The Settlers’ Man in Florida

The Republican Party in the era of Trump has become the party of the Israeli settler right, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis its most devoted champion.

Alex Kane
July 30, 2020
Ron DeSantis (center right) signs a Memorandum of Understanding between Florida Atlantic University and Ariel University in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, on May 27th, 2019. Photo: Governor’s Press Office

ON MAY 27TH, 2019, a beaming Ron DeSantis took the stage at Ariel University in the occupied West Bank. Surrounded by his benefactors, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, and by Israeli education officials, the Florida governor told the audience assembled in an amphitheater that it was “awe-inspiring” to be on “the most historic Jewish lands.” Then, alongside the presidents of Ariel University and Florida Atlantic University (FAU), he signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two institutions—the first such agreement between a US public university and an Israeli settlement school. As part of the MOU, FAU has already committed $75,000 to five joint medical research projects with Ariel University.

The MOU signed by DeSantis exemplifies the extent to which the Republican Party has, in the age of Trump, become the party of the Israeli settler right—an ideological turn that has now culminated in Trump and Netanyahu’s deliberations over when, and how, to annex West Bank settlements to Israel. The Trump administration’s Middle East team is dotted with settlement supporters. Before becoming US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman served as head of American Friends of Beit El, a US nonprofit that has funneled millions of dollars to the West Bank settlement of Beit El. The family foundation of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and White House adviser, donated about $60,000 to Israeli settlements before he entered the executive branch. And the pro-settlement tilt in the Trump administration is not just personnel but policy. In November 2019, Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, reversed decades of US policy by declaring that the State Department no longer considers settlements illegal. In January 2020, Trump’s “Vision” plan for Israel/Palestine endorsed Israel’s annexation of West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley. 

Support for the Israeli settler right’s agenda extends beyond the federal level. In statehouses across the country, Republicans have embraced the Israeli territorial-maximalist position that all of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea should remain under Israeli control. Conservative South Carolina State Representative Alan Clemmons, who works closely with the Israel Allies Foundation—a global lobby group that pushes elected officials around the world to pass pro-settlement policy—wrote a bill affirming Israel’s claims to the occupied West Bank, which was then passed by the South Carolina and Arizona legislatures. Texas’ Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller signed a trade agreement in March 2017 with the Shomron Regional Council, a settler municipality in the northern West Bank. But few officials at the state level have as close links to settler groups and their big donors as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has visited multiple Israeli settlements, forged ties with settler leaders, and received millions of dollars in donations from figures who directly support Israeli settlements. 

DeSantis “is truly one of the great friends of the state of Israel,” said Marc Zell, an Israeli American lawyer and West Bank settler who heads Republicans Overseas Israel. “He put into action a lot of the rhetoric that the Republican Party has adopted over the past four years.” 

THIRTY YEARS AGO, DeSantis’s decision to partner with Ariel University would have been unthinkable. Back then, Republican foreign policy-makers opposed Israeli settlement expansion, and many GOP foreign policy elites saw the continued Israeli–Palestinian conflict as a hindrance to Middle East stability. President George H.W. Bush famously blocked US loan guarantees to Israel over Israeli settlement construction ahead of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, which brought the PLO and Israel, as well as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan together for negotiations. Yet by the time President Bill Clinton presided over the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israeli settlements in the West Bank had become irrevocable facts on the ground, and there remained little will among US diplomats to put pressure on Israel. As former US negotiator Aaron David Miller famously wrote in 2005, reflecting on the collapse of the Camp David talks, American officials had served mostly as “Israel’s attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations.”  

It was during the George W. Bush era, however, that the settler lobby and its allies entered the halls of Republican power. Bush empowered settlement supporters such as Douglas Feith and Elliot Abrams. Feith served as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the Bush administration and was a key architect of US strategy in Iraq. In 1996, he wrote approvingly that the Likud Party’s position on Israeli settlements reflects “the peace-through-strength principle . . . If it relinquishes the territories generally, its security will be undermined and peace will therefore not be possible.” In 1986, Feith founded a law firm with Marc Zell, who in 1988 moved to the West Bank settlement of Alon Shevut. Abrams, who today is Trump’s Special Representative for Venezuela, served as a deputy national security adviser under Bush, and frequently inveighs against attempts to pressure Israel over its settlement building.

