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Whitmer navigates Michigan ‘minefield’ between Biden and Arab Americans

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has privately reached out to Arab and Muslim Americans in Michigan who are devastated by the war in Gaza, a core Democratic constituency in a state that is key to President Biden’s hopes of returning to the White House.

Whitmer (D) has sought to mend the deep wounds in Michigan’s sizable Arab American community sown by Biden’s full-throated support of Israel. It’s a high-wire act made all the more daunting because the governor is also a chair of Biden’s reelection campaign and is widely perceived to have her own national ambitions.

Ahead of Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary in the state, Whitmer has rejected efforts by an activist group to protest Biden’s Israel policy by urging voters to cast their ballot for “uncommitted.” She is actively campaigning to get out the vote for Biden, and has warned in a statement that “any vote that is not cast, or is cast for a third-party, or cast to ‘send a message’ makes it more likely that there is a Trump presidency.”

Whitmer is “very well respected in the community, but this issue, the Gaza issue, is becoming an issue against her,” said Sufian Nabhan​, executive director of the Islamic Center of Detroit, who voted “uncommitted” Tuesday.

Whitmer’s outreach to the Arab and Muslim communities is done privately, her allies say, and the governor has been in regular contact with people upset about the war and the Biden administration’s role in it. She has exchanged text messages with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D), the only Palestinian American in Congress, who represents Dearborn, Mich., the city with the largest Arab American and Muslim population per capita in the nation. Tlaib’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Tlaib’s sister, Layla Elabed, runs Listen to Michigan, the activist group trying to garner at least 10,000 “uncommitted” votes in the primary.

Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell said she’s been in meetings with Whitmer and leaders in the Arab and Muslim American communities since Oct. 7, and that the governor has relayed their grief and anger to the White House.

“I know for a fact the governor has been very direct with the president, the vice president, other people, about how people, how Palestinians in the Arab American community, feel in Michigan, that their families are being killed,” Dingell said. “She represents everyone in Michigan, and she’s trying to do what’s right. And, trust me, you’re in a minefield right now.”

The political tension in Michigan is the latest example of how the conflict in the Middle East has fractured the Democratic Party over Israel’s military response in Gaza following the Hamas-led terrorist massacre in Israel on Oct. 7 that left 1,200 people dead and took some 250 others hostage. Israel launched a retaliatory military campaign in Gaza that has killed over 29,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and displaced close to 2 million, the United Nations reports.

Arab and Muslim Americans, as well as young people and many on the left, have decried Israel’s scorched-earth campaign, including a siege of Gaza in which it has cut off access to most food, water, electricity and other basic goods such as medicine. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans are at risk of starvation and disease.

Whitmer, widely seen as a potential top contender for the White House in 2028, has largely stayed out of the public debate since angering people on both sides of the issue with her early statements. On Oct. 7, the governor wrote on social media that “we need peace in this region,” offending Jewish constituents for not explicitly condemning the attacks or naming Israel. A few days later, she clarified her position, saying, “I’m unequivocally supportive of Israel. And they have a right to defend themselves.”

Soon after, Whitmer attended a large pro-Israel rally in Detroit. Several weeks later, she canceled a preplanned visit to Dearborn after some protested her visit over her support for Israel. At the end of January, Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud said in an interview: “I haven’t heard from Gretchen Whitmer in 110 days. … I think the sentiment that she shared was a very pro-Israeli government sentiment, and we haven’t heard from her since.”

Whitmer and Hammoud finally spoke in early February after the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece about Dearborn headlined, “Welcome to Dearborn, America’s Jihad Capital.” Whitmer excoriated the piece, calling it “cruel and ignorant, and a total misrepresentation of an important city.” She also directed the Michigan State Police to reach out to Hammoud to offer the city extra security. Whitmer reached out to Hammoud for the first time after the op-ed, according to a spokesperson for the mayor.

Many in the Arab American and Muslim community say they have been disappointed and felt betrayed by Whitmer for not doing more outreach to their community and for failing to call for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza. In interviews with voters across Dearborn at the end of January, many cited Whitmer’s decision to appear at the pro-Israel rally as one of the main reasons for their dismay at the governor, as well as her failure to appear at any of the state’s many pro-Palestinian rallies where protesters have demanded a cease-fire.

Michigan has become a sort of Rorschach test of how much Biden’s unwavering support of Israel could impact his reelection prospects. The state has the country’s largest population of Arab American and Muslim voters, who overwhelmingly supported Biden in 2020. About 300,000 people in the state claim ancestry from the Middle East and North Africa, and more than 200,000 voters identify as Muslim — groups in which there is large overlap. The Arab American and Muslim community has been consumed by Israel’s war in Gaza since October and has mobilized to flex its voting muscle in this year’s election.

