Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination, expressed strong support for Israel during a brief visit to Jerusalem on Thursday, as he promoted his diplomatic credentials in a country considered crucial to any U.S. president’s foreign policy portfolio.
Mr. DeSantis declined once again to confirm his candidacy for the presidential race in 2024, but he used a speech and subsequent news briefing to showcase his experience and interest in Israeli affairs, an issue that his chief rival, Donald J. Trump, once made his own.
The governor, a foreign policy novice, stressed his track record of support for Israel and for Floridian Jews, highlighting his efforts to combat antisemitism in Florida and build business ties between his state and Israel.
“Maintaining a strong U.S.-Israel relationship has been a priority for me during my time in elective office,” Mr. DeSantis said in speech at a conference hosted by The Jerusalem Post, a right-leaning English-language newspaper. The event was attended by leading right-wing figures, including David M. Friedman, who was Mr. Trump’s ambassador to Israel; and Miriam Adelson, a longtime Israeli American supporter of Mr. Trump.
“Our alliance with Israel rests on unique cultural and religious affinities and Judeo-Christian values that trace back thousands of years to the Holy Land and which have been essential to the American experiment,” Mr. DeSantis said.
Mr. DeSantis also met Thursday morning with Isaac Herzog, Israel’s figurehead president, and said that he would also get together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Trump had an initially strong relationship with Mr. Netanyahu, but that ebbed after Mr. Trump left office.
While never mentioning Mr. Trump by name, Mr. DeSantis on Thursday tried to differentiate himself from his rival by noting how he had pushed the Trump administration to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, months before Mr. Trump decided to do so.
“I was an outspoken proponent and advocate of relocating our embassy,” Mr. DeSantis said to loud cheers from the audience. “We were trying to cajole the previous administration to do it,” he added.
Any U.S. president is seen in Israel as a crucial partner: Israel relies on American support to ward off censure from the United Nations and receives more than $3 billion in annual funding from Washington. But Mr. Trump made support for Israel a signature foreign policy, helping to broker several landmark diplomatic deals between Israel and three Arab countries.
In his appearances on Thursday, Mr. DeSantis underlined how he also had a legacy of unwavering support for Israel and American Jews, recalling how he led a trade delegation there in 2019 and promoted Holocaust education in Florida. He also hailed the deals brokered by Mr. Trump, known as the Abraham Accords, and saying that he supported efforts to secure a new one between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Mr. DeSantis also took a swipe at the Biden administration, criticizing the deterioration under President Biden in relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and suggesting that Washington should avoid taking sides in Israel’s domestic debate about the future of its judiciary. Mr. Biden has taken an increasingly vocal stance against efforts by the far-right Israeli government to assert greater control over the Supreme Court.
“We must also in America respect Israel’s right to make its own decisions about its own governance,” Mr. DeSantis said. “You’re a smart country; you figure it out, it shouldn’t be for us to butt into these important issues.”
Mr. DeSantis arrived in Israel on Wednesday night and was scheduled to leave on Thursday afternoon. His visit was the third stop of a rapid tour in which he has already passed through Japan and South Korea and which he is set to end in Britain, where Mr. DeSantis is scheduled to land on Thursday night.
The tour is nominally a chance to build trade ties between Florida and key global economies such as Israel; Mr. DeSantis is accompanied by several Florida investors and entrepreneurs, who were set to meet with Israeli businesspeople on Thursday. At his news briefing, Mr. DeSantis announced several new business initiatives between Floridian firms and Israeli counterparts, including medical researchers and airline companies.
But Mr. DeSantis has also used the trip to showcase his stance on foreign affairs and to be photographed with world leaders.
Mr. DeSantis has never set out a comprehensive foreign policy vision. But analysis of his comments and interviews with former colleagues suggest that he supports decisive international action by the United States to protect its own interests, but is less interested in U.S. efforts to shore up the liberal international order.
Mr. DeSantis was recently criticized by fellow Republicans for describing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” that was not of crucial interest to the United States, before later walking back those comments.
In Japan, he met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and announced his support for the U.S.-Japan alliance — in what appeared to be a departure from Mr. Trump’s more lukewarm position when he was president. And on Thursday in Jerusalem, Mr. DeSantis used part of his news briefing to sign a proclamation hailing the 75th anniversary of Israel’s establishment, which falls this year.
He then signed into a law a bill that he said would fight antisemitism in Florida.
He also flagged his efforts as governor in targeting Airbnb, after the holiday listings company briefly removed from its website properties in the Israeli-occupied West Bank a few years ago. He repeated his long-held position on the West Bank, which Mr. DeSantis says is disputed territory and which he referred to as “Judea and Samaria,” using the biblical name for the territory used by right-wing Israelis.
His stance is at odds with that held by most countries, who consider the West Bank occupied territory because it was captured by Israel from Jordan during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967.
At his news briefing, Mr. DeSantis mainly took questions from reporters for right-wing outlets including the American outlet Newsmax; Israel Hayom, a right-wing free sheet published by Ms. Adelson; and Channel 14, a private pro-Netanyahu television channel in Israel.
But some journalists fired in questions without being called on, including one reporter who asked Mr. DeSantis about his time as an officer at the American base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where the United States held people suspected of terrorism.
The reporter, who did not give his name, accused Mr. DeSantis of having attended the force-feeding of prisoners at the base. Mr. DeSantis replied: “Do you honestly believe that’s credible? So this is 2006, I’m a junior officer. Do you honestly think that they would have remembered me from Adam? Of course not.”