DeSantis to Speak in Israel amid Political Turmoil

REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the 2023 NHGOP Amos Tuck Dinner in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., April 14, 2023.

JERUSALEM – As a congressman, Ron DeSantis traveled here to scout U.S. Embassy sites, encouraging then-President Donald Trump to buck diplomatic tradition and recognize the contested holy city as the capital of Israel.

As Florida governor, he visited an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank – a largely Palestinian territory he calls “disputed” – and noted his campaign promise to be the “most pro-Israel governor in the country.”

Now he’s headed to Jerusalem for his highest-profile platform yet to discuss foreign affairs ahead of a 2024 presidential campaign: a keynote speech and news conference Thursday at an event that also features Israel’s president. The appearance is expected to highlight DeSantis’s close alignment with Israel – an asset in a Republican primary – at what DeSantis has called “a time of unnecessarily strained relations between Jerusalem and Washington.”

The governor has been an outspoken critic of President Biden, including during his current four-country Florida trade mission. Thursday’s visit will test anew the governor’s desire to challenge the president abroad. Biden last month criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push to reduce the power of his country’s judiciary, a plan that has sparked mass protests and alarmed some government officials.

Netanyahu and his allies – part of the most far-right government in Israel’s history – denounce the country’s courts as liberal “activist” institutions in need of an overhaul. Their proposals include allowing parliament to override Supreme Court decisions and giving the government more power to pick judges, possibly including those overseeing Netanyahu’s corruption trial. Critics contend the overhaul would destroy Israel’s system of checks and balances and do lasting damage to its democracy.

DeSantis has developed a reputation in the United States as a hard-line conservative who opposed many coronavirus restrictions, passed restrictions on school discussion of gender and sexual orientation and sought to punish Disney after it opposed the legislation. (Disney is now suing DeSantis.) Thursday’s visit could help distinguish DeSantis in a GOP field staunchly supportive of Israel, as he addresses a crowd filled with American conservative donors.

“It’s a very smart decision for an early trip,” said Elliott Abrams, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked in the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump. He noted that Trump thrilled many Jewish Republicans with his approach to Israel as president but also said many are looking beyond him for 2024.

Trump, who is running for president again and polls well ahead of his rivals, took Israel’s side in decades-long thorny disputes over territory. He moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem after many years of unfulfilled GOP promises, and recognized the contested Golan Heights region as Israel’s.

But many 2024 hopefuls, including DeSantis, have been courting members of the Jewish community and have their own long records to tout. And Trump alienated some supporters last fall – drawing a rebuke from his former ambassador to Israel – when he hosted the rapper Ye (formerly known as Kanye West), who had recently made headlines for antisemitic comments, and the far-right activist Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist and antisemite who has denied the events of the Holocaust.

DeSantis is speaking Thursday morning at an event called “Celebrate the Faces of Israel,” sponsored by the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Post, which promises discussion on “issues of religion and state, U.S.-Israel relations, judicial overhaul, tensions between Jews and Arabs and more.” Speakers include Israeli President Isaac Herzog, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, his predecessor David Friedman and the chairman of the Museum of Tolerance, Larry Mizel, a U.S.-based philanthropist long known for helping GOP presidential hopefuls navigate Israel.

Mizel, who did not respond to an interview request, has supported Trump in the past, while Rabbi Marvin Hier, who co-founded the museum, once delivered a prayer at Trump’s inauguration. Political observers took note of DeSantis’s prominent role at Thursday’s event, with one person in Mizel’s orbit saying they took it as a signal it’s “okay to back another horse” in 2024.

DeSantis could use his trip to promote or sign a Florida hate crimes bill intended in part to address recent incidents of antisemitism, such as the reported projection of a swastika onto a building. The state legislature just sent the measure to DeSantis’s desk, and he held a ceremonial signing for another bill on antisemitism during his 2019 visit to Israel.

Israel is DeSantis’s third stop this week in a tour with a Florida business delegation. Earlier this week he visited Japan and South Korea, where he met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, and other government and business officials.

DeSantis allies hope the trip can boost his foreign credentials for 2024, and he’s already faced significant scrutiny on his approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Republicans as well as Democrats pushed back on his description of the war as a “territorial dispute,” a phrase he later sought to clarify as he took a harder tone against Russia and called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal.

Despite that shift, DeSantis has continued to express skepticism of U.S. involvement in Ukraine. He said in an interview Tuesday with Nikkei Asia that it is “in everybody’s interest to try to get to a place where we can have a cease-fire” – a message out of step with the Biden administration, which has said cease-fires would allow Russia to rest and rearm.

DeSantis’s office had said little about his plans in Israel beyond the Faces of Israel appearance, announcing in a news release last week that he will meet with Israeli companies and unspecified government leaders. People in DeSantis’s orbit widely expect him to speak with Netanyahu; DeSantis met with him and praised him during his 2019 visit to Israel.

A spokesperson for Netanyahu said on Wednesday that they had no information to share. Netanyahu suggested on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” this past weekend that he would greet DeSantis as he would any American official.

“Of course, I’ll meet with everyone,” he said when asked about DeSantis’s trip. “Why not? I meet with Republican governors and Democratic governors.”

Protesters opposed to Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul are expected to greet attendees of Thursday’s “Faces of Israel” event. The plan is deeply divisive in Israel and has drawn a mixed response from Jewish leaders in the United States, with some highly critical and others suggesting it’s not their place to weigh in.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street – which calls itself a home for liberal American Jews – said he sees parallels between the message of judicial overhaul proponents and that of U.S. Republicans, who have similar complaints about the media, judges and “elites.”

“As long as that part of the Republican Party is still in firm control, I don’t see a lot of daylight emerging between the Republican Party and what’s happening on the right in Israel,” Ben-Ami said.