Florida Republican governor raises hackles by using state resources for series of actions since the Israel-Hamas war began.
His pathway to the presidency looks more forbidding than ever, but tanking poll numbers and a stalled campaign have not dissuaded Ron DeSantis from running foreign policy as if he was the incumbent in the White House.
Florida’s Republican governor has raised eyebrows and hackles by using state resources for a series of actions and operations since the Israel-Hamas war began that come under the purview of the federal government.
They include “evacuating” hundreds of US citizens from Israel on charter flights; exporting humanitarian aid and claiming to have procured weapons; as well as activating Florida’s militarized state guard “as needed, to respond” to an overseas conflict.
Additionally, he has summoned Florida’s legislature for an emergency session next week that will, among other issues, seek to impose more state sanctions on Iran, a key ally of Hamas, replicating measures already in place at federal level for decades.
Democrats in Florida, who have become used to their absentee governor campaigning in other states as he pursues his flailing White House run, say DeSantis has crossed a line.
“President Biden is the commander in chief of our military, not Ron DeSantis,” Nikki Fried, chair of the state’s Democratic party, said in a statement to the Miami Herald, commenting on the governor’s claim that he helped source weapons, ammunition and other military equipment for Israel, an assertion that later unraveled.
“This is a gross breach of norms and a potential violation of federal laws governing the shipment of weapons.”
In a statement to the Guardian, a state department spokesperson confirmed it “did not collaborate with the state of Florida on humanitarian and evacuation flights to and from Israel [and] the department was not notified in advance of these flights”.
Independent analysts see the behavior of DeSantis, a staunch supporter of Israel, as troublesome.
“Any time a governor tries to push a foreign policy agenda, or an agenda related to international affairs, including immigration policy, on their own, it typically infringes on the powers of the executive of the federal government,” said Matthew Dallek, professor of political management at George Washington University.
“We’ve seen this with [Governor Greg] Abbott in Texas. If the DeSantis flights to Israel were coordinated with the state department and US military, that’s one thing. If they were not, that’s much more problematic, much more of a line crossing.
“He’s a guy who gets off on crossing boundaries, being pugnacious and in your face, and in that sense there’s kind of an ugly streak to him and Trump. They both enjoy, and their political identities are wrapped up in crossing boundaries.”
DeSantis employed a familiar argument to justify Florida wading into the Middle East conflict, insisting that the administration of Joe Biden was “not doing what it takes to stand by Israel”. It echoed his citing of the president’s perceived “failures” over immigration to rationalize his sending of state law enforcement personnel to the US southern border, the preserve of the Department of Homeland Security.
Contrary to DeSantis’s statement, the federal government has been heavily involved in humanitarian operations in Israel and has run a continuous charter flight operation to repatriate US citizens since the conflict began.
The state department spokesperson said more than 6,700 seats on US government chartered transportation were made available to augment commercial flight capacity, and more than 13,500 US citizens had safely departed Israel and the West Bank.
The state department flights, which ended on Tuesday through decreased demand, have also run more smoothly than the DeSantis operation, which left 23 Americans stranded in Cyprus for several days at the start of the war.
Dallek sees some rationale for DeSantis’s stance.
“By virtue of his position as governor he has been involved in some pretty weighty issues, issues that matter to a lot of voters and a lot of Republican primary voters, in particular immigration and the Middle East,” he said.
“But this doesn’t seem like an argument that has legs for DeSantis. The many months of his campaign flailing is going to outweigh whatever he says on Israel, and most of the other GOP candidates are vying for that same space of being tough on terrorism, anti-Hamas, pro-Israel. I just don’t think there’s all that much oxygen left for him to take up on this issue.”
Transparency advocates in Florida are also critical of DeSantis over the Israel flights, questioning how $50m of taxpayers’ money reportedly handed to a contractor for open-ended charter flights has been used.
The recipient is the same contractor that ran the governor’s infamous migrant flights of mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers around the US last year, which led to a criminal investigation in Texas and was criticized by opponents as an inhumane political stunt.
The DeSantis administration withheld public records about the migrant flights for months before a judge ordered it to hand them over. The state budgeted more than $1.5m in attorneys’ fees to defend the lawsuit and Bobby Block, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, fears a similar lack of transparency will cloak the Israel flights.
“They talked about $50m, it’s not based on actual records from the state where we know exactly what’s playing out. It’s based on a budget item in emergency management,” he said.
“We don’t have absolute clarity on it because of the secrecy of the DeSantis administration. There’s a lot of people, not just journalists, who want to know what it is costing taxpayers in Florida.”
DeSantis’s press team and the Florida emergency management department point to a press release issued last week that said more than 700 Americans arrived in Florida on four flights from Israel and received resources from “several state agencies and volunteer organizations”.
Block said there seemed to be little interest is ensuring value for taxpayer dollars, noting that uncoordinated state and federal government entities competing for the same limited resources, including chartered flights, tended to push up prices.
“The way it’s being managed and promoted, it seems more political and geared towards the governor’s political aspirations than it does to a real emergency response with a state and governor working with the federal government,” he said.
Source : The Guardian