Biden and the White House still having a tough time engaging Muslim and Arab American leaders over Gaza

A contentious meeting at the White House on Tuesday was the latest warning sign to President Joe Biden, his administration and his campaign from key parts of the coalition that elected him in 2020.

Biden hosted several Muslim leaders at the White House to discuss Gaza, which was upended after the meeting’s sole Palestinian American participant – Dr. Thaer Ahmad, who has traveled to Gaza to treat wounded civilians – walked out in protest after handing Biden a letter from an 8-year-old orphan girl living in Rafah.

That act of protest was the latest in a string of slights from Muslim community leaders to White House and Biden campaign officials as they try to engage with Muslim American, Arab American and progressive voters over the war in Gaza.

White House officials have held several meeting with prominent Arab Americans across the country since October 7, but some of the invited participants have declined to attend, often making their rejection known in open letters and press interviews. Other attendees have reported being outraged after some of the meetings included only officials from Biden’s campaign, instead of policy- and decision- makers in the White House.

Several of Biden’s campaign and official events have also been interrupted by protesters demanding a ceasefire, most notably an abortion-rights rally in Virginia that was interrupted more than a dozen times in January.

When asked Wednesday about snubs from people invited to meet with the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “I can’t speak to individuals who want to attend, who don’t want to attend. That’s for them to speak to. The president … and his administration, senior officials, is going to have these conversations. We’re going to continue to listen to the community. That’s what a president does and that’s what this president will continue to do.”

Asked about the walk-out, Jean-Pierre said Biden respects peaceful protests and “understands that this is a painful moment for many Americans across the country.”

She added, Biden “expressed his commitment to continue working to secure an immediate ceasefire as part of a deal to free the hostages and significantly increased humanitarian aid into Gaza,” while making clear “that he mourns the loss of every innocent life in this conflict.”

The snubs and protests come at a moment in which the president’s advisers are looking to capitalize on a wave of momentum they are feeling after Biden’s State of the Union address.

While the president and his campaign have been more bullish about taking on former President Donald Trump, needling the presumptive GOP nominee on multiple issues, protests over the president’s support for Israel amid its campaign in Gaza are confronting him at every turn.

Biden has faced repeated protests at public events over how his administration has responded to the growing civilian death toll in Gaza — most recently at a high-dollar fundraiser in New York City last week with former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — but the Tuesday walk-out by Ahmad was likely the most intimate signal of disapproval Biden has so far received over the issue.

The meeting was originally slated to take place in the form of an Iftar fast-breaking dinner, but those plans shifted after attendees pushed back and said it would be inappropriate to talk about the crisis over dinner while people in Gaza are starving, a person familiar with the meeting told CNN.

Following Ahmad’s departure, Dr. Nahreen Ahmed, an ICU physician in Philadelphia and medical director at the NGO MedGlobal said the five other attendees from the Muslim-American community took turns speaking on different topics at the meeting, which lasted more than an hour and left some attendees frustrated.

“I felt like maybe this was not necessarily a meeting where anything actionable was meant to happen, or be promised, but that it was that it really felt like it was kind a PR move, to be able to say we met with the Muslim community,” Ahmed said.

Following the listening session, Ahmed said that Biden initially responded with a focus on the terrors of October 7.

“He kind of went back to that and said, ‘You know, I hear what everybody’s saying, but like, think about the young people that were killed on October 7.’ And it kind of dismissed the over 30,000 people dead in Palestine,” she said.

Biden went on to discuss the complexity of eradicating Hamas and ongoing talks with leaders in the region working toward a ceasefire.

Ahmed told CNN she felt it was important to attend and humanize the suffering she has witnessed firsthand in Gaza, where she plans to return in the coming weeks.

The president has repeatedly called for a temporary ceasefire and the release of hostages held by Hamas, but he has so far declined to call for a permanent ceasefire, even as a growing list of international leaders have done so and as aid organizations warn that Gazan society is teetering on the brink of starvation.

Instead, Biden is set to greenlight an $18 billion sale of fighter jets to Israel, setting off new criticism from progressives. His criticism of Israel and its campaign has been mostly milquetoast – his most searing public criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took place while answering questions during an unrelated news conference in February, when he said Israel’s military response in Gaza has been “over the top.”

More than 32,000 people have died in Gaza since the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, according to the region’s health ministry.

The president said Tuesday that he was outraged by the Israeli strike on a World Central Kitchen convey that killed seven aid workers, and the incident has sparked fury inside the White House. But it’s unclear whether the incident, in which a dual US-Canadian citizen was among those killed, will change Biden’s stance or his public messaging.

But even as Biden condemned the incident, his administration reiterated its support of Israel’s war against Hamas.

“While we make no bones about the fact that we have certain issues about some of the way things are being done, we also make no bones about the fact that Israel is going to continue to have American support for the fight that they’re in to eliminate the threat from Hamas,” John Kirby, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, told CNN’s MJ Lee on Wednesday.

The US does not plan to do its own independent investigation into the strikes, saying that they plan to rely on Israel’s investigation, and they have not given the Israelis a deadline.

Kirby also said he did not know when asked whether he knew if American-supplied munitions had been used in the strike.

“I do not know the answer to that question,” he said.

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