New details on Biden’s private apology to Muslim Americans for rhetoric on Palestinian civilians
Written by ABC Audio All Rights Reserved on December 3, 2023
(WASHINGTON) — As President Joe Biden tries to find a balance between supporting Israel and showing concern for the plight of Palestinian civilians, new details are emerging about how emotions spilled over during a private White House meeting last month between him, his aides and Muslim American advocates.
Just one day earlier, the president publicly questioned the death toll in Gaza reported by the Hamas-run health ministry there in the weeks after Hamas launched a terror attack on Israel on Oct. 7, sparking a war.
“I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed,” the president said at a joint press conference with the Australian prime minister on Oct. 25. “I’m sure innocents have been killed, and it’s the price of waging a war.”
The next day, advocates said, Biden apologized to them during a meeting in the White House Roosevelt Room as they urged him to show more empathy for Palestinians and pushed, unsuccessfully, for him to back a permanent cease-fire.
Four participants described the atmosphere as emotional at times, even tearful, featuring both sharp words and a hug.
There were about a dozen people, total, in attendance for what was supposed to be a 30-minute, strictly off-the-record meeting.
The White House was provided the details from these attendees before this story was published and declined to comment on the record or confirm Biden’s exact quotes from the meeting.
Among them were Muslim advocates and top White House aides, including Biden’s domestic policy adviser, Neera Tanden, and the Small Business Administration’s No. 2, Dilawar Syed, the highest-ranking Muslim person in the executive branch. ABC News spoke with five people in attendance, some of whom asked not to be identified by name because of the sensitivities.
The president wasn’t a confirmed guest and participants believed they were getting a forum to talk with officials about Islamophobia, the U.S. position on the Israeli government, the Palestinians and related issues.
The meeting had been in the works for roughly a week or two, according to one of the attendees. After Biden walked into the Roosevelt Room, the gathering went on longer than planned — ultimately for more than an hour — according to a senior administration official.
His comments about Palestinian casualties, amid Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza to destroy Hamas’ operations in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack, stirred strong feelings.
According to multiple participants, the sole female guest, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, a prominent Muslim advocate, “respectfully challenged” the president over his tone about the Palestinians.
Barakat said, according to the participants, Biden’s stance on the war lacked empathy toward people in Gaza.
Rami Nashashibi was also at the meeting and was the only Palestinian American participant. He told ABC News that he “challenged [Biden] very explicitly about how extraordinarily cruel and insensitive” the president’s comment about the casualty statistics “sounded to people here and across the globe, who are witnessing the horrific death and carnage in Gaza.”
Hamas, which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization, runs Gaza and the Gaza Health Ministry. According to their statistics, more than 15,000 people have been killed in the territory and there have been reports of 7,000 people trapped under rubble.
The casualty numbers released by the health ministry are widely cited in the news but have not been independently verified, though officials like Secretary of State Antony Blinken went on to say in November, “Far too many Palestinians have been killed.”
In a moment that multiple people in the room on Oct. 26 corroborated, Barakat emotionally told the president that “they both shared the loss of loved ones — in her case, to horrific hateful violence.”
Barakat’s brother, his wife and her sister were all murdered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, eight years ago. Barakat described it as a hate crime.
Nashashibi said that Barakat related her experience to Biden’s, listing off the names of the president’s first wife, eldest son and baby daughter — Neilia, Beau and Naomi — all of whom have died.
Biden grew quiet and appeared “deeply affected,” according to two of the meeting participants.
Barakat told Biden that empathy was his superpower, according to four participants. She turned her entire body toward the president and said, “You are lacking empathy toward Palestinian suffering. … We need your same level of human empathy for the Palestinian suffering.”
The room was pin-drop silent, attendees said.
The president then cited some of his own experiences, like with Beau’s brain cancer and Beau recovering from the 1972 car crash that killed Naomi and Neilia.
According to the participants, Biden said he did have empathy — just ask his advisers — but said he needed to do a better job sometimes portraying it.
He then sat for a moment, according to two participants, and reflected before apologizing. These participants, paraphrasing him, remembered Biden saying he was sorry, that he would do better and that he was disappointed in himself.
