The economics (and politics) behind Florida’s Israel trip

“We have a lot of things on tap, from economic development to science and academic research to tourism. We only have four days here, and it’s only going to be more helpful to Florida,” DeSantis said, during a few brief remarks Sunday night.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Tel Aviv, Israel on Sunday. [Florida Governor's Office]
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Tel Aviv, Israel on Sunday. [Florida Governor's Office]
Published May 26, 2019|Updated May 26, 2019

A Florida trade delegation led by Gov. Ron DeSantis embarked Sunday on a mission to figure out how to make the state’s economy blossom with Israel’s help and solidify its bonds with one of the only democratic nations in the Middle East.

DeSantis has touted this “bold agenda” no fewer than four times in his last email about the trip, boasting the delegation would secure “a historic number of memorandums of understanding for a governor’s business development mission.” Fifteen, to be specific.

“We have a lot of things on tap, from economic development to science and academic research to tourism. We only have four days here, and it’s only going to be more helpful to Florida,” DeSantis said, during a few brief remarks Sunday night to the delegation of nearly 100 policy makers, academics, lobbyists and business brokers gathered at the Hilton Tel Aviv’s King Solomon Room.

He also enthusiastically spoke about the history of the region, the landmarks and sites of interest that he urged members of the delegation to take in, not that there is going to be a lot of time in between the field trips, meetings with business and academic leaders and the signings of memorandums of understanding.

Some delegates are looking to take their own side trips, focusing on issues close to their constituents’ hearts.

As the Sunshine State faces the challenge of feeding 30 million people by 2035, Wilton Simpson, a Republican of Trilby who is in line to be Senate President, hopes to bring back information that can shape future policy.

Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat from Broward County who walked the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after last year’s massacre there, hopes to learn more about school security and visit a school Monday.

Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, the first Jewish woman elected to the Florida Cabinet, has already been in Israel since Thursday, getting the jump on the rest of the delegation about agricultural and water management best practices.

And Rep. Randy Fine is interested in how Israel is taking on algae blooms and other things that affect water quality.

The trip includes a historic but much criticized state Cabinet meeting at the newly relocated U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which DeSantis had a hand in moving while a member of Congress. It also includes a meeting with recently re-elected prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It’s also an important moment for Visit Florida to prove its value to the state’s economy. Visit Florida CEO Dana Young pointed out the billboards around Tel Aviv on a bus ride from Ben Gurion Airport to the Hilton, and later DeSantis announced that direct flights to Orlando should begin soon.

While taking some questions from reporters, DeSantis said the timing of this was important given the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem. He anticipated trade missions to other areas will follow, including South America, Japan and possibly India.

“This mission will affirm our deep and ongoing partnership with Israel,” he said.

The politics and economics of the trip

While there are legitimate economic and security issues to be gleaned from this trip, several observers agree that the bottom line is political.

“It is both symbolically and politically important,” said Professor Kenneth Wald, the Samuel R. “Bud” Shorestein professor emeritus of American Jewish Society and Culture at University of Florida. “That is how this should be understood. Symbolically, the governor is signaling he’s close to Israel.”

With so many close margin elections, courting a highly active group like Florida’s Jewish population is key to both Democrats and Republicans. In 2018, Jews made up 5 percent of the voters.

They are super voters and super donors, Wald said.

Also, DeSantis is closely aligned with President Donald Trump, and the trip allows him to distance himself from comments made by the president that many have viewed as incendiary.

“DeSantis wants to reposition himself in eyes of the Jewish community,” Wald said, noting that 70 percent of Jews in a recent survey held Trump partially responsible for the Pittsburgh shooting. “DeSantis needs to develop an image free of Trump’s.”

As chairman of the US Israel PAC, formerly the Florida Congressional Committee PAC, Stephen Fiske said he’s established a friendship with DeSantis and believes he is way ahead of the curve when it comes to understanding the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.

“I attribute his time spent overseas as a JAG officer where he saw firsthand the evil of Jihad in the region versus Israel, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East,” Fiske said.

Dismissing the political motives for the trip, Fiske said DeSantis sees a huge benefit from a close relationship with Israel, “not because he wants to woo the Florida Jewish vote as skeptics assert, but he sees a huge opportunity to have bilateral trade with a country that spends more on research and development as a percentage of GDP than any other developed nation in world.”

Florida’s economy has benefited from the Trump Administration policies, he said, and DeSantis wants Florida to “lead the nation not only economically but in an age of record anti-Semitism … and growing anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses.”

Obviously, Florida will play a large role in the 2020 election, he said, and a continued robust economy is what will secure a Trump victory.

“This trip will not only boost Florida’s economic outlook but will showcase the innovative culture and creativity Ron brings to it.”

Wald downplayed the economic achievements to be expected. Florida and Israel have a long history of policies in place, with the Florida Israel Institute instrumental in arranging trips there and bringing speakers to Florida.

“I am really skeptical that much will come about that doesn’t come through other means,” Wald said.

‘A half-percent state’

Analysts like Susan MacManus, a longtime, now-retired, political science professor at University of South Florida, see the upshot on both the political and economic fronts.

“The Jewish vote is very important,” she said. “We are a half-percent state and Gov. DeSantis won by half a percent.”

She was interested that Agricultural Commissioner Fried, the first Jewish woman elected to the Florida Cabinet, and the only Democrat on the Cabinet, decided to come to Israel several days ahead of the delegation to conduct her own fact-finding mission about agriculture and water management.

“Everything in the political area is going to be tied to next year’s election,” she said.

But there are legitimate economic, security and agricultural interests here, MacManus said.

“If you look at the things historically, our governors have done trade missions for years and taken huge delegations with them,” MacManus said. “That part of it to me is not shocking.”

The trade delegation reflects different segments of Florida’s economy, including a huge academic contingent.

“Some were political but you could argue they have legitimate economic reasons to go to Israel,” she said. “With the tariffs and embargoes and other parts of the world market drying up, it’s important to keep potential trade markets open.”

USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA Statehouse Reporter Jeffrey Schweers is accompanying Gov. Ron DeSantis and his 90-plus member delegation on his Israeli business development mission this week as a pool reporter for the Florida Society of News Editors. Schweers will provide regular reports and updates from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for Florida’s newspapers. Follow him on Twitter for updates @jeffschweers.