Jerusalem. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Billed as an international trade mission, Ron DeSantis’ trip abroad this week to Japan, South Korea, Israel and the U.K. is in the rich tradition of aspiring presidential candidates using such an opportunity to show off their foreign policy gravitas.
It also comes after a bruising week for the Florida governor in his (still unofficial) bid for the Republican nomination for president in 2024. The number of Florida congressional members ditching him and endorsing Donald Trump for president rose to 11 last week, while his poll numbers have continued to plummet in one-on-one matchups with the former president.
The trip also allows DeSantis to reestablish himself in international affairs following what was perceived to be a gaffe for calling the Russian invasion a “territorial dispute.” DeSantis made the remark on Fox News in March, and the governor later said it had been mischaracterized.
Given those factors, “any reasonable person might flee the country,” jokes Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg. “Going on a four-nation tour will give DeSantis the opportunity to refocus his campaign on foreign policy issues,” he says. “It is also an opportunity to persuade partisans that he is the strongest supporter of Israel, something that is critical to Republican voters.”
His visit to Israel on Thursday at the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem to mark the 75th anniversary of the creation of the nation is likely to be a highlight of the week for the governor, where he’ll be visiting for a 5th time.
DeSantis visited Israel three times when he was in Congress. The other trip, in May 2019, was shortly after he came into office. That event included a Florida Cabinet meeting in Israel. First Lady Casey DeSantis has been accompanying the governor during his current travels.
During his 2018 gubernatorial campaign against Democrat Andrew Gillum, DeSantis promised that the state would “have the most pro-Israel governor” in the country if he was elected – and his record – both as a member of Congress representing parts of Northeast Florida from 2012-2018 and in his four years plus in Tallahassee – shows that he has indeed been a big friend of Israel and the Jewish community.
DeSantis’ record on Israel
In 2015, DeSantis was the co-sponsor of federal legislation to prevent the U.S. government from using any contractors who were boycotting Israel for their occupying the Palestinian territories as part of the boycott, divest and sanction movement better known as BDS.
The governor made what one Israeli newspaper called a “relentless push” to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – something that President Trump ultimately did in 2018.
Just weeks into his tenure as governor in 2019, DeSantis led Florida’s State Board of Administration in placing Airbnb on the state’s scrutinized companies list when the vacation rental company stopped listing properties located in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He later called for similar sanctions on Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company Unilever after the ice cream giant announced plans to remove its products from being sold in the West Bank.
And he signed into law in 2019 a bill that added religion as a protected class in public schools and to consider antisemitism under certain instances of discrimination. (The Jewish Insider reported this week that DeSantis may ceremoniously sign a hate-crimes bill that has been unanimously approved in both chambers of the Florida Legislature in Israel that addresses the rising number of antisemitic incidents that have taken place across the state).
“I think (the visit) will get a lot of attention in Israel because people are curious about DeSantis,” says Nathan Guttman, a veteran journalist who currently serves as the U.S. correspondent based in Washington D.C. for the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation. “They know a little bit about him in Israel. They know that he is the person who might challenge Trump, and Trump is well known and widely liked in Israel. So I think he’ll get a lot of attention.”
Logan Bayroff, the vice president of communications with J Street, a liberal Israel advocacy organization based in Washington, says the governor’s definition of being pro-Israel “is marching in step with Israel’s increasingly very right-wing government.”
“It means basically rejecting or at least never speaking about any interest in an actual two-state solution to resolve these Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. It tends to mean increasingly supporting settlement expansion in the West Bank and Israeli policies to maintain and deepen occupation there, refusing to call those policies occupation but using terms like disputed, and that runs counter to longstanding U.S policy not only under Democrats but also under former Republican administrations,” he says.
While DeSantis is struggling at least in public opinion polls compared to Trump in the U.S., he’ll be meeting his match with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where a recent poll had him at just 20 percent of the Israeli public saying that he is doing well as prime minister, compared to 71 percent who say that he is doing poorly.
For four consecutive months, tens of thousands of people have gathered every Saturday in cities across Israel to protest his controversial plans to overhaul the country’s judiciary – which Netanyahu put on hold last month, though he hasn’t backed away from the plan.
“Netanyahu is struggling on all fronts in Israel,” says Guttman. “He’s losing support in the polls, hundreds of thousands of people have come out every Saturday for 16 weeks to protest against him and his attempts to overhaul the judicial system in Israel and he’s getting a lot of flak from foreign governments for his policies, so he needs some good news and a nice photo op with one of the most influential governors in the United States and a potential presidential candidate can help bolster one of Netanyahu’s basic premises which is: I’m the only statesman in Israel.”
Netanyahu’s attempt to overhaul the judiciary in Israel has led to some tensions between the U.S. and Israeli governments. When asked last month about how concerned he was about the health of democracy in Israel, President Biden told reporters that “I’m very concerned, and I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road.”
Florida serves as a bridgel
Noting those comments, DeSantis told The Jerusalem Post last month that “at a time of unnecessarily strained relations between Jerusalem and Washington, Florida serves as a bridge between the American and Israeli people.”
Peter Beinart, the editor-at-large of the publication Jewish Currents and a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, says that it may be a stretch to say that relations between the two nations are “strained” as the U.S. continues to provide more than $3 billion a year in military aid to Israel.
“Biden has said since the campaign that the United States is committed to continuing unconditional military aid … so the United States lacks any effort criticizing or investigating Israel in international bodies like the United Nations or the International Criminal Court,” Beinart says. “So if this is strained, I’d like to see unstrained.”
Beinart does acknowledge that it is noteworthy that Biden hasn’t invited Netanyahu to the U.S. for a visit yet.
But Guttman says that the tone of the rhetoric from Washington has been noticed in Israel.
“There were pretty tough messages and in terms of the Israeli-United States relationship it is considered tense when the president says something – but of course, there was no practical measure,” he says. “The U.S. didn’t stop any aid to Israel or anything like that or vote against it at the UN.”
Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory is unlawful under international law due to its permanence and the Israeli government’s de facto annexation policies, a United Nations-appointed Commission of Inquiry said in a report last fall. But speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas last fall, DeSantis defended Israel’s claim to the West Bank, saying that it “is not occupied territory, it is disputed territory. I don’t care what the State Department says.”
Beinart says that’s a comment that reporters should question DeSantis about.
“How can someone who says that they believe in democracy, right, support a situation where most of the people in a territory, because they have the misfortunate of being the wrong religion and ethnicity, can’t vote for the government under which they live?” he says of Palestinians rights living in Israel.
Following his visit to Israel, the governor will conclude his overseas trip with a visit to the United Kingdom on Friday. UK companies employ 67,000 people in Florida, making it the top foreign investor in the state.
DeSantis isn’t the only Republican governor who some believe could be running for president next year. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has not denied any interest in running in 2024, also is on a trade-focused visit this week that includes stops in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
“This upcoming four nation “trade mission” may be a political diversion for DeSantis, but the campaign certainly needs a diversion at this point of the campaign, and any positive outcome will be better news than what the DeSantis campaign has experienced for the past few months,” says Professor Emeritus Paulson.
Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd and Florida Secretary of Commerce Laura DiBella have also been on the international trip.
The governor’s office recently told NBC News that DeSantis’ foreign trip is not being paid for by taxpayers. Apparently, it’s being paid for by Enterprise Florida, the public-private state agency that the Legislature has been moving to eliminate during this current legislative session. The agency also picked up the costs for the governor’s 2019 trip to Israel, though the News Service of Florida later reported that taxpayers did pay for the lodging, airfare and other travel costs for other state officials on the trip.
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