Florida Lawmakers Are Heading to Israel With Solar Power, Tech And Agriculture In Mind

May 23, 2019

Governor Ron DeSantis leaves for Israel this weekend with a delegation of at least a hundred different lawmakers, lobbyists and business leaders.

DeSantis' trip will include a visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a Florida cabinet meeting next Wednesday. But many of the details regarding the trip remain unclear, including the itinerary and whether the cabinet meeting will be streamed for the public.

The Governor’s visit also comes at a complicated time in the region. Next month, the Trump administration plans to roll out a multi-faceted plan for peace between Israel and Palestine at a conference in Bahrain. However, the Palestinian government has already said they don’t plan on attending the U.S.-led talks.    

Ilene Prusher is a professor of journalism at Florida Atlantic University and a freelance journalist for Time Magazine, who spent much of her career covering Israel and the Middle East. Ana Ceballos is a reporter with the News Service of Florida. They joined Sundial to discuss the details of the Governor’s upcoming trip. 

WLRN: Why would a Florida delegation want to head to Israel in the first place?

PRUSHER: There are certainly all kinds of areas of potential common interest -- business and environmental and there are all kinds of sort of friendship initiatives. Florida has sister cities in Israel. Boca Raton, for example, has the sister city Kiryat Bilak. Of course, there is also sort of the larger political backdrop. Governor DeSantis is known to be quite close to President Trump, who has been saying really for almost two years now that he would be rolling out some kind of Middle East peace plan.

He said that when he gets it, it would be the deal of the century. The details of this peace plan that is going to be rolled out by President Trump or maybe by his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner have been pretty sparse so far. And of course, President Trump has made some very controversial moves in the past year in Israel, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and actually moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel, which many presidents spoke about but haven't done. 

One hundred people at least are going on this trip. Who are some of the key individuals

CEBALLOS: It's a lot of people. They include some top tier lobbyists from all the top firms here based in Tallahassee. There are 12 elected officials, 20 people with ties to state agencies, whether it is the assistant to the governor or the communications director for the governor. There are also the cabinet members, five legislators and 27 members of the business community. 

Are they all going together or are different people going at different times? 

CEBALLOS: So that's the thing we don't know. Yesterday, they released the list of people and I asked questions to the governor's office regarding who's paying for what. Enterprise Florida is planning the trip. And so they're going to assume some of the cost and planning it. But we don't know how much. I know for example Senator Lauren Book from Broward County is paying on her own. I know Randy Fine, who is a state representative, is also paying on his own but other than that there's really no information. 

Besides the federal implications and the international implications, how do we as a state benefit? If you look at the people who are on the list, lobbyists, people in higher education, it's a big group of people. What do you think those conversations could be like and how does the state of Florida benefit from this trip?

PRUSHER: Well I would say that there are few areas in which there's potential for joint co-operative projects.  For example, I teach at FAU and there's an agreement with the Hebrew University for scientific information sharing and research projects. Israel has been a leader in solar power, which is something, as you know, that's been tried in different parts of Florida. A lot of individuals have solar panels but there have been some kind of legislative and legal hurdles to wider spread solar power.

Also, with agriculture and drip aggregation there's almost a cliché that Israel made the desert bloom, but it really does. There are places that are sort of bone dry where they're growing tomatoes that are as beautiful as anything you'd get in a gourmet marketplace. So I'm thinking that from the business end of it, agriculture, solar power and high tech are three areas where there will be a lot of attempts at cementing some joint projects that some of the business people and academic people can sort of bring home to their different sectors. That's something that's already been ongoing with Florida and with a lot of different states around the country. But it's taking place at a time where there's a lot of sort of brewing controversies in the Middle East both in Israel and the larger Middle East. And Governor DeSantis and his delegation are stepping right into the middle of it.