The conversation also touched on antisemitism, with the advocates saying that support for a future Palestinian state wasn’t the same as antisemitism, according to Nashashibi.
Nashashibi said the president agreed with the participants that people should not be losing their jobs and having their personal information revealed online over challenging Israel’s strikes in Gaza.
The White House was provided the details from these attendees before this story was published and declined to confirm Biden’s exact quotes from the meeting.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters this week that he wouldn’t discuss accounts of private meetings.
While Nashashibi spoke out immediately after the Oct. 26 meeting, it has drawn renewed attention. The Washington Post first reported that Biden apologized to the advocates; some details were also reported by The New York Times.
The episode underscores the challenge Biden has faced given backlash from some allies — both major Muslim advocates and some leading Democrats in Congress — over his position on the war. The president has increasingly sought to strike a balance between supporting Israel’s campaign against Hamas and speaking out about the importance of protecting civilians.
The White House was initially unequivocal in its support of Israel’s response to Hamas’ “unconscionable” terror. But the president and other officials have gone on to urge Israel to reduce civilian casualties in their retaliatory operations — which Israeli officials maintains they do, despite the death toll — and Biden has called for ongoing humanitarian pauses in order to try and free hostages believed to be held by Hamas and to send civilian aid into Gaza.
Since late last week, a tenuous truce has been in place between Israel and Hamas as part of a hostage-prisoner exchange deal in which more aid was also being allowed into Gaza.
Biden last week welcomed the pause and touted his administration’s role in it, along with various Middle Eastern and Arab countries. He also suggested he might be open to putting conditions on further U.S. aid to Israel in order to curb the Israeli bombing campaign, which international organizations have noted has precipitated an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
However, the president has repeatedly declined to support a broader, ongoing cease-fire to the current war, despite calls for an end to the conflict coming from many Democratic activists and an increasing number of Democratic lawmakers.
White House officials have said they believe ending the conflict now would help Hamas in its continued attacks on Israel.
A White House source tells ABC News that there have been several meetings with White House staff these last few weeks about both messaging and policy related to the war. Led primarily by the White House chief of staff, Jeff Zients, and Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn, the meetings have been with Jewish, Muslim and Arab aides.
Some Muslim activists have said they will actively campaign against Biden in the 2024 presidential race, given that he hasn’t embraced a broad cease-fire.
Participants at the Oct. 26 meeting with Muslim advocates said they failed to change Biden’s mind on that point.
“He did not come to terms with us on the policy,” Nashashibi said.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a former Democratic National Committee official and the first Muslim elected to Congress, was a participant and told ABC News in a statement that “the President listened carefully, responded sincerely, and showed empathy and compassion for the suffering of everyone. The humanitarian pause is a welcome reprieve from the violence but the community remains steadfast in its demand for a sustained ceasefire, and negotiations to obtain a lasting settlement of the conflict.”
One participant said they felt the administration’s view had changed in some ways, though.
“They’re talking more about enforcing, protecting civilians, and they’re not doubting the [casualty] numbers anymore, and they’re showing some humanity, empathy toward the victims,” this person said.
The meeting also addressed long-standing issues, like the administration’s strategy to combat Islamophobia, which multiple participants said had gained increased urgency.
“Muslim community leaders told President Biden that the suffering of innocent Gazans trying to survive in extremely difficult circumstances has actually increased the likelihood of Islamophobic attacks in the United States,” Ellison said in his statement.
Multiple meeting participants told ABC News that they still hope the president strongly considers their policy requests. But more importantly, they said, they hope he follows through with his. They believe his push for Israel to minimize civilian damage has not been fully honored.
“So what is it that you are now prepared to do to make sure that your own asks are being respected?” said another participant, Emgage CEO Wa’el Alzayat.
As the meeting ended, according to Nashashibi, the president “leaned into [Barakat] very closely,” placing his hand on hers. “He said something to the effect that in this moment he felt he wasn’t just the president. He was a father and a grandfather.”
Multiple other people in the room confirmed this exchange.
Nashashibi said Barakat leaned in, too, and was kind but “she was very clear in that moment, even in the thick of that deep emotional connection.”
“But you are not just a father or grandfather. You are the president,” he recalled her saying. “And you can stop this.”
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