JERUSALEM – At the end of the day for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, it was about building relationships, making new connections and checking in with familiar political allies.
DeSantis spent the last day of his marathon mission to Israel meeting with embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu along with the Cabinet and several lawmakers before placing a prayer in the Western Wall for Florida’s safety this hurricane season and a prayer from a Panhandle girl who lost her house in Hurricane Michael.
"I think Bibi has been a really strong leader. He gave a great speech when I was in Congress to a joint session and really everything he said about that Iran deal proved true,” DeSantis said after the meeting. “I told him after that speech I had so many constituents who said, ‘Heck why don’t we elect Netanyahu here?’ So, if it doesn’t work out for him, I think he probably could get elected in the United States if he wanted to.”
Netanyahu was specifically grateful for DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet for “standing up when Airbnb enacted their discriminatory policy and was able to turn that tide,” referring to the decision to sanction the online home rental giant for delisting Israeli properties in the West Bank.
The company has since reversed its decision and the sanctions against the company have been lifted.
After the meeting, DeSantis rejoined the delegation at the holiest site for the Jewish people. Surrounded by a phalanx of security guards, news cameras and Florida dignitaries, DeSantis was mobbed as he walked through the plaza leading to the Western Wall in the late afternoon.
One man asked who he was, and if he was Jewish. When told that DeSantis was the governor of Florida, Italian and a practicing Catholic, the man asked, “Does he support Israel?” When told that DeSantis is a huge supporter of Israel, the man smiled and said, “Okay!”
A woman following the entourage asked “who is this man?” When told he was the governor of Florida, she shrugged. “I never heard of him.”
A delegation amid political upheaval
The meeting with Netanyahu came at a point of high political drama for Netanyahu and the Israeli government.
Netanyahu failed to form a new governing coalition on Wednesday, a stunning setback that will trigger a second election just seven weeks after the Israeli leader’s Likud party appeared poised to command a majority in parliament.
Just weeks ago, Netanyahu, who faces a likely indictment on corruption charges in the coming months, was headed for a record fifth term as Israel’s prime minister. But the conservative Israeli leader’s future is now in doubt after he was unable to resolve a dispute between Likud’s two potential coalition partners, despite a surprising last-minute show of support from President Donald Trump.
"Unfortunately, it looks like we are going to elections,” Netanyahu said Wednesday, according to Israel’s Channel 12 TV News.
Israel's national assembly, the Knesset, then voted to dissolve itself after it became clear that Netanyahu would be unable to bridge the gap between a secular ultranationalist party and ultra-Orthodox factions, according to local media reports.
Asked if he was putting all his eggs in one basket considering Netanyahu’s vulnerability, DeSantis said he hadn’t really reached out to leaders of the other parties in Israel’s government.
“I met with some ministers and members of the Knesset,” DeSantis said. “We didn’t meet with leaders of the other parties. It was kind of beyond the scope of the trip.”
He also expressed the opinion that Netanyahu did well in the election and that the coalition breakdown came down to one person.
“The consensus is most voters are going to vote the same way. So, they just need to work out the coalition a little different,” DeSantis said.
He added he appreciated the winner-take-all system of American elections over the proportional representation of Israel.
“I’ll work with whoever is here,” DeSantis said. “They need allies. The U.S. is a good ally, obviously Florida, we have a strong relationship. You look around this region and they got a lot of people who don’t like them very much.”
Building relationships with political allies
During his time in Congress working to get the U.S. Embassy moved to Jerusalem and trying to get Congress to recognize it as the capital of Israel, DeSantis cultivated a relationship with Netanyahu.
He also developed a relationship with Simon Falic, CEO of Duty Free Americas and one of Netanyahu’s top three financial supporters, who also gave $5,000 to DeSantis’s bid for governor.
After the visit to the wall, DeSantis and the 100 or so members of the delegation that came with him to Israel were treated to a private dinner by Falic, one of several co-chairs for the delegation.
Other supporters of DeSantis who led the delegation included Barbara and Dr. Jeffrey Feingold, who are big supporters of the Republican Jewish Coalition and gave $3,000 each to DeSantis, and Marc Goldman, who donated $25,000 to the Friends of DeSantis PAC and is a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
The meetings with political allies bookended the trip. On Monday, he met with philanthropist, casino magnate and mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, who were on hand at Ariel University where the governor received an honorary degree.
Building business and partnerships
Amid the politics, there were plenty of partnerships.
A major part of the five-day trip was signing memorandums of understanding with Israeli companies and universities. Thursday was no different, with an agreement signed between the University of Miami and Hebrew University.
After Wednesday’s historic and controversial Florida Cabinet meeting in a U.S Embassy Annex, DeSantis started his last day in Israel with a trip to Shaare Zedek Medical Center for one of the last partnership signing ceremonies.
The day included a visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center on Mount Herzl, where he also attended a wreath laying ceremony.
DeSantis rated the business mission a success, with a historic number of memorandums of understanding signed.
“We are doing a lot of business deals, which is important, but we’re also looking at education ties. That can be the seeds of important ideas,” DeSantis said.
He repeated a common refrain of the trip, pointing to Israel’s position in the Mideast as the only country in the region that shares America’s values – a country that is a successful democracy with a strong economy.
“And yet their enemies play for keeps,” he said. “If their enemies had the wherewithal to drive Israel into the sea, they would do it. And if Iran could wipe Israel off the map tomorrow, they would do it. We’ve got to know that’s out there and remain tough.”
In response to a question about critics who have called the mission a junket and a waste of taxpayer dollars, DeSantis turned the question around.
“Well you’ve been following me around. Has it been much of a junket?” he asked. “We’ve been working hard … I’m not a travel guy. I’d rather be home. I wanted to do this in three full days. I pleaded with my staff, but we just couldn’t get it done in three full days, but we did four.”
DeSantis and the delegation return to Florida Friday.
“But we’ll be back. I’ll be happy to be back. And I think the relationship is going to continue to foster.”
Deirdre Shesgreen of USA TODAY contributed to this report.
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.