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Israeli Consul: Planned Florida Meeting In Jerusalem Is 'Historic' Moment

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock in the Old City of Jerusalem
Creative Commons
The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock in the Old City of Jerusalem

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced that he will be heading a trade mission to Israel in May. He will be joined by Florida's Cabinet -- Attorney General Ashley Moody, Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. An official meeting of the Florida Cabinet will take place at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem during the visit.

“I promised to be the most pro-Israel governor in America and that the first delegation I would lead would be to the state of Israel,” DeSantis said when making the announcement. “Today I’m pleased to report that I’m keeping that promise. Our delegation will bring business, academic and political leaders to help strengthen the bond between Florida and Israel.”

WLRN recently sat down with Lior Haiat, the consul general for Israel in Miami. His office represents Israel for all of Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Puerto Rico, and he will be joining Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet for the trade mission.

Haiat talked about what the upcoming trip means for Florida-Israeli relations and what kinds of business relationships it could help foster. He also discussed the controversial Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement, aimed at punishing Israel economically and isolating it politically because of  the alleged mistreatment of Palestinians and the ongoing occupation of the West Bank, among other things.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

WLRN: In 2017,  former Gov. Rick Scott led a trade mission to Israel, but this time is a little different because Gov. DeSantis is bringing along the entire Florida Cabinet. And they're going to hold a state government meeting in Jerusalem. Has this sort of thing ever happened before?

HAIAT: Not at all. This is the first time and I'm happy to be part of history in that sense. It's a statement more than anything and it goes back 70, 71 years -- to the creation of the state of Israel. But it basically goes back about 25 years from the first time that the American Congress passed a resolution that the United States should recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel -- what seems very natural to us. Basically, Jerusalem was always our capital and it took a lot of time for the U.S.  to recognize it. Gov.  DeSantis, when he was a congressman, pushed for this recognition. When it happened he said: “Well it's not just recognizing Jerusalem; it's also moving the embassy to Jerusalem.”

And the second part is making Jerusalem a real capital, which means moving important meetings to Jerusalem and this is, I think, the message that he's sending. Bringing his cabinet to Israel and holding a state cabinet meeting in our capital. It's a message to all of those who think that they can push Israel to changing its capital. It won't happen. Jerusalem was always the capital of the state of Israel since day one and it was the heart of the Jewish people since over 3,000 years ago.

How do you think Gov. DeSantis is doing so far in his promise to be the most pro-Israel governor in the country?

Well, he gave a campaign promise and he's delivering. Every day we thought that it will be a slogan and actually -- we are running after Gov. DeSantis because he's leading the way. And we are doing a great job of leading a very pro Israel policy from the state of Florida, both on the political level but also on the economic level.

The fact that the huge delegation is going from Florida to Israel is just a symbol that the outcome of this delegation will be seen in the relationship between Israel and Florida for years to come. Because this is just the beginning. We’re signing over 10 memorandums of understandings and agreements between Israeli companies and universities and the Floridian companies and universities. This is a huge bridge that Gov. DeSantis is building. We are happy to be part of it.

Just a few weeks ago an Israeli company launched the first ever privately funded mission to the moon from Cape Canaveral here in Florida. Of course, that mission unfortunately ended in a crash, but nevertheless it was a pretty big milestone. How important is the space industry to trade relations between Florida and Israel?

I think it's huge and it's very important. Not many people know about it -- another bridge that we built here in this consulate between Israel and Florida -- which is an M.O.U. [memorandum of understanding] between Space Florida and the chief scientist in Israel. Every year about half a dozen companies from Israel and from Florida are getting funded for research that is connected to space. Some of those research projects are so advanced that they will be part of the next NASA mission to space, which will be in the next few years. Which means that both Israel and Florida together hand in hand are basically in the forefront of space research, and that's based on our cooperation.

The fact that Israel launched a spaceship to the moon is a huge step for the Israeli space industry and space research. Israel is the fourth country in history to launch a spaceship to the moon. The first three were the United States, Russia and China. Just imagine those huge countries with huge populations and the money for research. And Israel joined this very unique club and put our name and our flag on the moon.

It's true the space ship did not land properly. Apparently we have a problem with the parking.

Gov. DeSantis says Israel has some technology that could be used to help Florida address environmental issues here like toxic algae and red tide. What kind of technology or research does Israel have in these fields right now?

There is a lot of new technology based in Israel that is very relevant to Florida both on the red tide and algae, and we are already connecting Israeli companies with local authorities in able to find what is the most useful technology for that part.  But it's also for the greening of oranges. This is a huge problem here. I think that the connection between Israel and Florida  has a lot of potential since Israel has a lot of agricultural technology based on knowledge, and Florida has a huge sector of agriculture that can use that technology.

Studies show Florida's drinking water is threatened in the long term because of sea-level rise and  the salt water is slowly invading our aquifers which makes me think of desalination technology, and Israel's been at the forefront of that. Is that technology something Israel is currently exporting that you think Florida could benefit from?

