run by Hamas. The U.N. says that half a million people in the besieged enclave face starvation.

Dearborn, Michigan is home to the largest Arab-American population in the U.S. At the time Rodriguez’ Dearborn meeting was canceled, the city’s mayor, Abdullah H. Hammoud, tweeted: “Little bit of advice – if you’re planning on sending campaign officials to convince the Arab American community on why they should vote for your candidate, don’t do it on the same day you announce selling fighter jets to the tyrants murdering our family members.”

A spokesperson for the White House wasn’t immediately available when contacted by CNBC.

The primary vote on Tuesday will essentially be a referendum on what many of the state’s Democratic voters feel about Biden, and will be a harbinger of just how worried the Biden campaign should be about its level of support in Michigan when it comes time for the General Election.

Michigan’s Arab-American community voted overwhelmingly for Biden in 2020, helping him carry the state and defeat then-incumbent Donald Trump. But its population could be the determining factor in whether Biden takes the state this year, and its crucial 15 electoral college votes with it.

“The U.S. election for President Biden could swing on two or three states,” Fred Kempe, CEO of the Atlantic Council, told CNBC. “Take one of those states, Michigan, [which] Biden won by fewer votes in the last election than there are Arab American votes that could go against him, because of what’s going on in the Middle East. So it’s an international situation for Biden, it’s also a deeply domestic political situation.”

U.S. President Joe Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

Biden has voiced support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, and has asked Israel to do more to protect civilian life in Gaza — but critics say the words are meaningless if the administration refuses to use its leverage to force the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to change course. The U.S. has consistently voted against every cease-fire measure put forward at the U.N. since the war began.

Senior White House officials met with community leaders in Michigan on Feb. 8, during which U.S. deputy national security advisor Jon Finer vocally acknowledged the administration’s actions and “missteps” with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Gaza.

“We are very well aware that we have missteps in the course of responding to this crisis since October 7,” Finer said in recordings of the closed-door meeting published by The New York Times. “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,” he continued.

“And that began, frankly, pretty early in the conflict.”

Finer added that he did not “have any confidence in this current government of Israel.”

A view of destruction with destroyed buildings and roads after Israeli Forces withdrawn from the areas in Khan Yunis, Gaza on February 02, 2024. 

Abdulqader Sabbah | Anadolu | Getty Images

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has warned voters against the “uncommitted” campaign, stressing that “any vote that’s not cast for Joe Biden supports a second Trump term,” which she said would be “devastating” for the Muslim community.

Within the primary election, Biden doesn’t have any realistic Democratic competitors. But for Arab-Americans organizing across the country, the message is clear: No cease-fire, no vote.

Khalid Turaani, the co-organizer of the Abandon Biden campaign, handed out pamphlets outside the Islamic Center of Detroit telling people to vote “uncommitted” on their ballots, and told the BBC in an interview published Tuesday that his group had made more than 30,000 calls with the same message.

“We’re doing all that we can to ensure that Biden is a one-term president,” Turaani said, according to the U.K. broadcaster. “In November, we will remember. When you stand against the will of the people, you’re going to lose.”

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