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WASHINGTON: Osama Siblani was sipping his morning coffee at the office when his phone buzzed with a message from one of President Joe Biden’s advisers. As publisher of the Arab American News in Dearborn, Michigan, Siblani serves as an occasional sounding board, and the White House wanted to know what he thought of Biden’s recent call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After months of mounting concerns over the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, Biden had publicly, albeit vaguely, threatened to cut US assistance to Israel’s military operations in the Hamas-controlled territory.

Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News is photographed in his office, Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Dearborn, Mich. (AP)

“This is baby steps,” Siblani said he responded. “What we need is giant steps rather than baby steps.”
The text exchange is an example of the behind-the-scenes communication that the White House has nurtured at a time of anger at the Democratic president over his support for Israel. Such informal contacts have become more important as some Muslim and Arab American leaders have turned down opportunities to talk with Biden or his advisers, frustrated by the sense their private conversations and public anguish have done little or nothing to persuade him to change course.
The White House says it is keeping an open door for difficult conversations, but it can be hard to get people to walk through.
“All they are trying to do is convince us that there is some kind of movement toward where we want,” Siblani said. “But it’s too slow and it’s dragging. It’s more death and casualties that are happening.”

A Muslim man prays to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan in Los Angeles Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (AP)

The highest-profile example of the stonewalling came last week when a Palestinian American doctor walked out of a meeting with Biden. But interviews with Muslim and Arab American leaders reveal how that face-to-face protest was only the most conspicuous case of a fracture that has damaged crucial relationships and closed avenues needed to repair them.
“What more can we tell the White House for them to change course? I’ve run out of words,” said Michigan state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who met with senior officials in February but has not had any contact with them since then.
Dan Koh, deputy director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, said the administration wants “to make sure we’re as accessible as possible.”

CEO of Emgage Wa’el Alzayat poses for a photograph in Chevy Chase, Md., Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (AP)

“We understand that some people do not want to engage. We respect that,” he said. “But we think that the people who have engaged have felt that it was a fruitful discussion.”
Top White House officials, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, senior adviser Anita Dunn and chief of staff Jeff Zients, have been involved in the outreach. Biden is briefed on their conversations, and Vice President Kamala Harris has talked with Muslims, Arab Americans and Palestinian Americans.
The White House believes it still can find receptive audiences, such as a recent series of meetings with Lebanese Americans that focused on efforts to prevent the conflict from expanding along Israel’s northern border, where Hezbollah operates.

President and co-founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Salam Al-Marayati, far right, gets ready to address American Muslims after a prayer in Los Angeles Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (AP)

But the situation presents a challenge for a president who believes in the political power of personal relationships and has prized his history of sitting down with opponents and critics. It could also jeopardize his reelection this year, with some Muslims warning they are unwilling to support Biden even it that risks returning Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, to the White House.
Salam Al-Marayati, who lives in Los Angeles and leads the Muslim Public Affairs Council, described the attitude as, “Forget them. They have to learn a lesson. And if they lose, that’s the lesson they should learn.”
His disillusionment with Biden began soon after the war started on Oct. 7, when Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis in a surprise attack. The president described himself as a Zionist during a trip to Israel later that month, emphasizing his belief in the importance of a Jewish state as a guarantee of security for people who have historically been persecuted around the world.
Al-Marayati heard the statement differently.
“What it meant was, he doesn’t care for the Palestinian people and their displacement,” he said.
Al-Marayati and members of his organization did participate in meetings with officials from the National Security Council and the State Department, but he soured on the conversations.
“We realized they were not listening,” Al-Marayati said. “Maybe they were nodding when we were speaking, but they were continuing with the same policy.”
With the war entering its seventh month, Israel has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza-based Ministry of Health, an agency in the Hamas-controlled government.
US Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota who is Muslim, said it’s still important to support Biden as a shield against the return of Trump, saying “our democracy is on the line.”
But when it comes to the war, Omar said, Biden “is not where we need him to be at the moment, and it is our job to push him, and to get him where we need him to be.”
“It is incredibly hard to have any sort of conversation when there isn’t any policy change coming out of the White House in regards to stopping weapons from being delivered into Israel,” she said.
That is a step that Biden has been unwilling to take, though he has moved closer to that line. After Biden’s most recent call with Netanyahu, the White House said the president “made clear that US policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action” to protect civilians and allow increased humanitarian assistance.
The conversation came two days after Biden met with Muslim leaders at the White House. Officials had originally tried to arrange an iftar meal, where Biden could join Muslims as they broke their daily fast for Ramadan after sunset. But too many people refused invitations, turned off by the thought of eating with Biden at the same time he is supporting Israeli military operations that have pushed Palestinians to the brink of famine.
The White House changed its plans and hosted a private meeting about the war. One of the guests was Thaer Ahmad, a Palestinian American doctor from Chicago who has volunteered in Gaza. Angry over the continued flow of US weapons to Israel, Ahmad stood up during the meeting and told Biden he was walking out.
Among the leaders who have kept talking with the administration is Wa’el Alzayat, who lives in the Washington, D.C.-area and heads the advocacy organization Emgage. The former US State Department official said he texts or calls senior officials to relay sentiments from the Muslim and Arab American communities and push for a ceasefire.
Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud said he last met with administration officials in February, and they have reached out to ask his thoughts since then. His city has the largest Muslim population per capita in the country, and Hammoud said he always is willing to talk if “there’s a conversation to be had that can lead to saving one life.”
Some White House meetings have focused on Lebanese Americans, who fear how the war could spiral out of control. One conversation took place last month in the private basement dining room of a Lebanese restaurant in Detroit. The other was hosted by a Lebanese American businessman in Houston over the weekend.
Ed Gabriel, who helped organize the conversations as president of the American Task Force on Lebanon, said participants appreciated the opportunity to learn about US efforts in the Middle East. But there is frustration over the situation in Gaza.
“At what point does the president say, ‘Enough is enough, it has to be now?’” Gabriel said. “I know what they’re trying to get done. But after 30,000 deaths, you can’t expect people to understand. And that’s the challenge the president has.”