Listen to Michigan is solely focused on Tuesday’s primary and has made an energized push for the last three weeks to get as many people as possible to vote “uncommitted” rather than for Biden, aiming to send a warning that Biden’s stance on Israel could cost him the state in November. Biden has few, if any, paths to victory without Michigan. A separate movement, called “Abandon Biden,” supports the uncommitted movement but is also determined to deny the president reelection in November. That group’s leaders have not yet coalesced around a general election strategy — and will not support Donald Trump — but are weighing options such as endorsing a third-party candidate, writing in a candidate or abstaining from the presidential election but still voting in state and local elections.

Leaders from those movements say they have not heard from Whitmer. Elabed said high-ranking Democrats’ continued embrace of Israel “feels like a betrayal, not just of the president that these communities overwhelmingly supported in 2020, but also from the Democratic Party, who is not taking our movement seriously.”

Biden officials have long said they believe voters who disapprove of him now will eventually support him when the presidential contest becomes a head-to-head matchup with Trump. But some Democrats worry that Whitmer and Biden are not doing enough to win back disaffected voters and are disproportionately focused on suburban and swing voters.

The president has studiously avoided interacting with the Arab American and Muslim community since the early weeks of the war. During a visit to Michigan earlier this month, Biden’s team took unusual steps to keep the location of his visit secret in an effort to avoid protesters. Instead, he has dispatched top White House and campaign aides to conduct listening sessions with the community, which campaign officials said they will continue to do for the next several months.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a Biden surrogate who has called for a cease-fire, visited Michigan last week to meet with the Arab American and Muslim community.

Khanna has said Democrats must focus on building a modern coalition for the 2024 race and beyond. He is urging Biden and other Democrats to focus on energizing their core base — which includes young voters and people of color — rather than hoping they will support Democrats because Trump and Republicans are worse.

He talks about “two very distinct” theories of electability in the key swing state: one focusing on suburban voters around the issues of democracy and abortion rights, winning back just enough of the Arab American community to nab the state. The other relies on inspiring the base in the same way as Trump — whose voters, he points out, are “going across broken glass to vote for him.”

“I don’t think it’s enough without the inspired base, and I don’t think we get the inspired base without a dramatic change in foreign policy,” Khanna said. “There is deep hurt, there is deep anger, there is deep sense of loss and grief, and there needs to be a fundamental shift in foreign policy as a first step to get back some of the trust. And I think there has to be a healing process after that before you can even start to talk about the electoral case for the president’s reelection.”

Whitmer has largely focused her surrogate pitch for Biden’s reelection on domestic issues, such as reproductive rights, warning that Trump will eliminate those freedoms. But many Arab Americans and Muslims in Michigan wish she was talking more about the conflict overseas.

Michigan co-chair Samraa Luqman of Abandon Biden said it was “absolutely abhorrent and disgusting” that Whitmer had yet to call for a cease-fire.

“As a representative of one of the largest Muslim populations in the entire nation it is a betrayal and it is absolutely something that we will not forget when she tries to run for president,” Luqman said.

A Democratic leader in the Arab American community, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations between Whitmer and those affected by the Gaza war, said Whitmer continues to have a close relationship with the Michigan Arab American and Muslim communities, and that much of her work to cultivate those ties happens behind the scenes.

“The governor has never been the type of person that says things publicly, to brag about certain relationships. But what I can tell you is, she has taken the time to speak to religious leaders [and] to community leaders, including myself,” the Democratic leader said. “It’s really more than just the politics, but to ask how people are doing because she understands that people in her community are going through pain and a hard time. And really, her commitment here speaks louder than some public information that people may be waiting for.”

But another leader in Michigan’s Arab American community who has been critical of Whitmer scoffed at the governor’s efforts.

“If by meeting with the community you mean organizing meetings with people who yell at her and putting on a very practiced and concerned face and claiming you feel their pain, I guess she’s doing that. Meanwhile kids in Gaza are getting blasted to the sky,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about these private meetings.

Nabhan, of the Islamic Center of Detroit, said Whitmer does have strong ties within the community, and that her role as governor insulates her because she does not control foreign policy. Yet he and other Arab American and Muslim leaders are refusing to meet with elected officials, including Whitmer, until they call for a permanent cease-fire.

“If she did not ask for a cease-fire and wanted to meet with me that means you want to talk about politics, not saving human lives,” he said. “Just to call for a cease-fire, it’s the least anyone can do.” Otherwise, he added, “they are agreeing to the genocide.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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