Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a presumptive challenger to Donald Trump as the Republican presidential primary gains steam, refused to confirm in Jerusalem on Thursday that he would be running, focusing instead on the importance of the US-Israel relationship and alleged missteps by the current White House.
“There’s not been anything set,” he said at a press conference following his keynote address at an event marking the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence. “I’ve been focused on this mission that we’ve been doing.”
He did take several swipes at the Middle East policies of US President Joe Biden, who announced on Tuesday that he would seek reelection.
“Prior to this administration taking office, the Middle East was probably in as good a shape as it’s been in in a long time,” he said, indirectly lauding his likely GOP primary opponent.
“I think that this administration has worked overtime to alienate the Saudis,” DeSantis charged.
Biden had pledged as a candidate to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” because of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and as president threatened “consequences” for the Gulf kingdom after it led OPEC oil cuts.
Israel is working to normalize relations with the Saudis, a goal Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to achieve. “Absolutely I think with proper policy and proper relations, you could see Saudi Arabia recognize the existence of Israel,” said the Florida governor.
He also blasted the approach Biden and his former boss Barack Obama took toward Iran.
“We saw the failure with the Iranian nuclear deal that was done in 2015 that flooded Iran with money, that rejuvenated their economy, and that led to the funding of terrorism all across the Middle East,” he said.
“During the previous administration, the Trump administration, Iran was on the ropes. Iran was in dire straits because there was an effort to hold them accountable,” he added, one of several times he referred approvingly to Trump’s Middle East policy.
He also praised Trump’s 2018 decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he called “the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”
DeSantis, 44, also took a thinly veiled swipe at Biden administration officials’ public comments on the domestic fight in Israel over judicial reforms. “My view is that the United States should be a strong ally to Israel but we should not butt into their internal affairs,” he declared.
“Our task as Americans is standing strongly and forthrightly with Israel.”
The governor and retired naval officer’s appearance came at a gala event organized by The Jerusalem Post and the Museum of Tolerance in the capital.
DeSantis has long been one of the most vocally pro-Israel members of the Republican Party, focusing his criticism of Middle East leaders on the Palestinians. He claimed in his recent book that he helped lay the groundwork for Trump’s decision to move the embassy and argued that the West Bank is “disputed” rather than “occupied” territory.
The Florida governor has also passed legislation targeting companies that boycott Israel or its West Bank settlements. In 2019, he promised to be “the most pro-Israel governor in America.”
In his prepared remarks, DeSantis said that “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons creates a threat unlike [any] you’ve seen in this region.” He added that Tehran “represents an existential threat to the State of Israel,” and a serious threat to America.
Before the press conference, DeSantis announced that the Florida-based Avenger Flight Group would be building flight simulators for El Al in Israel. He also announced a new collaboration between Florida Atlantic University and Israel’s Insightec on neurological diseases, and a new partnership between Florida, the Israel Innovation Authority, and the US-Israel Chamber of Commerce focusing on health care.
DeSantis was in Japan and South Korea before Israel, and will head to the United Kingdom from Tel Aviv. The international trade mission offers the expected Republican presidential candidate a platform to bolster his foreign policy credentials.
DeSantis is expected to announce his candidacy for president after the state legislative session ends in early May.
Jacob Magid and the Associated Press contributed to this report.