Top Biden aides to meet with Muslim, Arab community leaders amid their outcry over his Israel stance

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(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden’s senior aides plan to meet with Muslim and Arab American leaders in Michigan on Thursday, as he continues to face sharp criticism from those groups — as well as some progressive and younger voters — for his response to the Israel-Hamas war.

A source familiar with Biden’s plans confirmed the upcoming meeting, which will include Steve Benjamin, the administration’s public engagement director; Mazen Basrawi, the liaison between the White House and American Muslim communities; the U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, Samantha Power; the principal deputy national security adviser, Jon Finer; and Tom Perez, the intergovernmental affairs director.

Jaime Citron and Dan Koh, other top Biden aides, will also attend, the source added.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Wednesday that the administration is focused on outreach.

“The president has met with Americans with varying opinions about the conflict between Israel and Hamas. … Officials at the White House are also in regular contact with Muslim and Arab American leaders in Michigan, across the country,” she said.

The planned meeting comes as the president has had to repeatedly contend with pro-Palestinian protestors who have been vocal in their opposition to how he has handled the American response since Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel sparked a war, in which Israel has been bombarding Gaza as it targets Hamas fighters.

More than 27,000 people have been killed, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health; 1,200 people have died in Israel, the prime minister’s office said.

Biden has faced demonstrators interrupting his speeches in recent weeks, including last month when he was interrupted some 14 times in Virginia. Protester chants included “Genocide Joe” and “cease-fire now.”

Both the president and other administration officials have sought to stress their support for Israel’s campaign against Hamas while publicly urging Israel to take more care to lower civilian casualties. Biden said during a private meeting with some advocates in October that he needed to do a better job showing empathy after being accused of not caring more for Palestinians.

Though Michigan includes notable Muslim and Arab communities, Biden did not meet with leaders there last week when he made his first visit to the swing state since the war began.

His visit was met instead with protests, with pro-Palestinian demonstrations taking place outside two of his campaign stops in the Detroit area. One led to a tense standoff with riot police.

Protestors there were calling on voters to cast “uncommitted” ballots in the state’s Democratic primary, later this month, to embarrass the president.

Thursday’s scheduled meeting with senior White House advisers also follows an attempt from Biden’s campaign to meet with Muslim and Arab American leaders in the state last month — which was largely rebuffed.

Abdullah H. Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn, a Detroit suburb, was one of the many leaders who rejected a meeting with Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez. Last week, a source familiar with the mayor’s thinking told ABC News that Hammoud would be open to meeting with White House officials who can affect change, rather than with the campaign.

A spokesperson then confirmed on Wednesday that he will be at Thursday’s meeting.

“Mayor Abdullah H. Hammoud has been clear that this is not the time for electoral politics. He has remained open to meeting with senior policy officials, predicated on the Biden Administration’s willingness to change course in Gaza,” the spokesperson said in a statement, adding, “Mayor Hammoud will engage in conversation about policy change, centering on the lived experiences of the people of Gaza and amplifying the demands of the Dearborn community.”

Michigan is a critical battleground that Biden narrowly won in 2020 and that his campaign is working to win again in a likely November rematch with former President Donald Trump, who carried the state in a close race in 2016.

Michigan also has the largest population of Middle Eastern or North African descent of all the battleground states, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Wayne County, home to Dearborn and Detroit, has the largest of any county.

Over the weekend, Biden reacted to a controversial Wall Street Journal opinion article that called Dearborn “America’s Jihad Capital.”

“Americans know that blaming a group of people based on the words of a small few is wrong,” he posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “That’s exactly what can lead to Islamophobia and anti-Arab hate, and it shouldn’t happen to the residents of Dearborn – or any American town. We must continue to condemn hate in all forms.”

Hammoud said his city was increasing its police presence at places of worship, citing the “inflammatory” article. He also said there had been an “alarming increase” in anti-Arab sentiment online targeting the city since the op-ed was published.

The opinion article’s author has defended his work, telling NPR, “Hate against anybody is terrible, of course. And I don’t accept that this article is inciting to that.”

ABC News’ Molly Nagle contributed to this report.

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