Gov. Ron DeSantis led a Florida trade delegation to Ariel University in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank in May. Among those present was casino mogul and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson. Credit: Governor’s Press Office
Even before he became the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis aspired to become this country’s most-pro-Israel governor.
He aligned himself with both President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sharing their advocacy of an aggressive Zionism. DeSantis underscored his fidelity through a high-profile trade mission to Israel in late May, his first foreign trip as governor.
Now both of those political allies are beset by corruption scandals – Trump under threat of impeachment, Netanyahu under indictment on bribery-related charges.
Trump appears not to have suffered much in support from his base, elements of which DeSantis shares. Neither do political analysts contacted by the Florida Phoenix believe that Netanyahu’s indictment will splash mud on Florida’s governor.
“I don’t think it has any major impact at the end of the day,” said Rick Wilson, the GOP political strategist turned Trump antagonist.
“The people who really vote based on Israel are evangelical Christians, and there’s nowhere else for them to go,” he told the Phoenix Monday via text message.
A Democratic consultant, Steve Schale, replied in a similar way.
“For those who are inclined to vote for him based on his approach to Israel – or for social conservatives who see it as a rallying point for the right – the issue is more about his priorities than the specific prime minister. And those likely to take a negative view of him because of Netanyahu probably already have a negative view of them both,” Schale said via email.
“In some way, the flip played out in the other direction for President Obama, for whom the right tried to paint as anti-Israel because of his poor relationship with Netanyahu, but that relationship had no impact on the vast majority of Jewish voters who voted for him anyways.”
The pro-Israel stance was an important component of Trumps’ and DeSantis’ appeal to Jewish voters. It also appeals to evangelical Christians. DeSantis, for example, enjoyed 77 percent support among white Protestant evangelicals in his 2018 campaign. That group supports Israel out of belief that God gave to the Jewish people perpetual rights to the land on both sides of the Jordan River, and also because of Israel’s central role in Second Coming prophesies.
Netanyahu has courted the same constituency, telling evangelicals at one point that Israel has “no greater friends than Christian supporters of Israel.”
The governor’s press office did not respond to a request for comment. Of the four independently elected Florida Cabinet members approached for comment, only Republican Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis replied.
“Florida’s Cabinet, through the trade mission and the resolution earlier this year, made it clear that we stand with our closest ally and the only democracy in the Middle East. Our state’s leadership will not be deterred in this support,” Patronis spokesman Devin Galetta said via email.
The conservative Republican governor’s embrace of Netanyahu included meeting with him during DeSantis’ and the Florida Cabinet’s late May trade mission to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Following their talk, DeSantis referred to the P.M. by his nickname, Bibi, and called him a “really strong leader.”
DeSantis said Netanyahu had favorably impressed him during a 2015 address to Congress – one arranged by the Republican leadership as a rebuke to then-President Obama – and panned by Democrats as hyperpartisan.
“I told him after that speech I had so many constituents who said, ‘Heck, why don’t we elect Netanyahu here?’ So, if it doesn’t work out for him, I think he probably could get elected in the United States if he wanted to,” the governor told a pool reporter on the Israel trip.
The governor also has endorsed Netanyahu’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and led the Cabinet in sanctioning Airbnb when it moved to curb listings for Israeli-owned properties in the West Bank. The company subsequently abandoned that policy.
“They’re the only country in the region that shares our values – that has a democratic form of government and that’s really been successful,” the governor told reporters in Israel.
“And yet their enemies play for keeps. If their enemies had the wherewithal to drive Israel into the sea, they would do it,” DeSantis said. “If Iran could wipe Israel off the map tomorrow, they would be willing to do it. We’ve got to understand that’s out there, and we’ve got to remain tough.”
The trade delegation included a number of activists for the Zionist cause, including Eytan Laor, the Israel-born political consultant who sits on the board of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, which describes itself as an ”unabashedly pro-America and pro-Israel” think tank; Bob Diener, the online hotel-booking entrepreneur who serves on the board of the Development Corp. for Israel, which sells Israeli government bonds in the United States; and Becker & Poliakoff shareholder Ellyn Bogdanoff, who works with Jewish organizations including the Holocaust Documentation Center.
Not listed as a trade delegate was gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a DeSantis and Trump campaign donor who ended up attending the ceremonial signing of a memorandum of understanding promising student exchange and cooperative research programs between Florida Atlantic University and Ariel University.
Note: The university is located in an Israeli-occupied area of the West Bank. Additionally, the governor and Cabinet staged a ceremonial meeting in the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, which President Trump established there to underscore support for Israel and its settlement policies.
Ironically, perhaps, the indictment against Netanyahu lists Adelson was the victim of one of the bribery schemes, which would have benefited a rival publisher to Adelson’s Israel Today newspaper, which is circulated for free in Israel.
DeSantis’ meeting with Netanyahu happened just hours after the prime minister was forced to dissolve Israel’s Knesset having failed to form a coalition government. That set up a snap election in September, following which Netanyahu again failed to form a government. At last word, rival Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz announced that he’d failed to form a government.
Florida Politics reporter A.G. Gancarski asked DeSantis at the time whether he’d embraced Netanyahu too closely. The governor thought not.
“I’ll work with whoever’s there. From the perspective of Israel, they need allies,” DeSantis said.
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