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DeSantis: Iran ‘only understands strength’

In a special interview, the newly-minted Republican presidential candidate talks Iran, U.S.-Israel relations, China and the threat of woke ideology.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media following an neo-Nazi rally near Orlando. Jan. 31, 2022. Source: Screenshot.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media following an neo-Nazi rally near Orlando. Jan. 31, 2022. Source: Screenshot.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gave Israel Hayom an exclusive interview on Thursday—his first to an Israeli outlet as an official candidate in the 2024 U.S. presidential race. He discussed a whole range of issues, while attacking the Biden administration over its policies toward Israel and its government.

DeSantis, 44, announced his presidential bid in May, and according to the polls currently has the best shot at beating former president Donald Trump for his party’s nomination. His vocal message against the woke ideology championed by Democratic progressives had him coast to reelection this past November, and he has vowed that he would run on the same ticket as the Republican standard bearer should he become the nominee.

Gray skies and relentless rain blanketed Tallahassee, Florida’s sleepy capital, as I walked into his office. If he’s exhausted from his dual roles as governor and candidate, it doesn’t show. DeSantis, it seems, has a lot of stamina.

Q: I would like to begin, of course, with Israel-U.S. ties. It’s been six months since the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office, and he is yet to be invited by the Biden administration. How do you view this policy? 

A: I think it’s disgraceful. The U.S.-Israel relationship should be ironclad. We have no better ally in the Middle East. And we have such strong cultural and religious ties to the State of Israel, for them to be treating Israel really with the back of their hand. I think it’s a mistake, but I think it’s part and parcel of how this administration sees the world. I mean, they’re more interested in kowtowing to Iran than standing by our allies. And so, you know, my view as president would be we’re going to have a really strong U.S.-Israel relationship, and that’ll be something that Americans can be proud of.

Q: When it comes to Israel, our number one priority is Iran. If you become president, what will you do regarding Tehran and its nuclear facilities? 

A: Well, the whole Obama-Khamenei deal [the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement] was a total disaster, and Biden is trying to resuscitate that. And basically, when you give concessions to the Iranians, they use that money to be able to foment terrorism. They will put that money into weapons development. And so I think squeezing Iran, making sure that they understand that their pursuit of this is going to be bad for them economically, diplomatically and potentially even militarily, that is the only thing that the mullahs understand—strength. You can’t try to cozy up to them. It just doesn’t work. So we would be supportive of Israel’s predicament. And obviously, we would have a much stronger posture against Iran.

Q: As I recall, you had a part in pushing the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Would you support Israel applying its sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria or some part of it? 

A: So just on the embassy, I don’t think Biden’s fully committed to keeping the embassy there. He doesn’t believe Jerusalem is going to be the undivided capital of Israel, but I think that their [Biden’s] view would be pre-1967 and we reject that. I mean, Jerusalem is the indivisible, undivided capital of the Jewish people. And so with me, it would be very clear that that’s just the way it’s going to ride.

Now in terms of Judea and Samaria, I’ve always rejected this idea that it’s occupied territory. I mean, these are some of the most historic Jewish lands going all the way back to biblical times. Yes, there was a partition plan with the United Nations in the 1940s. But the Arabs rejected the Partition Plan. It’d be one thing if they accepted it. Israel was willing to accept, they rejected it. And then they chose to wage war for many decades.

And so it’s not occupied territory. It is disputed territory, and I think Israel’s claim is the most superior in terms of anybody else for it. I was the first major elected official, as governor in 2019, to do public events in Judea and Samaria, at Ariel University, and we wanted to break the stigma that somehow this is not appropriate to be doing. And when we have imposed our anti-BDS sanctions on companies that have targeted Israel, it’s usually been they’ve been targeting Jews living in Judea and Samaria. And so we said that’s unacceptable. So whether it was Ben & Jerry’s or Airbnb, and then we most recently just did legislation. Morningstar tried to include BDS criteria for ESG [environmental, social and corporate governance]. And we said “Absolutely not, that’s not going to fly in the state of Florida.”

Q: So if Israel decided to apply its law on some parts of the Jordan Valley or other parts of Judea and Samaria, would you support it? 

A: I think Israel has the strongest claim of right in Judea and Samaria. Of anybody. I do not believe it’s occupied territory. I think it’s been disputed territory, and I think they have the right to act appropriately.

Q: When you say that only strength works, do you mean military action as well? 

A: I think we have a great deterrent capacity, but it’s not as good as it used to be. One of the things I’ll do as president is rebuild some of our military capacity because—particularly when you look at our ability to project power – we have like 200 navy ships in the Navy. We used to have almost 600 back in [Ronald] Reagan’s day. So there’s a lot that we need to do. But at the end of the day, I can say this—Iran represents an existential threat to the State of Israel. Now they would love to wipe Israel off the map. They would love to wipe out America, don’t get me wrong. I mean, there’s no love lost for either.  

