Addressing Jewish Republicans on Saturday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the West Bank was “not occupied territory” but rather a disputed area that is a historical homeland to Jews, as he talked up his Israel bona fides amid mounting challenges to Donald Trump’s control of the party.
DeSantis was a star attraction at this weekend’s Republican Jewish Coalition conference in Las Vegas, where he delivered a 25-minute speech on Saturday night while Trump was relegated to a less desirable timeslot and only appeared via video.
The popular Florida governor told the crowd about a trade mission he’d led to Israel, “the biggest trade mission Florida’s ever done.”
“We were the first statewide elected officials to do public events in Judea and Samaria,” DeSantis said, using the biblical names for the West Bank as favored by right-wing Israelis. “We understand history. We know those are thousands of years of connection to the Jewish people.”
“I don’t care what the State Department says. They are not occupied territory, it is disputed territory. You gotta know the history,” DeSantis said to applause.
DeSantis is seen as one of the leading challengers to Trump, aiming to take the reins of the party and make a run for the White House in 2024. Other top candidates also made appearances at the convention, including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and several other state governors. RJC conferences are often the first stop for likely GOP contenders ahead of presidential election years.
Trump is the only candidate who has announced a 2024 candidacy so far. He launched his campaign despite the party’s poor showing in the midterms this month, with particularly bad results for his favored candidates, and amid several legal threats, including over his role in the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol.
DeSantis highlighted his moves in support of the Jewish community and hit other Republican talking points during his Sunday speech. He had bucked the general trend in the midterms, winning an overwhelming victory in Florida and strengthening his position in the national scene.
“We won the highest share of the Jewish vote for any Republican candidate in Florida history,” he said. “There’s a lot of reasons for that. It’s not just Jewish issues if you look at everything we’ve done, but I will say if you look at our record on issues related to Israel and supporting the Jewish community it is second to none.”
He spoke of his financial support for security at Florida Jewish day schools, of enacting standards for Holocaust education and signing legislation against antisemitism.
DeSantis vowed to prevent campuses in Florida from becoming “hotbeds of antisemitism like they have all across the country.”
On Israel, he talked up his past support for recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem (both done under the Trump administration) and opposition to the “Biden-Khamenei nuclear deal.”
He hit hot-button Republican party issues, including his opposition to teaching critical race theory and the “Defund the police” movement, and his banning of “gender ideology in our elementary schools.” He defended Florida’s election integrity while disparaging and casting doubt on Democratic Party election tactics, and celebrated keeping the state largely open during the height of the pandemic.
“We chose freedom over Fauci-ism and we are better off for having done that,” he said. “We reject woke ideology in the state of Florida and we will fight it in the classrooms, we will fight it in the corporations, we will fight it in the halls of the legislature.”
He said his victory in the midterms made clear that his approach was successful. He did not directly mention Trump, a resident of his state, or the presidential election during the speech.
Trump’s lies about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and his insistence that his endorsees echo the lies, are seen as a drag on the GOP. Republicans are now openly criticizing him after the November 8 midterms, in which they expected to win the US House of Representatives by a broad margin and retake the Senate but fell flat. Republicans barely retook the House, and the Senate remains in Democratic hands.
Trump, speaking to the conference via video the night before, blasted the Biden administration, repeated his false claim that the 2020 election had been “rigged,” and claimed that if he had been reelected Israel would have brokered peace agreements with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.
Trump did not address his potential rivals in his appearance, but has already begun his customary bomb-throwing about would-be presidential competitors, dubbing DeSantis “Ron DeSanctimonious” and saying Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s name “sounds Chinese.”
Israel’s presumptive incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the coalition conference on Saturday by video, highlighting his long friendship with Biden and saying his disagreements with Democratic party lawmakers were “all in the family.”
JTA contributed to this report.