The pro-settlement politics of the GOP became even more pronounced as the Bush-instigated War on Terror wore on. September 11th and its aftermath had brought George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon closer together. Bush stated that the “war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” and Sharon agreed; Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah became the US and Israel’s shared enemies. Sharon framed Israel’s 2002 re-invasion of the West Bank as akin to American military operations in Afghanistan. In 2004, Bush, with the help of Elliot Abrams, sent Sharon a letter in which he said that Israel should not be expected to dismantle “already existing Israeli population centers,” a reference to major settlement blocs. 

The same period saw the apex of the Christian right’s power. Evangelicals, a core part of Bush’s base, increasingly saw Israel as a front-line defender against the threat posed by Islamic terror. In 2006, Christian evangelicals formed Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a group that saw support for Israel and the War on Terror as its defining mission. CUFI quickly developed into a lobbying powerhouse, mobilizing millions of evangelicals to support Israel hardliners for federal office. Today, CUFI receives support from Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, and evangelical Christians have arguably replaced American Jews as the primary constitutency for right-wing, pro-Israel politics in the United States. 

“Before CUFI there were organizations that promoted the pro-Israel right but they weren’t as big [as what CUFI became],” explained Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University who studies the US–Israel relationship. “They developed the mechanisms to have [an] impact on Israel within the Republican Party. They raise tons of money for Israel and what’s noticeable about it is it’s ten dollars here, five dollars here. It’s not Sheldon [Adelson] giving 20 million—it’s masses of people.”

Meanwhile, right-wing, pro-settlement GOP donors like the late Irving Moskowitz, a Miami physician who made a fortune through a bingo and gambling business, continued to pour money into the Republican Party in the US while financing the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. By the time Ron DeSantis was elected to Congress in 2012, the trifecta of white Christian evangelicals, right-wing Jewish donors, and the War on Terror had irrevocably shifted the GOP’s settlement policy to the right. 

ELECTED TO CONGRESS in 2012 with significant support from Tea Party groups, DeSantis quickly established himself as a favorite of the pro-settlement right. In 2017 and 2018, he presided over Congressional hearings on recognizing Israeli control of the occupied Golan Heights (where over 20,000 settlers live) and on moving the US embassy to Jerusalem—both actions that the Trump administration eventually took. The hearings signaled that DeSantis was not simply a run-of-the-mill pro-Israel politician, but a supporter of the settlers’ goal to gain US support for Israel’s formal annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories. “He was that committed to doing the right thing for Israel,” said Mort Klein, head of the far-right Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), who DeSantis invited to testify at both hearings. The ZOA awarded DeSantis their Zionist Hero Award in December of last year.

Not satisfied with a seat in Congress, DeSantis made a bid for, and won, executive power. He entered the Florida governor’s office in 2019, taking the settlers’ agenda with him. In January 2019, a week after being sworn in, DeSantis’ administration placed Airbnb on Florida’s blacklist of firms that could no longer receive state money due to the home-sharing company’s decision to bar Israeli settlers from renting their homes on the platform. (After Airbnb reversed its decision to delist West Bank settlement rentals in April 2019, DeSantis took them off the blacklist.) 

In May 2019, DeSantis traveled to Israel, sponsored in part by the Falic family—owners of Duty Free Americas and major backers of Benjamin Netanyahu—where for the first time, Florida officials held a cabinet meeting outside the country. While in Jerusalem, DeSantis led a signing ceremony for an education bill that was unanimously passed by the Florida legislature the month before. The bill amends pre-existing legislation outlawing discrimination in the public school system by adding religion as a protected category alongside national origin, gender, disability or marital status. The bill also redefines antisemitism to include common criticisms of Israel, listing actions like “focusing peace or human rights investigations only on Israel” and “applying a double standard to Israel” as examples of anti-Jewish hatred. The legislation was authored by State Rep. Randy Fine, who served as DeSantis’ Jewish Outreach campaign chairman during the 2018 gubernatorial race.

Civil liberties groups and Palestinian rights advocates have strongly criticized the bill for its overly broad language, intended to stifle speech and activism. The National Coalition Against Censorship and PEN American called the bill “a serious threat to the free speech rights of Floridians” that could be used to “silence political activists.” 

“It equates protest with antisemitism,” said Rasha Mubarak, a Palestinian American political consultant and strategist in Florida. “It’s dangerous for students in schools, people at universities. They’re feeling backlash to this.”

