Florida governor Ron DeSantis lauds Israel on trip to Jerusalem

Top Republican's visit widely viewed as an attempt to bolster international credentials before a tilt at his party's presidential nomination

Ron DeSantis blasts Biden administration's Middle East policies during Israel trip

Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, speaks during a news conference at the Jerusalem Post Conference in Jerusalem, Israel, on Thursday, April 27, 2023.  After DeSantis began pushing legislation that could upend Disney’s theme-park development plans and regulate its monorails, and even floated the idea of building a prison near Walt Disney World, the company sued, accusing the Republican of breach of contract and violating its free speech rights. Photographer: Kobi Wolf / Bloomberg
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Florida governor and potential US presidential candidate Ron DeSantis described Israel as one of his country’s “most valued and trusted” allies during a visit to Jerusalem on Thursday.

“The task before us as Americans is standing strongly and forthrightly with Israel and with the Jewish people,” Mr DeSantis said at a conference hosted by the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem and The Jerusalem Post newspaper.

His trip is part of a wider international tour designed to build his profile as a statesman. The visit is perhaps the strongest indication yet that the Republican Florida governor plans to run for US president next year.

Mr DeSantis did not confirm whether he would be running, and instead chose to highlight his ongoing support for Israel and criticise the policies of the Biden administration in the region.

At a press conference, he criticised the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, saying it “flooded Iran with money that rejuvenated their economy, and that led to the funding of terrorism all across the Middle East”.

He also encouraged Israel's efforts to normalise relations with Saudi Arabia. “Absolutely, I think with proper policy and proper relations you could see Saudi Arabia recognise the existence of Israel,” he said.

Mr DeSantis spoke about his opposition to pro-Palestinian campaigns to isolate Israel, a 2019 trip in solidarity with a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, and his support for US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Former US president Donald Trump in 2018 moved his country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move heralded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other conservatives, but one that upended decades of US foreign policy and frustrated Palestinians who seek East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Despite Mr Trump leaving office in 2021, the US embassy remains in Jerusalem.

Most UN member states do not recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, taking the position that Israel’s capture and subsequent annexation of East Jerusalem during the 1967 Middle East War is a breach of international law.

UN Security Council Resolution 465, issued in 1980, calls on Israel “to cease, on an urgent basis, the establishment, construction and planning of settlements in the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem”.

Mr DeSantis landed in Israel on Thursday after stops in Japan and South Korea, where he met Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo.

His trip to the Middle East is an opportunity for him to burnish foreign policy credentials and show voters at home that he too can cultivate close ties with Israel and Mr Netanyahu.

“For Governor DeSantis to be able to see on the ground what is going on, as well as to meet with and build a relationship with Netanyahu, is significant for him to credibly claim that he is going to continue with the proper agenda with foreign policy, particularly to the Republican electorate,” said John Thomas, a Republican strategist who heads a political action committee in support of Mr DeSantis.

US support of Israel is an important element in any Republican agenda and Mr DeSantis is actively working to prove to the party's base that he will carry on that tradition, Mr Thomas told The National.

The governor is travelling as part of an international trade mission and appeared irritated when a journalist asked about the possibility of running against Mr Trump for the Republican party's presidential nomination.

“I'm not a candidate, so we'll see if and when that changes,” he said.

But Mr Thomas called the trip “significant” and an important step to “burnish and bolster” Mr DeSantis’s credentials to run for president.

“He's going out there to be able to come back to the United States and credibly say that he is qualified and has relationships to make the tough decisions that are required of a commander in chief,” he said.

Updated: April 27, 2023, 6:51 PM