Texas Trump loyalist, a candidate for cabinet post, to launch trade push with Israel, settlements
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ExclusivePossible agriculture secretary trying to arrange inauguration meet for settler leader with Trump

Texas Trump loyalist, a candidate for cabinet post, to launch trade push with Israel, settlements

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller due in Israel in March for talks with ministers, businessfolk; will meet prominent settler leader in Washington next week

Ricky Ben-David is a senior news editor at The Times of Israel.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller in his office in Austin, Texas on January 9, 2017. (Times of Israel)
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller in his office in Austin, Texas on January 9, 2017. (Times of Israel)

AUSTIN, Texas — A top Texas state official, said to be a solid candidate for agriculture secretary in the incoming Trump administration, is launching a Texas-Israel trade initiative that will seek to do business with Israeli companies and ventures, including those based in the West Bank.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, a staunch Trump supporter who made international headlines before the November election for posting a tweet calling then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton a c*nt, is set to travel to Israel this March to meet with Israeli officials on the new venture, including Israeli Agricultural Minister Uri Ariel of the nationalist Jewish Home party and Yossi Dagan, head of the Shomron (Samaria) Regional Council in the West Bank.

According to a press statement sent by Miller’s office, he is set to have a preliminary meeting with Dagan in Washington next week at Trump’s presidential inauguration, which the prominent settler leader has been invited to attend — an invitation that further signals how differently a Trump White House will handle affairs related to Israel and its settlement enterprise compared to the Obama administration, under which any official ties to the settler movement would have been unthinkable.

Miller told The Times of Israel that he had “put in a request with the Trump transition team” for a meeting between Dagan and “Mr. Trump or at least [chief of staff] Reince Preibus or [chief strategist] Steve Bannon or some of the major players.”

From left, Yossi Dagan, Mark Zell and Abe Katzman celebrating the opening of the Republicans Overseas Israel office in the West Bank town of Karnei Shomron, Sept. 5, 2016. (Andrew Tobin)
From left, Yossi Dagan, Mark Zell and Abe Katzman celebrating the opening of the Republicans Overseas Israel office in the West Bank town of Karnei Shomron, Sept. 5, 2016. (Andrew Tobin)

Dagan told The Times of Israel by phone that he plans to meet with Miller “in the framework of a series of meetings with US figures” during his trip to Washington. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated this week that he would not travel to Washington to see Trump’s swearing-in ceremony, amid reports the Trump transition team was “aggressively courting” him in an effort to get him to attend the January 20 event.

By all accounts, the US-Israel relationship is set for greener pastures under Trump and Netanyahu, after a tumultuous eight years of the Obama administration which as a swan song opted to abstain from a United Nations Security Council Resolution last month slamming Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, allowing the measure to pass and invoking Israel’s ire.

Trump, by contrast, has vowed to break with US policy for decades and move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, has appointed an ambassador to Israel who has charged that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace — an argument vociferously refuted by the Palestinians and much of the international community — and has made no clear commitments to the two-state solution.

The president-elect has also criticized the US for refusing to veto the UN resolution and vowed that Washington’s UN strategy would be different after he takes office. His comments were followed by Netanyahu hotly announcing that Israel will work with “our friends” in the incoming Trump administration to cancel the UN resolution.

Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas on Sept. 14, 2015. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images/JTA)
Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas on Sept. 14, 2015. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images/JTA)

Touting a stronger Israel-US relationship under Trump, Commissioner Miller, who was a member of the president-elect’s advisory team during the campaign and hopes to lead the Department of Agriculture, said this week that he had no qualms about seeking business partnerships with Israeli companies in the West Bank, even as 14 countries on the 15-member Security Council voted for a text that described the settlements as having “no legal validity.”

Miller, a devout Christian who strongly supports the Jewish state, said the timing of his Israel initiative couldn’t be better.

“The relationship between the US and Israel is at an all-time low thanks to President Obama and his disregard for our greatest ally for freedom in the Middle East,” Miller said in a statement released by his office. “President-elect Donald Trump has promised a new positive engagement with Israel, and I am excited that America will soon return to a warm and prosperous relationship with the State of Israel.”

Miller spoke to The Times of Israel this week at his office in downtown Austin, which is part hunting lodge, part Texas rancher fever dream. The decor — along with Miller’s white cowboy hat and demeanor — seemed to have been designed by a Hollywood producer casting “stereotypical Texas macher.”

“What we want to do is have a new and revived cross-collaboration, a renewed partnership, a renewed kinship [with Israel],” Miller said, sporting a Trump-Pence pin long after their upset victory two months ago. He added that Texas could benefit from technology developed in Israel which has “led the way, especially on irrigation [and] water conservation.”

The commissioner, who as his first official act in office in 2015 famously chose to give “amnesty” to cupcakes and other baked goods that had been banned at schools across the state, also expressed interest in Israel’s acclaimed kosher wine industry, with many makers based in the West Bank, as well as Israeli “agricultural drones,” which he said were safer and better for spraying pesticides.

In exchange, he said, Texas has a lot to offer Israel in the fields of livestock, plant and forage genetics as well as feeding operations. “There are a lot of things we can complement each other on,” he said.

An Israeli-built Hermes 450 drone takes off from the Hillsboro, ND, airport on Friday, May 20, 2016, in its first flight to collect agriculture data in the Red River Valley. (AP Photo/Dave Kolpack)
An Israeli-built Hermes 450 drone takes off from the Hillsboro, ND, airport on Friday, May 20, 2016, in its first flight to collect agriculture data in the Red River Valley. (AP Photo/Dave Kolpack)

The itinerary for Miller’s trip has not yet been finalized but stops would include Christian and Jewish sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, tours of the Israeli security barrier in the West Bank, Hebron, Bethlehem, Sderot and the Gaza border, according to a Miller team member who is involved in planning the visit.

Meetings with representatives from Israeli companies in the agriculture, food and technology fields have also been set up, and Miller’s office said introductory calls with several Israeli ministers have been made.

Asked if there was anything specific he wanted to see on the trip, Miller said: “We’re gonna rely on the ministry of agriculture and the governor of Samaria there [Dagan] to show us what we need to see.”

Dagan said the plan for Miller’s visit was still in preliminary stages and that he wanted to “show the reality of life here [in the West Bank]. People who don’t know [about what it’s like] immediately think of ‘apartheid’ and ‘occupied territory,’ there’s a stigma.”

Dagan said he invests a lot of energy in fostering “connections between Samaria and the outside world,” by holding meetings and tours for “journalists, government officials, mayors from around across the globe,” an undertaking in line with the vision set out by the relatively new chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, the umbrella group for Israeli settlements, who in August said that the international community should know that the “ecosystem” in the West Bank, where Israelis and Palestinians live, actually works.

Dagan said in the statement released by Miller’s office that he was excited to be hosting the commissioner and looked forward to “personally tak[ing] him on a tour of Judea and Samaria and discuss opportunities for Samaria and Texas to do business.”

Miller, in turn, said he hoped to host an Israeli delegation in Texas soon after his trip.

And if, between now and January 20, Miller is tapped to head the Department of Agriculture under Trump, he will take the trade initiative to the national level, his office said.

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