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In Jerusalem, DeSantis tries to outstump Trump

Here are four things the Florida governor is trying to accomplish in Israel ahead of his anticipated presidential campaign launch

On a quick trip to Israel Thursday and Friday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sought to establish himself as a serious contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination as he prepares to launch a campaign in the coming weeks and take on former President Donald Trump.

Many of his moves in Jerusalem were Trump-like. But he also sought to contrast himself to the current front-runner in the GOP primary in the battle for conservative Jewish and evangelical voters. 

DeSantis took credit for the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, which happened during the Trump administration. He signed legislation to combat antisemitism, met with Trump’s former close ally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and lit into a reporter in a scene that resembled one of Trump’s tangles with the press.

The Trump campaign took notice, and mentioned DeSantis’ Israel trip in an email attacking his frequent travels out of his state. 

In his 25-minute keynote speech at a conference celebrating Israel’s 75th anniversary, DeSantis touted his long-standing support of Israel and criticized the Biden administration’s approach to the U.S.-Israel relationship. 

The conference, at Jerusalem’s Museum of Tolerance, also featured several Trump allies, including Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of Simon Wiesenthal Center, and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Both distanced themselves from Trump in the wake of his November dinner with Kanye West, the rapper who changed his name to Ye and who has spewed antisemitic conspiracies, and Nick Fuentes, one of America’s most prominent young white supremacists. Hier, who delivered an invocation at Trump’s inauguration in 2017, condemned the dinner meeting as an “ill-conceived decision.” 

Here are four things DeSantis is trying to accomplish while in Israel:

1. Take ownership of  the Jerusalem embassy move

In his remarks, DeSantis claimed to have laid the groundwork for the U.S. embassy’s 2018 move from from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem He also said he had to “cajole” Trump to follow through on the promise. In 2017, DeSantis, at the time a congressman, traveled to Israel to scout possible sites in Jerusalem for the embassy. His claim echoes his recently published book, in which he writes that he “wanted to create a sense of inevitability” around the move.

DeSantis earned applause when he declared that friends of Israel “must also ensure that however the future political winds may blow, the U.S. embassy will always be right here in Jerusalem. That’s never going to change.”

On Wednesday night, DeSantis dined with Miriam Adelson who, along with her late husband, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, was the most generous financial supporter of Trump’s 2020 campaign after he pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem. Trump honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2018. But since the death of her husband in 2021, Miriam Adelson has kept a low profile and pledged to stay neutral in the upcoming Republican presidential primary. 

2. Prove himself in the fight against antisemitism

Following his remarks, DeSantis held a press conference to sign into law a recently passed Florida hate-crime bill that would make publicly displaying a swastika and other bigoted imagery a felony. He tossed blue pens he used to sign copies of the law from the podium. 

“Florida led the way in combating the scourge of antisemitism,” DeSantis proclaimed in his Thursday speech.

Critics have accused him though of failing to call out antisemitism and for “embracing antisemites” to boost his political career. He recently echoed Republican attacks and invoked a common antisemitic trope by accusing Jewish billionaire George Soros of controlling Trump’s prosecutors and critics. DeSantis reportedly faced pressure in recent weeks from Jewish Republicans to speak out more forcefully against rising antisemitism.

Florida State Rep. Randy Fine, a Jewish Republican, tweeted Thursday that he made “a secret trip” to Jerusalem with the bill’s author, State Rep. Mike Caruso, another Republican, to deliver it to the governor. 

“OK, that’s in the books,” DeSantis said after he signed the bill. “We are fighting back.”

3. Stay mum on Israel’s political turmoil

DeSantis declined to weigh in during the trip on the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul proposal, which critics have said would effectively destroy Israel’s system of checks and balances, and which has brought as many as 500,000 Israelis into the streets in protest.

The Biden administration has repeatedly urged Netanyahu to change course and seek broad consensus on any changes to the judiciary. 

DeSantis said the U.S. must “respect Israel’s right to make its own decisions about its own governance” and “it shouldn’t be for us to butt into these important issues.” He later told reporters he briefly spoke with President Isaac Herzog, who is pushing for compromise and called Israel “a very rambunctious democracy.”

“That’s a debate that’s happening here. It’s obviously raging,” DeSantis said of the protests. “But, honestly, it seems to me — just as an outsider coming in — that at the end of the day, it’s healthy to flush this stuff out.” 

4. Meet with Netanyahu 

DeSantis is expected to meet with the Israeli prime minister Friday morning in Jerusalem. 

In an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation Sunday morning, Netanyahu — whose relationship with both Biden has faltered — defended the upcoming meeting with a likely Biden rival. Netanyahu is awaiting an invite to the White House to meet with the incumbent president, who earlier this week launched his reelection bid. 

“I meet with Republican governors and Democratic governors,” he said. “I think it’s my job, and I think it’s important for Israel’s bipartisan support in the United States.” 

The meeting is likely to enrage Trump, who viewed Netanyahu’s congratulations to Biden as he was declared the victor in the 2020 election as the “ultimate betrayal.” Trump later made profane remarks about the prime minister’s outreach to the U.S. president-elect. Netanyahu also seems to have cooled to Trump,  and in November criticized his November meeting with West and Fuentes.

Trump hasn’t mentioned Netanyahu’s name on his social media platforms since the prime minister returned to office in December and has barely mentioned Israel in his daily posts and emails.

But a photo op with Netanyahu may not be as valuable to candidates trying to appeal to committed Republican and evangelical voters as it was in the past. A recent Pew Research survey showed that younger Republicans ages 18-49 are less positive about Netanyahu than those age 50 and older. About a third of younger evangelicals and Republicans say they have never heard of the Israeli leader.

This post was updated. 

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