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Florida governor DeSantis says US shouldn't 'butt into' Israel's internal affairs

Ron DeSantis' comments come during a trip to Israel where he is seeking to boost his pro-Israel credentials
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a conference titled “Celebrate the Faces of Israel” at Jerusalem's Museum of Tolerance, on 27 April 2023.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaking at Jerusalem's Museum of Tolerance, on 27 April 2023 (AFP)

Florida governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis criticised US President Joe Biden’s record on Israel and said Washington should stay out of Israel’s judicial overhaul debate, during a trip to the country on its 75th anniversary where he looked to flex his pro-Israel credentials.

“My view is that the United States should be a strong ally to Israel but we should not butt into their internal affairs,” he said during a speech in Jerusalem on Thursday. He added that the US should respect Israel’s right to make its own decisions about its governance. 

In his speech, DeSantis added that Judaism and Christianity are the basis for the alliance between the US and Israel.

He also told a story about his 2019 visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where he said he prayed that Florida would pass the hurricane season safely. At that time, a hurricane that was heading to Florida slowed down and didn’t hit the state, he said.

“I think it was because of my prayer at the Western Wall," he said.

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The comments came at a conference on Thursday in Jerusalem hosted by The Jerusalem Post and Museum of Tolerance, celebrating Israel’s 75th anniversary. 

The Florida governor, who is expected to announce his bid for the US presidency in the upcoming weeks, is currently on an international tour that includes Japan, South Korea, Israel, and the UK. This is part of a trade mission that was organised by Florida’s economic development agency.

This is DeSantis’ fourth trip to Israel. He met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later on Thursday.

Israel's judicial overhaul 

Biden has called for a compromise, saying that Israel “cannot continue down this road” after his administration called on Netanyahu to postpone the planned judicial overhaul.

“And we’ve been very clear about calling for a compromise before moving forward with these reforms,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week. “We’re going to continue to have those conversations, again, privately, and be pretty vocal publicly.”

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Since being reelected late last year to head one of the most right-wing coalitions in Israel's history, Netanyahu has been pursuing changes to the judiciary that would give his government greater sway in selecting judges and limit the power of the Supreme Court to strike down legislation.

The plan has stirred mass protests in the country and concern among its traditional western allies.

At the same time, it has caused tensions in the longstanding and bipartisan US-Israel relationship, which reached new heights in March when Biden and Netanyahu traded barbs over the ongoing protest movement against the planned judicial reforms.

When Biden warned Netanyahu that he “cannot continue down this road”, the Israeli premier responded by saying that “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad”.

DeSantis' remarks on Thursday appeared to echo the sentiments that Netanyahu voiced to the White House earlier this year.

DeSantis' pro-Israel record

As the Florida governor floats a potential 2024 bid for president, which would mean a face-off against former President Donald Trump, Palestinians have previously expressed worries about what that would mean for their communities.

DeSantis made headlines in November 2022 after claiming that the occupied West Bank is not actually occupied by Israel but is disputed territory. He also boasted that he was "the first statewide elected official to do public events in Judea and Samaria", referring to the West Bank by its Hebrew biblical name.

On a trip to Israel that DeSantis made in 2019, he blamed Palestinians for the occupation of their land.

"If you look at this whole conflict, to me, the biggest problem has been that Palestinian Arabs have not recognised Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state," DeSantis said in Tel Aviv.

While he has established himself as a pro-Israel politician, DeSantis has gone further to also posit himself as a pro-settler politician - a position favouring policies that are in violation of international law.

Weeks after becoming governor of Florida, he blacklisted Airbnb after it made the decision to ban homes in Israeli settlements from being listed for rent on its platform. Airbnb later rescinded its decision and was taken off the blacklist.

He has also been a proponent of legislation against the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which "aims to end international support for Israeli violations of international law by forcing companies, institutions and governments to change their policies". More than three dozen states have adopted anti-BDS legislation in some form or another.

Florida adopted its anti-BDS law in 2016, prior to DeSantis becoming governor. But the then-congressman had still commended its passage and said he was leading "efforts in Congress to combat BDS".

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