JERUSALEM, Israel – After a stop in Japan, Ron DeSantis landed Wednesday evening in Israel to continue his multi-country tour to, at least publicly, foster economic relationships with Florida.
Israel is used to receiving potential White House candidates testing out their presidential chops. He was given a dignitary’s welcome, including meeting with Israel’s President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was one of Donald Trump’s closest allies abroad during his time as president.
But the message DeSantis sought to convey is that he was no stranger to high-stakes Middle East diplomacy already. In fact, he even tried to muscle in on one of Donald Trump’s signature achievements: Moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
During his speech at the Celebrate the Faces of Israel event (a project of the Jerusalem Post and the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem), he prominently highlighted his 2017 trip to Israel, noting he’d been “an outspoken proponent and advocate of relocating our embassy” in Congress as well as a mentioning a hearing he carried on the topic.
While DeSantis declined to single out Trump directly, he made clear that he felt he played a vital role in pressuring the administration to ultimately move the embassy, a key Israeli request that prior presidents had promised and reneged on.
“When we were trying to cajole the previous administration to do it, I actually launched a very small delegation over here, we looked at a bunch of different sites,” DeSantis said. “We did a big press conference, announced that this was going to happen.”
The embassy story has become a staple for DeSantis, particularly in recent months as he moves closer to an expected presidential bid: In his book, published earlier this year, the Florida governor noted that Trump signed a waiver to delay moving the embassy, and suggested he might have gotten nervous when “experts” warned it would inflame tensions in the region and close off peace talks with Palestinians and Arab countries. Ultimately, DeSantis wrote, Trump went with “the site I thought was the best.”
Trump, of course, received copious credit within Israel for his decision. There’s even a roundabout in Jerusalem named after him next to the embassy. In general, the former president treats Israel — and the Jewish Republican vote in America — as his political territory. He has even accused American Jews of showing “great disloyalty” by not voting for him on that basis (the Biden White House condemned similar remarks by Trump last year in a Truth Social post as antisemitic).
But DeSantis’ version of events underscored yet another way in which the Florida governor could try and outflank his potential opponent by selling himself as the more decisive leader. He and his allies have dropped similar hints criticizing Trump on COVID-19, especially his decision not to fire high-up officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci for encouraging tight public health restrictions.
“You know what, I didn’t realize his history with Israel,” 76-year-old Steve Rosdal, who was at the event from Colorado, told Semafor after DeSantis’ speech. “I really loved that speech and it might make a difference in the way I vote.”
And although he brushed off a question about announcing a presidential bid in mid-May (he derided the use of anonymous sources and said that “any announcements” would “come at the appropriate time”), the Florida governor sounded like a man looking to run the country at times. He trashed Biden’s Middle East policies and, without taking a position on Netanyahu’s attempted judicial reforms that have sparked mass protests, criticized U.S officials for getting involved at all. “The United States should be a strong ally to Israel, but we should not butt into their internal affairs,” he said.
Notably, DeSantis had some major 2024 supporters in his posse: Megadonor Ken Griffin was reportedly listed as a guest of the Florida governor, and he began his speech by pointing out his “friend” Miriam Adelson, another major political donor who attended the event. Semafor’s Bradley Saacks reported Thursday that Griffin’s enthusiasm for DeSantis has been called into question lately, confirming reporting in the New York Times that the billionaire was upset with his tack right on issues like abortion and the war in Ukraine.
The View From Mar-a-Lago
“President Trump made a campaign promise in 2016 that he would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and he did just that. Ron DeSantis is trying to cajole and gaslight others into thinking he had anything to do with that. It’s sad that he has diminished himself in such a tiny way where he has to outright lie about the facts to bolster his thin resume,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement.
Room for Disagreement
Some observers don’t see the race for pro-Israel GOP voters and donors as a binary choice between Trump or DeSantis: At least a few board members of the Republican Jewish Coalition are pushing for people to back 2024 candidate Nikki Haley. In a letter distributed back in March, the board members argue that Haley is “the best candidate for Jewish Republicans,” citing her work on Middle East issues as the ambassador to the U.N. under Trump.
DeSantis signed a new hate crimes bill while in Israel that will make displays of “religious or ethnic animus” on private property in Florida a felony. The U.S. publication Jewish Insider reported that the governor had been urged by Jewish groups to sign the bipartisan bill after a rise of concern over antisemitic harassment, including demonstrations and literature campaigns by neo-Nazis in the state.