Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the press during a news conference at the Museum of Tolerance on April 27, 2023 in Jerusalem.
CNN  — 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war with Disney overshadowed his foreign visit to Jerusalem on Thursday, as he responded to questions about the entertainment giant’s lawsuit against him by saying it lacks “merit.”

“I don’t think the suit has merit. I think it’s political,” DeSantis, a Republican, said when asked at a news conference about a new lawsuit by Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. The company is accusing DeSantis and his political allies overseeing the company’s special taxing district of violating the company’s “federal constitutional rights.”

Disney, DeSantis said, is “upset that they are actually having to live by the same rules as everybody else,” adding that the special district meant the company had “no accountability, no transparency, none of that.”

The feud erupted in the middle of DeSantis’ overseas trade tour, which included stops in Asia before a speech in Israel as he readies for a potential run against former President Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He will conclude the trip with a stop in the United Kingdom.

The governor addressed officials and journalists at a time of heightened tension between Israel and the United States and amid a rise in antisemitism within his home state. His speech at “Celebrate the Faces of Israel,” an event hosted by the Jerusalem Post and the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, came during the third stop on DeSantis’ worldwide tour that has already landed him in Japan and South Korea, and will end with a visit to the United Kingdom.

In a speech earlier Thursday, DeSantis sounded familiar conservative themes: he called Jerusalem the “eternal capital of the Jewish people,” called Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons an “existential threat” to the Jewish State and said the United Nations unfairly criticizes Israel.

The event thrusted DeSantis into Israel’s national tumult, marked by sectarian violence and domestic uprisings over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to overhaul the nation’s judiciary. Those plans, temporarily on hold, led to rising tension between President Joe Biden and Netanyahu.

DeSantis said at the news conference that the United States should not “butt into” Israel’s internal affairs.

“It seems to me as an outsider that it’s healthy to thrash these things out,” the governor said of the controversies the judicial overhaul has sparked. “I trust people to be able to work this stuff out.”

Speaking Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Netanyahu indicated he would meet with DeSantis during the visit.

“Of course I’ll meet with everyone. Why not?” he said. “I meet with Republican governors and Democratic governors. I’d meet with every American representative, governor, senator, members of Congress. It’s my job. And I think it’s important for Israel’s bipartisan support in the United States. I make a point of it.”

Reports of antisemitic incidents in Florida

In his speech on Thursday, DeSantis said “Florida has led the way on combating the scourge of antisemitism.”

“We treat antisemitism the way we treat racism,” he said. “So if it is not appropriate to attack someone on the basis of their race – which it is not – it should not also somehow be OK to engage in antisemitic tropes.”

Leading up to DeSantis’ arrival in Israel, Florida lawmakers passed bipartisan legislation targeting a recent uptick in episodes of antisemitism in the state. Last year, hundreds of flyers falsely claiming the public health response to Covid-19 was orchestrated by Jewish people were distributed to homes in South Florida. And in October, antisemitic messages were projected on the outside of TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville during the Florida-Georgia college football game.

Meanwhile, reports of neo-Nazi activity have been on the rise, according to the Anti-Defamation League. A recent analysis from the organization found 269 recorded antisemitic incidents in Florida last year, an all-time high and double the total from 2020.

The legislation makes it a crime to dump litter with hate messages on private property, to harass and threaten people who are wearing or displaying items that would indicate their religious or ethnic heritage, and to display or to project hateful images on buildings and structures without the owner’s permission.

On Wednesday, DeSantis’ office notified the public that he had received the bill, which typically means he is likely to sign the legislation imminently. During a 2019 visit to Israel, DeSantis ceremonially signed a measure that prohibits antisemitic speech in public schools and universities. Given the timing, a similar symbolic gesture on foreign soil could be likely, though his office did not respond to a CNN inquiry.

Amid the rise in antisemitic attacks in Florida, DeSantis has faced criticism from Democrats and others in the state, who have accused the governor of not doing more to denounce these public demonstrations of hate.

Last year, DeSantis lashed out at people calling on him to condemn Nazi demonstrations near Orlando, accusing his political opponents of trying to “smear me as if I had something to do with it.” The day before, a spokeswoman for DeSantis deleted a tweet that suggested the demonstrators might be Democrats in disguise.

“Signing pieces of legislation does not erase his silence on the rise of anti-semitism over the last few years,” said Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Nikki Fried, herself a member of the Jewish faith. “He has an obligation to stand up and say hate speech is not welcome in the state of Florida and he continues to be silent every time”

Jeffrey Salkin, a columnist for Religious News Service and a rabbi of Temple Israel of West Palm Beach, said he was grateful to see DeSantis travel to Israel and hoped he would use the platform to address the rise in antisemitism worldwide and “speak up for democratic values.”

“The rise in antisemitism, of course, fills all American Jews and others with deep fear,” Salkin said. “We need Gov. DeSantis to speak out loudly and clearly when antisemitic acts take place in Florida itself. Especially those that have been perpetrated by far-right, White-supremacist elements. It is not enough to merely bemoan ‘woke politics.’ He must also bemoan the reactionary forces that have endangered Jewish life and lives for centuries.”

Visit continues DeSantis alliance with Israel

DeSantis has long positioned himself as an ally of Israel, visiting the country several times as a member of Congress and during his first six months as governor. He has sided with Israel repeatedly in its ongoing conflict with Palestinians, suggesting in 2019 that the latter is not interested in peace.

“If you look at this whole conflict, to me, the biggest problem has been that Palestinian Arabs have not recognized Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” he said. “That kind of denialism poisons really everything.”

DeSantis has received past support from some of the Republican Party’s staunchest pro-Israel donors, including $500,000 during his 2018 race for governor from Miriam Adelson and her husband, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The couple also donated $5 million to the state GOP after DeSantis won the party’s gubernatorial nomination that year.

Last November, DeSantis was warmly received at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting, the first major Republican cattle call in the 2024 White House race.

Mel Sembler, a board member for the coalition, said he was encouraged to see DeSantis spend time in Israel ahead of his likely campaign for president. Sembler once accompanied George W. Bush to Israel before the Texas governor launched his campaign for the White House.

Sembler, though, said he was troubled that DeSantis and other Republicans were so far failing to make a strong case for GOP voters to look beyond former president Donald Trump in 2024. Unless he can secure the nomination, Sembler said, DeSantis’ positions toward Israel would become moot.

“He’s got to get elected president to accomplish anything over there,” Sembler said.