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Opinion Editorials, November 2023
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US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Biden Navigates Divisions Over Gaza Inside the
White House and Beyond
Biden Navigates Divisions Over Gaza Inside the White House and Beyond
President Biden is facing deep anger over his solidarity with Israel among supporters and even from some staff members who have said they feel disenchanted with the president.
Reporting from Washington
Nov. 28, 2023,
President Biden’s guests did not try to hide their anguish.
Just weeks after the start of the , Mr. Biden had invited
a small group of prominent Muslim Americans to the White House to
discuss Islamophobia in America. The participants were
blunt with him, according to four people who were in attendance.
They told him that his after the Oct. 7 ... attacks was seen by many as
permission for Israel’s bombing in Gaza. They said the president’s
statement among Palestinians was insulting. And
they said the outside Chicago was just
one devastating result of the dehumanization of their community.
The private meeting, which had been scheduled for 30 minutes, stretched
to more than an hour, attendees said. Mr. Biden waved off aides who
tried to pull him out of the room as he listened to the criticism and
“He recognized there may have been missteps on the rhetoric,” said Wa-el Alzayat, the chief executive of Emgage, a group that mobilizes Muslim voters, who attended the meeting in the Roosevelt Room on Oct 26. “He listened, he did show empathy and he promised to do better, particularly on humanizing Palestinians.”
Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s attorney general, who was also at the
meeting, said the war had increased risks for Americans, as well.
“Muslim community leaders told President Biden that the suffering of
innocent Gazans trying to survive in extremely difficult circumstances
has actually increased the likelihood of Islamophobic attacks in the
United States,” he said.
The gathering ended with Mr. Biden hugging a woman who had lost her
brother in an anti-Muslim hate crime several years ago.
But the group left without one thing
that it had come for: a promise from Mr. Biden to call for a permanent
The meeting was a glimpse into a much larger task Mr. Biden faces as he
tries to navigate deep anger among
longtime supporters and even inside the White House,
where some younger staff members, particularly those with Arab or Muslim
backgrounds, have said they feel disenchanted with the president they
Biden administration officials say the president’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself after Hamas’s deadly assault is only part of the story. Increasingly, Mr. Biden has paired his words of support with more and the as .
They point to his , when he denounced Islamophobia and
the death of Wadea Al-Fayoume, the 6-year-old who was fatally stabbed in
Illinois in what authorities have called a hate crime. Mr. Biden said he
was “heartbroken” by the loss of Palestinian life in the war.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe
discussions in the White House, also say Mr. Biden’s solidarity with
Israel has allowed him to wield influence with Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu on humanitarian aid and opening the Rafa'h crossing with
But to many in the Arab community, Mr. Biden’s words and actions after
the Oct. 7 attacks made them — and the Palestinian civilians in Gaza who
are dying in the thousands — feel like an afterthought in the war.
“There’s this sense that the trauma
of one people counts more than the trauma of another,”
said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American
Institute, which has been polling the community for 27 years. “It’s like
there are two intolerables, and they’ve decided which one they’re going
That distress was on clear display at the meeting with Mr. Biden. Participants said they were aghast that just one day earlier, during a news conference with the Australian prime minister, the president told reporters that he had “” about the number of their dead.
The innocent people who died, Mr. Biden said, were the “price of waging
The comments inflamed concerns among those who felt Mr.
Biden’s support for Israel was
unconditional, even as the country’s assault on Gaza was killing
thousands upon thousands of people, even by the United
States’ own estimates.
His comments also sparked outrage
inside the White House, including by some who felt messages of
support for Jewish staff members could be perceived as insensitive to
Arabs and Muslims on staff.
Mr. Biden’s senior aides, led by Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House chief of staff, have held multiple meetings with upset officials to hear their complaints. One such meeting was led recently by Mr. Zients; Anita Dunn, the president’s senior adviser; Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser; and Stephen Benjamin, the director of public engagement. The meeting allowed unhappy staff members to air their concerns about the president’s strategy and rhetoric.
(Mr. Biden has not attended the meetings, other than the one on Oct. 26.)
By some accounts, the meetings, some details of which were
reported earlier in The Washington Post, have helped shape the language
the White House uses to discuss the conflict. An opinion essay drafted
by the White House and a few days after the
meeting with Mr. Zients and the others took care to express empathy not
just for Israeli victims of the Hamas attacks, but also for Palestinian
civilians afflicted by Israel’s military assault.
“I, too, am heartbroken by the images out of Gaza and the deaths of many
thousands of civilians, including children,” Mr. Biden said in the
essay. He added, “Every innocent Palestinian life lost is a tragedy that
rips apart families and communities.”
Mr. Biden has long been a champion of Israel and of Jewish
nationalism, saying often that “you
don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.”
His unwavering support has at times put him at odds with , particularly among
a left-leaning coalition that sees the Palestinian cause as .
As Mr. Biden looks toward the 2024 presidential election, his stance on
the war could be significant in a contest that may hinge on
swing states such as Georgia
and Michigan, whose
Muslim and Arab American voters turned out for him three years
Ghada Elnajjar was among the Palestinian Americans who began mobilizing and fund-raising for Mr. Biden in Georgia in 2020 with the group Arab Americans for Biden. She said the group’s campaign pledge — that “” — haunts her now.
“I felt that we were able to come together as a community to elect this president who recognized us, who was happy to be in partnership with us,” she said. “And you would think with that comes leverage and influence, and to be totally sidelined on the most important topic that you elected the president on is mind-blowing.”
After the war started, the group changed its name to Arab
Americans Forward, removing Mr. Biden’s name, Ms. Elnajjar said. And as
she has learned about the death of more than 60 of her extended family
members in the war, she does not see a way back to Mr. Biden, who on the day her family in Gaza ran out of food.
Dr. Zogby, who has advised several Democratic campaigns on their
Palestinian platforms, including Mr. Biden’s in 2020, said he believed
the repercussions of the war would span generations.
Just as the Hamas attacks evoked the vulnerability and trauma of the
Holocaust, Dr. Zogby said, Israel’s response evoked what Palestinians
call the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the 1948 displacement of hundreds of
thousands of Palestinians in the war surrounding the creation of Israel
75 years ago.
“It’s not as if, from the earliest days, that we didn’t know how this
was going to end,” he said of the war in Gaza. “When the dust settles,
and the tears dry, what we’re going to have is more dead bodies, more
anger and more extremism.”
Peter Baker contributed reporting.
a correspondent in Washington covering domestic policy.
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