Netanyahu derails Kamala Harris’s best-laid plans in Michigan

Even when team Biden isn’t talking about Gaza, it can’t ignore it

Eric Garcia
Detroit, Michigan
Monday 06 May 2024 20:39 BST
Kamala Harris traveled on Air Force Two with journalists including The Independent’s Eric Garcia on Monday
Kamala Harris traveled on Air Force Two with journalists including The Independent’s Eric Garcia on Monday (Reuters)

Greetings from Air Force 2! We are less than six months away from the presidential election. As we move closer to November, Inside Washington will also take you inside the campaign trail. Let’s get to work.

On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris had hoped to keep the focus on the economy as she traveled to Detroit. As a state that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and then Joe Biden in 2020, Michigan a must-win. The Motor City has a large Black working-class population — exactly the voter demographic that Trump has targeted lately and exactly the voter demographic who have become increasingly disenchanted with the Democratic Party over the past few years. Biden will need to secure their support in the coming months if he is to have a chance in November.

And Biden and Harris will need to convince voters that the American economy is rebounding. Many voters still worry about high prices and the Federal Reserve last week elected to keep interest rates high as a way to cool inflation and temper the hot labor market. There are signs that those actions are taking effect, as the most recent jobs report on Friday showed that while the United States is tied for the longest streak of unemployment being below 4 per cent since the late 1960s, the labor market still underperformed expectations.

But that news faded into the background amid the latest developments in Israel’s war against Hamas. Shortly before Harris boarded Air Force Two from Joint Base Andrews, Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to explain his the opposition to Israel’s invasion of Rafah. This development came as Hamas announced it would accept a ceasefire from Egypt and Qatar — even as Israel ordered 100,000 people out of Rafah in seeming preparation for the invasion the US has tried to prevent.

Michigan is a state that has viscerally felt the effects of Israel’s onslaught in Gaza. The city of Dearborn, not too far from Detroit, has the largest Arab-American population in the US. Many Palestinian Americans in Michigan have lost loved ones in the war. Many Arab-Americans consider Biden’s support for Israel a betrayal and feel that he has done little to target rising Islamophobia.

That frustration motivated some people in the state to vote “uncommitted” in Michigan’s primary in November. Ultimately, about 13.2 per cent of all Michiganders who voted in the Democratic primary chose “uncommitted.” Representative Rashida Tlaib, the nation’s only Palestinian-American Congresswoman, even did so herself.

And Arab-Americans were not the only ones to vote “uncommitted.” While 17 per cent of Democratic voters in Wayne County, where Detroit and Dearborn are located, voted that way, the same number in Washtenaw, where the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is located, voted “uncommitted.” Similarly, 13 per cent of Democratic voters in Ingham County, where Michigan State University is located, picked “uncommitted” too.

Democratic voters — and Democratic lawmakers, for that matter — are mixed in their support for Israel and their views on Biden’s handling of the Gaza bombardment. But Rafah is a red line that Biden himself drew and has reiterated repeatedly. Despite these continued warnings, Congress, including many critics of the Netanyahu government, proceeded to give billions of dollars in military aid to Israel.

The Biden administration now has the opportunity to exert maximum pressure on Netanyahu’s government not only because of its warnings on Rafah, but also with the additional leverage of a Hamas-accepted ceasefire agreement. Whether or not Netanyahu will listen is another thing entirely.

After her event in Michigan, the vice president offered only the briefest remarks about the developments.

“This morning I was on the call between the president and Prime Minister Netanyahu,” she said. “We are closely tracking what is happening on the ground. And my team is keeping me updated and I have nothing further at this time.”

In a day that was supposed to be about promoting Black entrepreneurship and spreading the message that the Biden White House has turned the economy around, the developments struck a dissonant note.

The American public remains skeptical of Biden’s approach to the economy, his policy on immigration and his age. But those are winnable battles. Unless he acts on his own self-imposed red line in Gaza, however, it will continue to hang like a cloud over every campaign event.

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