But given Israel’s geographic proximity to Iran, Israel’s relatively small size, they could potentially—if armed with nuclear weapons—try to completely annihilate Israel in a way that they may not have the capability to go after us yet. So I think for Israel, you don’t get a more significant threat.  

Using a nuclear weapon on another country is something that you would not want to do because you could get a nuclear response, so why would you want that? Mutually assured destruction, that kept the nukes in check during the Cold War, and it keeps most civilized countries in check from wanting to do that. However, this Iranian regime, with the ayatollahs, may view that as positive because it may coincide with their apocalyptic vision for the end of time. So I think from that perspective, Israel has a right to defend itself, and the United States should be supportive of them taking whatever action they need to defend themselves.  

Q: What is your opinion about the possible nuclear understanding between the United States and Iran? 

A: First of all, you have to understand, obviously the United States has suffered terrorist attacks, 9/11 and whatnot. But if you look at what nation-state has killed more Americans since 1979, Iran has killed more Americans, whether it’s the Marine barracks in Beirut, they killed at least 1,000 US troops in Iraq by funding [Shi’ite] militia, and so the idea that we’re going to have some understanding, I just don’t see that in the cards.

Q: I know you are a great supporter of the Jewish community here. But people who claim to be your supporters also have flags with swastikas and so forth. What do you tell those people?

A: That’s a farce, though you understand they’ll wear masks. The media doesn’t investigate who these people are. They are trying to manufacture some association with me. I can tell you, if someone honestly carried around a swastika, I’m the last guy they would want [to support]. I am the most pro-Israel governor in America. We have taken steps to support our Jewish community here, spending a massive amount of money for security for Jewish day schools because they could be targeted with antisemitic attacks.

We just passed a bill to help combat some of the property crime, antisemitic property crimes. We have the First Amendment—you can burn a cross on your yard, but you can’t put it in front of someone else’s property. You can display a swastika if you want. It’s protected under the First Amendment—but you can’t project that on a synagogue, which is private property. So we’ve been very strong on that.

But be very careful about what some of these political people are doing. They’re trying to create a narrative as if somehow these people have a foothold in Florida. That is not true. We have more Jewish migration into Florida, particularly Orthodox Jews, who are usually the ones targeted with antisemitic attacks than anybody any place in the United States, and so if you see one of those, as a journalist, go ask those people. Ask them, “Who are you? Why do you have your face covered? Why are you doing this?” And the flags will oftentimes be creased, clearly they’ve never been used before. So they’re just being put out, so I’d be very careful and suspicious of that stuff.

Q: America is deeply involved in supporting Ukraine. On the other hand, we see China become more and more involved, primarily in the Middle East. What is more risky for America? Is it Ukraine or China, which I just heard is now preparing to build a base not far from here in Cuba? How do you see all that?

A: China is our number one geopolitical threat by far. First of all, they’re near-peer competitors, their economy has grown leaps and bounds over the last generation, largely because of poor American policy that has allowed them to capture so much manufacturing strength, and our economy, unfortunately, has become very dependent on China for really key ingredients.

When COVID hit, almost everything we needed had to come from China. Why would you want to put yourself in that position, to have an adversary that you have to rely on? It’s not just medical, it’s ammunition, it’s things for our nuclear weapons. Almost everything that we do in some respects is tied to China. Not a good position for you to be in.

What has Xi Jinping done? Xi is the most ideological Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. He has ambitions beyond mainland China. And you see it obviously, of course, in the Pacific, it’s discussed, but in our own hemisphere here in the West, what he’s done in Central America and now this news about Cuba, putting what, an eavesdropping station, putting something, a potential training base, there—the United States needs to have a 21st century Monroe Doctrine, where we’re looking out for our backyard, and some of these other hostile powers should not just be able to come in come in here and do that.

Why are they doing that though? They’re doing it because they know they’re not gonna get any pushback from Biden. They flew a spy balloon clear across the continental United States. The U.S. government presumably knew or tracked this; they did nothing about it until it already finished going across the country. And if people had not noticed it, our U.S. government may not have done anything about it. And so when they see stuff like that, that’s going to embolden them to project more power.

But I think it’s very important that we maintain good alliances in the Pacific. South Korea and Japan are now getting along. They almost never get along. I mean, they’ve had tensions for decades, right, but they’re getting along because they both see the mutual threat posed by China.

Q: As Florida governor who may one day be president, what would you do, for example, with such a base so close to Florida?

A: Well, I can tell you what I’ve done as governor. We’re limited in what we can do. We recognize the role that Chinese influence has played in the United States. So we eliminated these Confucius Institutes from our universities. We didn’t have a lot of them. It’s basically propaganda for the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), so we got rid of those. We also prohibited CCP-linked businesses and individuals from purchasing land in Florida, because they want to gobble up farmland. They want to gobble up land near military bases and other strategic locations. So we said not in Florida, so we’ve taken really strong action to protect Floridians against it.

