U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday visited Michigan to meet with union autoworkers (UAW) crucial to his reelection bid in the important swing state that is also home to the highest number of Arab Americans.
On the same day he issued an executive order to sanction individuals who support settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.
His administration says the action reflects a “holistic approach” to the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, that has bled into increasing violence in the West Bank, a separate Palestinian enclave.
"President Biden has also spoken about his concern about the rise in violence that we have seen in the West Bank from extremist actors — in particular the rise in extremist settler violence, which reached record levels in 2023," national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement Thursday.
White House officials say the executive action had been long planned and deny that it was issued to coincide with Biden's visit amid anger from Arab and Muslim Americans, as well as young and progressive Democrats over his staunch support for Israel's military campaign in Gaza. Biden first expressed his concern over Palestinians in the West Bank under attack by what he called "extremist" Israeli settlers in late October, a few weeks after the Hamas attack.
The financial sanctions target four Israeli men accused of fomenting and participating in settler violence.
"There’s no plans to target with sanctions Israeli government officials at this time," John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told VOA aboard Air Force 1 on Thursday.
Kirby denied that Biden is using the executive order to signal displeasure at hardline members of Netanyahu’s government who have facilitated such violence, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.
"It’s a signal to the whole world how seriously President Biden takes ... the settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank," Kirby said.
Immediately after the Hamas October 7 attack, Ben Gvir distributed more than 10,000 rifles to arm Israeli civilians, including those in towns near the West Bank.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre sidestepped questions why the lone Palestinian American congresswoman, Democrat Rashida Tlaib, did not join Biden on the trip. Her district is near the site of his visit, and it is customary for the president to invite elected officials to join him. Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters traveled with Biden on Thursday, as did Rep. Debbie Dingell. All are Democrats.
Tlaib has been vocal in her criticism of Biden’s support for Israel, and in her calls for a cease-fire. In November, Tlaib posted a video online in which she accused Biden of "supporting the genocide of the Palestinian people."
The Arab American community is among a growing number of Americans who have expressed concerns about Biden’s steadfast support of Israel’s aggressive military operation in response to the Hamas militant group’s October 7 terror attack on Israeli civilians. The U.S., U.K. and EU have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization.
"We understand how difficult this is for many," Jean-Pierre said to VOA. "We get that."
Close to 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators were waiting for Biden near the UAW Region 1 building in Warren, the outskirts of Detroit, ahead of his event there. The president's motorcade bypassed them using side streets and he was largely spared from streetside protesters who in previous trips have lined his route and interrupted his events. In his last stop however, he was met with a small group waving Palestinian flags and chanting "Genocide Joe."
Prominent members of the community have complained that the White House has ignored their concerns.
"Since October 7th, I have received ZERO correspondence from White House, DNC [Democratic National Committee], or MDP [Michigan Democratic Party] leadership about the concerns from our community on the ongoing genocide unfolding in Gaza," said Rep. Abraham Aiyash of the Michigan state Legislature on social media ahead of Biden’s visit.
A New York Times/Siena College poll published in December, however, found that almost as many Americans believe that Israel should push on to total victory even in the face of mounting civilian casualties.
And there is a diversity of opinion within the Muslim American community.
"He's doing the best he can," Mustafa Abdullah Rahman, a U.S. Army veteran, told VOA as Biden stopped at a Black-owned restaurant near Detroit. "And I feel bad for my Palestinian brothers and sisters, because they are suffering. Both sides are suffering. And so he's doing the best he can in a very touchy, touchy situation."
Biden has so far resisted pressure to call for a cease-fire, saying it will only benefit Hamas at this point. His administration is pushing for negotiations that would allow 6 weeks of cessation of hostilities for the exchange of more than 100 Israeli hostages still held by Hamas with Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
While Biden continues to provide significant military and diplomatic support for Israel, analysts say there has been a shift in his approach.
Since October 7, especially in the last few weeks, Biden has "visibly put pressure on Israel to limit the damage in Gaza," said Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. And he has expressed empathy and concern for the lives of citizens in Gaza and elsewhere, Suri said.
"He has moderated and balanced his language, maybe not as much as some people want," Suri told VOA. "But as we know, there's no one who's happy with it or found perfect balance on this issue."
Robert Murrett, a professor in the Department of Public Administration and International Affairs at Syracuse University, said it makes sense that the administration has shifted.
"I'm a military person, so we tend to put it in phases," he said. "The situation has changed. Over the last couple of months, I don't think there's any question that concerns over the level of Palestinian casualties – more than 20,000 dead in Gaza – have modified positions by a lot of people, including a White House and just about all of our allied governments and many others."
As Biden was touring a restaurant meeting voters, VOA asked Biden what his message is to Arab American communities.