For the past two weeks, Israeli officials have been embroiled in an appalling debate. A group of far-right extremists within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition have been calling on the government to encourage the “voluntary migration” of large numbers of Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip.
These thinly veiled calls for ethnic cleansing have been widely condemned—both within Israel and by the Biden administration. Some Republicans have also gone on record rejecting the idea. “I don’t think you have to remove Palestinians from Gaza,” GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley told CNN last week. “I think you have to remove Hamas from Gaza.”
Ron DeSantis apparently has a different view. During Wednesday night’s Republican debate, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked the Florida governor whether he would support “the mass-removal of Palestinians from Gaza.” DeSantis’ response was less than clear, but he seemed to suggest that if the Israeli government did decide to remove millions of Palestinians from Gaza, he wouldn’t stand in the way of that egregious human rights violation.
“We’ve got to support Israel in word and in deed, in public and in private, and they’ve got to be able to finish the job,” DeSantis said. “I think to be a good ally, you back them in the decisions that they’re making with respect to Gaza. Look, there’s a lot of pluses and minuses with how you’re doing this. But for us to be sitting in Washington second-guessing them, I don’t think that’s the right way.”
Tapper pressed for clarity. “Do you support the mass-removal of Palestinians from Gaza?” he asked again.
“As president, I am not going to tell them to do that. I think there’s a lot of issues with that,” DeSantis answered. “But if they make the calculation that to avert a second Holocaust, they need to do that—I think some of these Palestinian Arabs, Saudi Arabia should take some. Egypt should take some.”
DeSantis’ claim that he isn’t “going to tell” Israel to commit war crimes is less than reassuring. Many Israeli officials—even officials within Netanyahu’s government—oppose ethnic cleansing for moral reasons, and they would presumably reject such a suggestion from a US president. But other Israeli politicians have criticized calls for “voluntary migration” precisely because they don’t think the United States would ever permit it. “It’s not realistic, and it’s clear that the international community will not accept it…we see the repercussions, we see what happened with the Americans,” one Likud minister told Israel’s Ynet news outlet.
Under increasing pressure to disavow his allies’ demands for Palestinian expulsion, Netanyahu asserted Wednesday that “Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population.” Another influential Likud lawmaker, Danny Danon, told the Times of Israel that Netanyahu only came around to that position because of American insistence:
“We had a faction meeting a few weeks ago when I asked him about voluntary relocation and he said it’s a good idea and not easy to find countries that would accept Gazans,” Danon confirmed, adding that he understood that Netanyahu’s change of heart was due to American pressure.
“In the last few days, because of the pressure coming from a few countries, he stated that it’s not the position of the government and Israel is not promoting it. [US Secretary of State Antony] Blinken said he got assurances,” the lawmaker said.
And that’s what makes DeSantis’ comments so dangerous. He’s giving a green light to ethnic cleansing.
Update, January 11: This story has been revised to include comments from Netanyahu and Danon.