At the end of the day, when you’re talking about something with Cuba, that’s something only the president of the United States is going to be able to deal with. I have not heard President Biden sound a peep about this. And I have no idea if he has any plans or if he’s just gonna let it happen. But you remember during the 1960s when Kennedy was president, they didn’t let the Soviets come and just put nuclear missiles in Cuba. That was viewed as a huge threat to us. So why would you want China to have a military outpost right there, 90 miles off our shore? I think it’d be a huge threat to our security.

Q: You are famous for fighting the woke agenda. Why are you so strongly against it?

A: It’s basically a form of Cultural Marxism in the United States. They’re trying to elevate identity politics, at the expense of merit and achievement. And they really are waging a war on truth itself. What is your identity? Where are you in the pecking order? And so for example, woke is very anti-Israel. Why? Because Israel is a successful country and they buy into a lot of tropes about that. And so it’s very nasty in terms of how they view Israel.

Q: Woke is a risk for Israel?

A: No question about that. I mean, they would side with Palestinian Arabs over Israel on any issue, they would be very supportive of making concessions to Iran, that mindset 100%. But it also ridiculous things like saying that men can get pregnant, they are saying that in the United States right now. And it’s like, wait a minute, is your society rooted in truth or not? You got to be rooted in truth. Two plus two has to equal four. And so we recognize that it’s a threat to just solid thinking.

It also affects people’s lives in these ways. When woke overtakes the economy with things like ESG, the average person becomes poor as a result of those policies. When woke overtakes education, the average student ends up dumber. As a result of that, when woke overtakes criminal justice, the average family becomes less safe in their communities because, in places like San Francisco, prosecutors let criminals get away with crimes. You can rob someone’s house, with some of these prosecutors, and they won’t bring charges against you; that hollows out those communities.

And so as it infects institutions in American life, those institutions really become corrupted. So really, we’re fighting back here, saying we need to restore sanity in this country, and we need to return normalcy to our communities and our institutions have to have integrity.

Q: There is a very famous trial going on here against the former president, what is your position about all the charges against him?

A: Well, look, I think people are innocent until proven guilty. We’ve had a problem in this country for many years now, with these Washington, D.C., agencies pursuing a political agenda, and we’ve seen it go back 10-12 years, when the IRS was targeting conservative groups. These are small conservative … groups of citizens, nonprofit groups that the IRS was targeting with disfavored treatment. When Trump became president they [the agencies] concocted the Russia collusion hoax, which was a conspiracy theory, and it was designed to kneecap his presidency and even drag him out of office. He has obviously professed his innocence; he’s innocent until proven guilty.

But what my mission is going to be as president … we’re going to clean house in those agencies. We are not going to let political power be weaponized against political opponents. We are going to make sure that there’s accountability because people have to have confidence in the justice system. Look at Hunter Biden. If he were a Republican he would have been in jail a long time ago, and yet he gets a slap on the wrist. He basically gets [a pretrial] diversion [program] on the gun charge, which usually people are not allowed to get. Why would he be treated that way? Well because he’s connected to the D.C. elite class. That’s not right. You can’t have two standards of justice, and so you know his case.

I think we see through that prism of how these agencies have been behaving in these regards.

Q: Your abortion law in Florida, some say is too tough, with the cutoff being roughly six weeks. What do you say about that? 

A: In Florida … the law restricts abortion when there’s a detectable heartbeat for the unborn baby, that’s when the protections are for life attached. They did provide exceptions for rape and incest and the life of the mother and victims of human trafficking. But at the end of the day, we want to promote a culture of life. I believe that abortion should not just be a form of birth control.

We also take action. Not everyone’s born into perfect circumstances. You have people that are poor, and so we’ve done a lot to lift people up. We’ve provided more health coverage, we’ve provided more foster and adoption services, we’ve provided more help for single mothers. That’s really making a difference, even apart from that whole debate. If a mother feels like she’s going to have support, that’s going to be something that she’s gonna then be able to pursue. So we were able to do that, and I think that’s something that’s going to end up working out very well for us.

Striking a different tone

Since launching his campaign in a glitch-ridden online conversation on Twitter Space with Elon Musk, DeSantis’s standing has been far from ideal among Republican voters, who according to one poll support Trump over him by 61% to 23%. 

DeSantis was barred from speaking freely about the campaign during the interview for legal reasons: The conversation was held at the governor’s office in Florida, and the law prohibits using state resources for campaigning. 

And yet, there is no mistaking the very different tune coming out of DeSantis compared to what we have become used to from President Joe Biden when it comes to Israel. In fact, it looks as though there is almost no difference between him and Trump with regard to their views on Israel. 

“The left is gonna absolutely destroy this country even more than it is if Biden remains in office,” DeSantis recently warned on the campaign trail.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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