As early as his freshman term in the US House of Representatives in 2013, and especially since taking Florida’s highest office in 2019, Israel has cultivated deep ties with Governor Ron DeSantis, engineering many opportunities to tie the interests of his political donors, Florida business owners, state institutions and religious groups with the Israeli government, civic institutions and military-industrial complex. Many of these connections have been made through Israel’s dominant Likud Party, whose chairman, Benjamin Netanyahu, has recently begun a third stint and sixth term as prime minister.
As Gov. DeSantis emerges as Israel’s favored candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, this series will examine the seminal foreign policy events of his first term in the governor’s mansion, as DeSantis leveraged leadership of the state of Florida to grow his long-running special relationship with Israel and the Likud Party.
Part 1: 2019 – From Tallahassee Inauguration to Jerusalem Delegation
In his inaugural address, Governor Ron DeSantis announces that he and the first lady “have decided to dispense with the parade that typically takes place after these inaugurations; instead, we will return to the Governor’s mansion to have our little boy Mason baptized with water we brought back from the Sea of Galilee in Israel.”
DeSantis closes his first week in office by naming Robert Luck to the Florida Supreme Court. The announcement, held at a Jewish school with “a large Israeli flag displayed behind the lectern” is celebrated by both the Zionist Organization of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition, which notes the governor’s congressional record supporting Israel. At the ceremony, Justice “Luck noted he is the first Jewish justice to be named to Florida’s high court in over 20 years and commended the new governor for his support for Israel when DeSantis served in the U.S. House.”
Days later, the governor responds to the hospitality rental service Airbnb delisting Israeli settler properties in the Palestinian-disputed West Bank territory the prior November and makes clear his intent to promote unity between Florida and Israel: “At the event hosted by the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, Governor DeSantis outlined three major steps Florida will take to stand with Israel. ‘Florida is the most Israel-friendly state in the country and we will not stand for discrimination against the Israeli people of any kind… By calling for increased security for our Jewish Day Schools, punishing companies that participate in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and taking my first trade mission to Israel, the Israeli People can be assured that they have no greater friend than Florida… I cannot wait to strengthen the already unwavering bond between Florida and the great state of Israel.”
In preparation for the third major step, which will become an unprecedented state trade delegation the following May, DeSantis announces he is eager to restock the personal supply of water from Israel’s Sea of Galilee mentioned in his inaugural address weeks prior after a cleaning crew mistakenly threw away the bottle – filled on one of several previous free trips to Israel – used to baptize his son Mason: “…we do need to go back to Israel to make sure we have a stock of that water on display.” says the governor.
Jewish Journal reports Governor Ron DeSantis’ attendance at the 16th annual Friends of Israel Defense Forces gala in Boca Raton. As 650 attendees raise over $1.5 million for Israel’s army, “Danny Danon, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, provided the keynote address at the event as he spoke about Israel’s positive global impact and achievements at the U.N. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also attended the gala to honor his close personal friends, Dr. Jeffrey and Barbara Feingold of Delray Beach and spoke about his support of Israel and the Jewish community of Florida while praising the soldiers of the IDF.” The Feingold’s “were honored for their support of Israel’s soldiers, including a recent donation of a new synagogue… to… an IDF base in Southern Israel.”
Feingold, a dental insurance magnate, major DeSantis backer and GOP donor, who will accompany DeSantis’ massive delegation to Israel the following May, was “appointed to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council Board of Trustees by President Donald J. Trump. He also serves on the Florida Atlantic University Board of Trustees and is the Florida Chair and a national board member for the Republican Jewish Coalition… Feingold attended the opening of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem, as a representative of the U.S. State Department along with then-Congressman Ron DeSantis.” Within weeks of the delegation trip, Feingold is embroiled in a political scandal as Florida’s Commissioner of Financial Regulation will mention him as being party to “bribery, extortion and improper influence of a public official” along with Florida’s Chief Financial Officer.
Danon, a career Israeli politician and bureaucrat from Likud, and former party chairman to the World Zionist Organization, has deep Florida ties, graduating with a degree in international affairs from Florida International University and working for The Jewish Agency in Miami. Like the Feingolds, Mark Rosenberg, then-president of Florida International University and longtime international affairs professor, accompanies Governor DeSantis on his historic delegation to Israel some 3 months later and secures a $5.2 million research grant from US taxpayers for FIU to partner with Israel’s Tel Aviv University. “While in Israel, President Rosenberg is also signing agreements with other partners to explore the possibility of collaboration between FIU and TAU… During the visit to Israel, President Rosenberg also met with a group of FIU students who were on a birthright trip.” Rosenberg resigns from his post in 2022 after allegations he harassed female employees surfaced.
In Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ first State of the State address, he continues to urge the centrality of Israel to his strategy of governance, and further promote the upcoming delegation trip: “I offer my thanks to the Legislature for defending the U.S.- Israel relationship by enacting anti-BDS legislation. I reject attempts to target Israel for disfavored treatment and will enforce the anti-BDS provisions vigorously. This whole enterprise of targeting Israel for economic harm is such a fraud and merely a cover for antisemitism. In Florida, rest assured that BDS is DOA. We will be taking a delegation to Israel in May and I look forward to furthering the relationship between Florida and Israel.”
As the Likud Party enters a hotly contested Israeli legislative election which will ultimately lead to Benjamin Netanyahu’s 5th term as prime minister, Gov. DeSantis declares his love for “Bibi,” the embattled foreign head of state, commits to keeping the campaign promise that “I would be the most pro-Israel governor in America” and announces the details of May’s impending trade delegation – the first trip abroad for the governor – on a visit to a synagogue in Plantation, Florida. “Our delegation will bring business, academic and political leaders to help strengthen the bond between Florida and Israel,” reports Jewish News Syndicate.
Airbnb retreats from its corporate position delisting rental properties in the contested West Bank settlements after Israel’s Shurat HaDin, a zionist legal advocacy group modeled after the SPLC, sues the company on behalf of Jewish West Bank property owners who hold US citizenship as discriminatory against Jews under the US Fair Housing Act – and DeSantis celebrates the victory, 3 months in the making, with a tweet.
As the governor prepares for the historic delegation trip to Israel, the Florida legislature is hammering out the details of a bill intended to combat antisemitism. According to Politico: “The legislation would require schools and colleges to treat allegations of anti-Semitism as they would allegations of racial discrimination. It would define anti-Semitism as ‘demonizing’ or using ‘stereotypical allegations’ against Jewish people, including the ‘myth about a world Jewish conspiracy.’ Anti-Semitic behavior would include ‘accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.” It passes both the Florida House and Senate unanimously by the end of the month, but DeSantis will wait until a Florida Cabinet ceremony held in Jerusalem in late May to sign the bill into law.
Part 2: 2019 – Governor DeSantis’ Mission to Israel