Key to understanding DeSantis’s support for the Israeli settler right specifically, and the GOP’s pro-settlement turn more generally, is the increasingly important role that right-wing, pro-Israel donors have come to play in Florida as well as nationally, explained Kenneth Wald, author of The Foundations of American Jewish Liberalism and a distinguished political science professor at the University of Florida. Although white Christians are the largest pro-Israel voting bloc nationally, they are less influential in Florida than in other states, Wald told me. And while most Florida Jews, who make up around 3% of the state’s population, vote Democrat, Republican Jewish donors constitute an important funding base for the Florida GOP. “The Republican Party here realizes Jewish voters aren’t moving to the Republican Party,” said Wald. “But they look to Jews as an important donor group.”

DeSantis’s donor base includes some of the biggest right-wing, pro-Israel donors in the United States. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave DeSantis over $800,000 during his gubernatorial campaign and donated another $5 million to the Florida GOP. Bernard Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, gave the DeSantis gubernatorial campaign $250,000, and another $250,000 to a pro-DeSantis Super PAC. Roger Hertog, a prominent American money manager, donated $125,000 to DeSantis’s gubernatorial campaign. The Falic family cumulatively donated $15,000 to the campaign as well. Cherna Moskowitz, Irving Moskowitz’s widow, gave the DeSantis campaign $250,000.

Adelson, the Falics, Hertog and Moskowitz all have close ties to the Israeli hard right. Adelson is a major backer of Benjamin Netanyahu and owns the Israeli newspaper, Israel Hayom, which is distributed for free throughout the country. Adelson and his wife have pledged $25 million to Ariel University. The Falics are also among Netanyahu’s big-figure supporters: during Netanyahu’s 2012 Likud primary campaign, they collectively gave around $50,000, or half of Netanyahu’s total donations, and in 2015, they donated another $50,000 for Netanyahu’s primary campaign. (Foreigners are permitted to donate to Israeli primary campaigns, though individual donations are capped at about $12,000 per donor.) The Falic family has also donated at least $5.6 million to Israeli settlements since 2009. Hertog is president and chairman of the Tikvah Fund, a conservative, free-market-oriented think tank and philanthropy that hosts and funds a wide range of programs, including educational seminars in the occupied West Bank. And Moskowitz and her late husband Irving have given tens of millions of dollars to Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem with the explicit goal of “Judaizing” Palestinian neighborhoods.

The FAU–Ariel University partnership is an unprecedented form of US support for the Israeli settlement enterprise. But it came as no surprise to many who have observed the Republican Party’s embrace of the pro-settlement right. “Just take a look at the party’s political platform in 2016. There is no recognition of Palestinian political rights at all,” Zaha Hassan, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. “It’s not an outlier position among the GOP.” (The 2016 platform was re-adopted in full for 2020.) Instead, the platform “reject[s] the false notion that Israel is an occupier” and opposes “any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders”—a clause that Republican activists have interpreted as an endorsement of Israeli control of the West Bank, including Ariel. These changes, which were a significant shift from the 2012 platform that endorsed a two-state solution, were pushed by key figures on the pro-settler right, including David Friedman, Jeff Ballabon, an influential Orthodox Jewish Republican activist, and Alan Clemmons, the South Carolina politician whose pro-settlement bills have become models for aligned state politicians across the country.

For pro-settlement operatives, the FAU–Ariel University MOU is a part of their larger efforts to guarantee Israeli control over the West Bank in perpetuity. Originally established to deter a potential Jordanian invasion from the east, today Ariel serves to make a two-state solution impossible. The fourth largest settlement in the West Bank, it blocks Palestinian geographical contiguity between Salfit, a large Palestinian town to its south, and a cluster of Palestinian villages to Ariel’s north. Praising DeSantis’s support for Ariel University, Zell, who also heads the Ariel University executive committee told me, ““It helps legitimize the claims of the Jewish People to live in the heartland of the Land of Israel.”

DeSantis’s courting of hardline donors and his willingness to put their agenda into practice is a measure of how successfully the pro-settlement right has solidified its place within the GOP coalition. And while Trump and Netanyahu’s plan to annex West Bank settlements to Israel may be on permanent hold due to the coronavirus crisis, annexation will remain on the Republican agenda as long as GOP donors and Christian evangelicals wield such significant influence. As DeSantis looks to move up the Republican Party ranks, his pro-settlement record will ensure he can keep raising money from some of the GOP’s biggest donors. In return, the settler right will have in DeSantis a valuable ally to guarantee that settlements like Ariel stay where they are, forever.

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.