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Many 'uncommitted' American voters have clear demands for Biden to earn their vote


More than 100,000 voters in Michigan's Democratic primary this week selected uncommitted rather than President Biden. Many of those who chose uncommitted are displeased with the president's support of Israel in Gaza, and Michigan is, of course, considered a critical state in this fall's presidential election. Wa'el Alzayat is the CEO of Emgage, a grassroots organization for Muslim Americans. He also served for a decade in the U.S. State Department. Mr. Alzayat joins us now from our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for being with us.

WA'EL ALZAYAT: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What does the vote this week tell you?

ALZAYAT: It really tells us that there is wide disappointment and apprehension regarding the U.S. policy toward Israel, Palestine and particularly Gaza after, you know, so many killed and injured, over 30,000 and including 13,000 children. The Democratic voters of Michigan, or at least a good portion of them, is saying that they want to see a change in the policy, and they're not happy with what they're seeing. And it's transcending the Muslim communities. You're seeing this with Arab communities, who are a majority non-Muslim in America, as well as, you know, progressive communities, young communities, communities of color. They're really concerned.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you the political question. How do many Arab American, Muslim American voters see the likely choice between President Biden and Donald Trump?

ALZAYAT: Well, look, as a Muslim American, our community, the majority, is very clear-eyed about who Donald Trump is and his brand of the Republican Party - Islamophobia, the bigotry that we saw for four years, that we're seeing on the campaign trail. It's really unfortunate because our community largely turned out the vote for the Biden-Harris ticket in 2020, and we are proud to have been part of that. But now, given this policy, a lot of folks are not just upset. Many have lost family members. I know a few cases where they've lost over 100 who were killed when their building was targeted by the Israeli air force. And the choices for our communities need to be better than that. We need our leaders, whether they're Republican or Democrats, to value human life and also to understand there's a connection between what is happening in places like Gaza and what's happening here at home. We had a child murdered in Chicago. We had Palestinian students in Vermont attacked and elsewhere. It's affecting us here.

SIMON: What would you like the administration to do right now that might change the situation in Gaza?

ALZAYAT: What we need is to enforce our own policies. The administration is saying we do not approve of the targeting of civilians and we've communicated this to the Israelis. We want more aid to enter Gaza, particularly given what we're seeing where the U.N. agencies are warning of famine and communicable diseases. And we are saying that we do support a two-state solution. What are the actions that we are taking to enforce this, to finally use our pressure points in this case with the Israelis to agree to a mutual cease-fire? How come we are proposing to send even more money to Netanyahu and his government? How come we are not also conditioning some of the military assets and weapons that we are sharing with them to ensure that they're not used into targeting of civilians and committing human rights atrocities? And also our veto in the U.N. - we have now cast a number of vetoes shielding the Israeli government from accountability. And I'm someone who've worked on the Syria conflict, and we used to criticize Russia for wielding its veto to protect the government of Bashar al-Assad that was inflicting a lot of harm on its people. And now we're doing the same for Israel.

SIMON: You wrote a piece last year and said the Biden administration might take some lessons from officials who were in the State Department and differed with the Obama administration over U.S. support for Saudi Arabia against Yemen.

ALZAYAT: Many of the current senior folks in the administration, whether it was Tony Blinken, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, deputy national security adviser John Finer - they all signed a remarkable letter during the Trump administration in 2018 whereby they acknowledged that when they were in the Obama administration, the policies toward the Yemen conflict and the unconditional support to the Saudi-led coalition ended up costing a lot of Yemeni lives. There was a lot of civilian casualties, decimation of infrastructure. And we're seeing the same exact mistakes happening right now in Gaza, carried out by folks who were part of that letter and part of the Obama administration policy. So it's really perplexing.

SIMON: Based on your experience at the State Department, how much is Middle East policy steered by electoral concerns?

ALZAYAT: When I was at the State Department, I really did not see a lot of that. Now, I'm also aware that when you are the president of the United States, you are worried about reelection, and so that is always a consideration. But the actual deliberation in places like the State Department or the National Security Council is led by professionals who are not thinking about the domestic piece. But that is the job of the campaigns and the political advisers of the president, and they're absolutely concerned, and they're always looking for trade-offs and doing their own risk analysis. And the point for what happened in Michigan was to send to the campaign and the political advisers a very clear signal that there will be consequences for these policies, that it's not enough to just placate us. It's not just enough to meet with us. We need to see actions and that our votes matter. And we need you to listen to us now before it's too late in November.

SIMON: Wa'el Alzayat, who is CEO of Emgage and a former U.S. State Department official, thank you so much for being with us.

ALZAYAT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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