TEL AVIV – International politics took center stage Monday for Florida’s academic and business delegation as Gov. Ron DeSantis and an entourage of nearly 100 people traveled from Tel Aviv to the West Bank and back to sign partnerships and receive accolades for the governor’s staunch support of Israel.
With the Mediterranean Sea as a backdrop, DeSantis started the day with a press briefing at the Hilton Tel Aviv. He mentioned an earlier gathering with top Israeli officials before looking ahead to a Thursday meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He praised Netanyahu for exuding strong leadership and said the U.S. should support Israel as it works to form a coalition government. He said he will probably be the first foreign official to meet with Netanyahu after Wednesday’s midnight deadline to form a coalition government.
“He’s been a guy who when he came to address the Congress in 2015 really knocked it out of the park,” DeSantis said.
Netanyahu is facing difficulties trying to create a coalition government and has threatened to call for a new election if the current deadlock can’t be broken, according to Israeli news reports.
DeSantis also weighed in on U.S. policy and ongoing tensions in the Middle East.
“If you look at this whole conflict, to me, the biggest problem has been that Palestinian Arabs have not recognized Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” he said. “That kind of denialism poisons really everything.”
It was a theme carried over from the night before when DeSantis said during the delegation meet-and-greet in Tel Aviv that Palestinians “teach their kids in school to hate Jews, to hate Israel.”
DeSantis also said it’s time to lift the sanctions against Airbnb now that the short-term rental company rescinded a policy delisting properties in the West Bank. He claimed it as a victory in the battle against the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.
“I don’t want to penalize a company for doing the right thing,” he said. “They made a bad decision but they rectified the error and that’s what we want to see.”
Hours later, after driving 45 miles to the new Ariel University in the West Bank settlement it’s named after, the pro-Israel and anti-BDS movement comments continued as a contingent of TV media and others recorded the event.
DeSantis met philanthropist and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, owner of several casinos, and his wife, Miriam Adelson. DeSantis also received the Honorary Fellowship Award from Ariel University in honor of “his dedication, leadership and commitment to the state of Israel.”
DeSantis told the crowd there was no place for BDS in Florida, BayNews9’s Troy Kinsey reported.
Yehuda Danon, president of Ariel University, praised DeSantis for getting Airbnb to reverse its policy. “Your position and your activity changed the mind and changed the position of the people at Airbnb and that is really appreciated,” Danon said.
Ariel Chancellor Yigan Cohen-Orgad used the occasion to rail against what he called “the silent boycott being exercised by American universities against Israeli universities.”
Ariel, which used to be a public university called the Ariel Center in Samaria, is barred from applying for grants from the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation and the Fulbright Foundation because it is in a settlement in a disputed area that is considered illegal under international law.
Cohen-Orgad criticized former President Obama and previous administrations for making a distinction between Samaria and Israel. The university has many projects related to security, water quality, sewage systems and homeland security that it can’t share.
“Science has no borders… It’s absurd,” Cohen-Orgad said. “It’s against American interests. It’s against the basis of cooperation between us and the United States. Mr. Governor, I’m sure your ability and experience creating bipartisan policy getting Democrats and Republicans to join for common purposes… This visit today… can be the trigger for an ongoing activity … and joint research activity.”
Some officials went their own way Monday morning but made it back in time to be at the signing of the memorandum of agreement between Ariel University and Florida Atlantic University to create a student exchange program.
Sens. Lauren Book and Wilton Simpson, as well as Reps. Chris Sprowls and Randy Fine, took a tour of an Israeli school Monday morning with Kobi Sorero, retired chief of the North Jerusalem Police Department. No media was allowed because of security.
Likewise, Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz took a tour to Gaza to see the country’s emergency management center. He plans to sign a memorandum of understanding today that would allow Israel’s frontline responders to come to Florida to assist in an emergency.
Back in Tel Aviv, the governor signed a memorandum of agreement between Space Florida and the Israel Space Agency to work on several projects together, including the launching of microsatellites, something that has been in the works for years.
Even though an Air Force memorandum earlier this month seemed to strike Florida from the list of possible sites for a newly formed military branch, DeSantis insists the Space Force should be headquartered in the Sunshine State.
“We’re really working hard to get that located in Florida,” he said. “We’ll see what happens with that.”
DeSantis also signed MOUs between Haifa University and Florida Atlantic University, Miami Dade College, Florida A&M, and the University of North Florida.
The night ended with a final partnership agreement signed between Visit Florida and the Ministry of Tourism.
Dana Young, who left the Florida Senate to take over as CEO of Visit Florida at the request of DeSantis, had her own day full of meetings and appointments with embassy officials and Israeli marketing companies and tour operators to promote Israeli-U.S. tourism.
Visit Florida recently installed 30-45 signs up around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to promote the Sunshine State. Starting in June, El Al will start direct flights to Orlando to give people easier opportunities to explore Florida, Young said.
Last year, about 40,000 to 60,000 Israelis visited Florida. Young hopes to boost those numbers with the allure of seeing Florida like a native, with opportunities to swim with manatees, kayak crystal springs and paddleboard the coast.
“Hopefully, I should put together a program that makes sense to travelers from Israel,” said Young, whose agency was on the verge of being shut down until the Legislature decided at the last minute to give it enough money for one more year. “That’s what the Legislature is looking for – a return on its investment.”
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.