Texas flags hanging among Israeli flags

ON THE AFTERNOON of April 19, 2018, a group of Texas Republicans received an email confirming their upcoming all-expenses-paid trips to Israel. An orientation packet filled with background on their destination “for reading on the flight,” the message said, was forthcoming.

The May 2018 trip to Israel would not be Texas politicians’ first — Gov. Greg Abbott, for one flew to Israel on casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s private jet in 2016.

But it was unique in at least one crucial way: The trip was organized by the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC, according to records obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy and reviewed by The Intercept. The right-wing group of over 2,000 state legislators, lobbyists, and corporate backers writes legislation to be exported to statehouses around the country and has largely focused on issues like “stand your ground” gun laws and voter suppression efforts. By leading a delegation to Israel, ALEC was opening up a new front, demonstrating the extent to which support for Israel has become a central part of the GOP’s policy agenda, especially in Texas.

The delegation, which included eight elected Texas officials, was a reflection of Texas Republicans’ deep ties to Israel: rooted in a combination of economic interests, an Israel-loving evangelical base, and pro-Israel advocates whose campaign contributions have helped the state’s GOP maintain its 16-year governing trifecta. Those ties have grown stronger in recent years, even as Israel lurches to the extremist right, entrenches its military occupation of Palestinian land, and continues to build settlements, considered by most of the world illegal under international law.

As the Trump administration maintains the friendliest U.S. relationship with the Israeli right in history, Texas has become one of the most pro-Israel states in the country. It has forged ties with Israeli settlements and aggressively enforced a law targeting advocates of boycotting Israel. Its exports to Israel last year topped $900 million, and its imports from Israel are valued at $1.5 billion, according to the Texas Economic Development Corporation, making Texas the fourth biggest Israeli trade partner in the U.S. Florida, however, is now competing with Texas over supporting Israel: The state’s Trump-backed governor, Ron DeSantis, who campaigned on a promise to be America’s most pro-Israel governor, traveled to Israel on a “business development mission” with members of his cabinet in late May and was on hand to applaud the announcement of a student exchange program between Ariel University, an institution located in an Israeli settlement deep in the occupied West Bank, and Florida Atlantic University.

“I think we have a lot in common with Israel,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, an adviser to Trump’s 2016 election campaign who once shared a meme on Facebook suggesting the U.S. drop a nuclear bomb on the “Muslim world,” told The Intercept. “The Israelis are kind of like cowboys. They’re tough and gritty and they don’t take any [expletive] from anybody.”

Oil and Gas

Texas’s booming oil and gas industry was a focal point of the ALEC-sponsored delegation, which was meant to strengthen the already robust economic bonds between Texas and Israel, according to the records reviewed by The Intercept. The Texas energy companies CenterPoint and Vistra, and Zev Shulkin, a Texas doctor and pro-Israel advocate, joined ALEC in paying for the trip, according to the records, which do not reveal the total cost.

The Texas Republicans on the trip included Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian; state Reps. Phil King, Ron Simmons, Tony Dale, and Dennis Paul; and state Sens. Larry Taylor, Brandon Creighton, and Donna Campbell. Their days were filled with meeting Israeli technology companies and discussing how Texas can help Israel out with fossil fuel production, along with trips to Israeli settlement businesses. ALEC, the energy companies, Shulkin, and the Texas state legislators did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a backer of Israeli settlements who met with the group on their first night in town, told the legislators that Texas oil and gas made “all the difference in the world” to Israel, according to an email sent by Christian, who as railroad commissioner regulates oil and gas production in Texas. From 2009 to 2010, Houston company Noble Energy discovered two huge gas fields off the coast of Israel and subsequently partnered with Israeli companies to sell natural gas to Jordan and Egypt for at least $25 billion.

The Lone Star State’s economic ties to Israel are expanding beyond fossil fuels.

“What drives the Texas economy is exactly where Israel innovates the most: energy efficiency, water conservation, and treatment, cybersecurity, health care innovation,” said Toba Hellerstein, CEO of the Texas-Israel Alliance.

Israel and Texas have also collaborated on the military-industrial complex. In 2014, Elbit Systems of America, the Texas-based subsidiary of Israeli company Elbit, landed a $145 million contract to build surveillance towers along the Arizona-Mexico border. The Fort Worth factory of Lockheed Martin, the American defense giant, built the stealth F-35 fighter jets that Israel first bought in 2010 for $2.75 billion.

“We put such heavy emphasis on our law enforcement here, on ICE, on securing the border, a wall; all things that are mirrored in Israel,” said Mohamad Fattouh, a member of the executive board of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Houston. “Texas sees itself in Israel and vice versa.”

The power of the Christian right-Jewish alliance in Texas was put on full display two months after Miller’s jaunt to West Bank settlements. In May 2017, the Texas legislature passed a sweeping bill that targeted Texans heeding the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel because of its human rights abuses. Influential groups like Christians United for Israel, founded by John Hagee, a San Antonio preacher whose megachurch boasts 17,000 members, and the Texas Eagle Forum, another Christian right group, mobilized to support the legislation. Jewish and pro-Israel organizations like StandWithUs and the American Jewish Committee also lobbied for the bill.

House Bill 89, the anti-BDS law, prohibited the state from doing business with any companies or individual contractors who boycott Israel.

The bill was so popular that not a single member in the Texas House voted against it. In the Senate, it passed with overwhelming support from both parties, with only one Republican and four Democrats voting against it. Similar bills targeting boycotts for Palestinian rights have passed in 27 other states and are currently pending in others. ALEC is one of the groups that has lobbied aggressively for these measures around the country.

Texas’ Christian right has, through its political activism, helped give credence to what most of the world considers illegitimate: Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Israeli military wrested control of those areas in 1967, and as the settlements have expanded over the past 52 years, the rights of the native Palestinians have eroded.

The Intercept/Alex Kane, Nashwa Bawab

Edited for space by the Islamic Post