The main miracle that happened in Israel over the last 10 years is that Israel, which is 70 percent desert, makes water out of the seawater. We have a salinization technology that basically makes Israel and water independent. It's a huge thing.

This technology is part of Asia. Big countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the United States -- both Texas and California -- are using this technology. And the biggest plants in the world are actually being built now in the United States.  Also Arab countries are using this technology.

I'm not an expert to say Florida is the perfect place to build it. I think there is a huge potential of studying the needs here and seeing if Israel has the right technology or the right answer for that. I say every place has its own unique problems and we can't use the same solution for each problem. But I'm sure that based on Israeli technology and the friendship with Florida we can find great solutions here.

One of the first announcements Gov. DeSantis made when he came into office was that he threatened to sanction AirBnB because it refused to list properties in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The issue was that almost every other country in the world considers the settlements to be illegal. But recently AirBnB reversed that decision, and the governor said that they made the right decision. What is the status of those settlements right now?

Well this is -- first of all, I want to correct you one thing. Just using that word -- the West Bank -- is making a political statement. We consider it Judea and Samaria and this is part of the land of Israel. It's not officially part of the state of Israel now. It's -- this territory is in dispute. And there are agreements like the Oslo agreements from the 90s, that stand there and make that territory under negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians.

The fact that a lot of people in a lot of places  [non-governmental organizations] said it's illegal doesn't make it illegal because it never came to a point that it was considered legal or illegal. The decision or the the policy by AirBnB was discriminating against only Jews in Judea and Samaria from presenting or publishing their places through their application. If there were two neighbors -- Jewish neighbor and an Arab neighbor that wanted to use AirBnB as a platform -- one will have the chance to do that and the Jewish ones won’t. Which means it is a discriminating policy against Jews. There is a name to that: This is anti-Semitism. The fact is they are not using it in any other place in the world. The only place they decided to have a policy that discriminates is Israel. And this is not the only territorial conflict in the world.

AirBnB caved to pressures from an anti-Semitic movement called the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel and the fact is that they saw that there is a price to it because  Gov. DeSantis said: If your boycott is boycotting Israel, we will boycott you. That means that we are using the same tools you are using against you. If you want to boycott Israel, it's your right. But it's also our right to boycott you as a reply for your boycott.

Are you happy with the fact that AirBnB reversed its policy?

Sure. The goal wasn't to hurt AirBnB. The goal was to say if you want to take the stand, it's your right to do that but you have to know that there is a price for your anti-Semitic policy. They took it back. This is the goal.

On this subject, a few months ago, Broward County resident Laura Al-Qasem was initially denied entry into Israel because she previously belonged to a Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment group at the University of Florida. And it was only after she won a case in the Israeli Supreme Court that she was allowed to stay and study at the Hebrew University. That case presents a question as a matter of access for some Floridians. Is there any guarantee that all Florida residents would be able to attend this cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, even if they support BDS?

Yes, there is a law in Israel that says that the main BDS activists will not be allowed to Israel. Actually the case of Lara Al-Qasem showed how strong Israeli democracy is. The government didn't want Lara Al-Qasem to enter Israel because she was a BDS activist. She never denied it.

The fact that the Supreme Court decided to overrule the government decision not to let her in showed first of all that the BDS movement is wrong. There is a true democracy. Lara Al-Qasem -- a Palestinian-descent Muslim -- is not only studying in the Hebrew University, but I'm paying for her studies because she got a full scholarship for studying in Israel. Which means that there is no discriminating policy against Palestinians or Muslims in Israel, and the whole case of BDS is being shut down by the case of Lara Al-Qasem.

Actually what the Supreme Court in Israel decided wasn't that she wasn't a BDS activist, but she was a failure as a BDS activist. Because she tried to promote it in the university but no one listened to her. So since she wasn't a good activist, she wasn't considered a main activist and that's why she was allowed in.

Israel has a right to allow anyone or to deny anyone entering Israel as the United States does. It's our right as a sovereign country. It's the right as any sovereign country to decide who enters and who doesn't enter Israel. I don't think there is room for the BDS activists to come to Israel.

The governor can hold a meeting in Israel, we decide who  enters and who doesn't. And I think it's not as broad as you may try to show it because there are also residents of Florida that are not allowed here to go into public meetings. I won’t go into details. [Editor's note: This is not accurate. All public meetings in Florida are subject to the state's  open government laws.] Israel does have a right to decide who enters and who doesn't enter into Israel, and this is the bottom line. This is not a matter of public meeting, government meeting or not. It's a symbolic meeting. That's the main goal.

And if someone thinks they should be in Israel and still be a BDS activist, he can go to the Supreme Court. As we saw, the Supreme Court has its own way and own decision. This is how democracy works.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.
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