God, Gas, and Cash: How Texas Fell in Love With Israel — and Then Trampled on the Constitution

“The Israelis are kind of like cowboys,” said Texas’ agriculture commissioner. “They’re tough and gritty and they don’t take any shit from anybody.”

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

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.

“The Israelis are kind of like cowboys. They’re tough and gritty and they don’t take any shit from anybody.”

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 shit 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.

“Because of Texas oil and gas, we are now, for the first time in the 70 years of Israeli history, able to be bold in our support of this great Nation.”

“Israel is one of our nation’s greatest allies, yet historically due to our reliance on Middle Eastern oil, the US has been hesitant to fight alongside Israel on the battlefield (although we have been supportive),” Christian wrote to Lisa Nelson, the CEO of ALEC, after he got back from the trip to Israel. “Because of Texas oil and gas, we are now, for the first time in the 70 years of Israeli history, able to be bold in our support of this great Nation.”

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, cyber security, 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.”

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller stands in front of a Texas flag at Renard Group Advertising in Tyler, Texas, Thursday, July 12, 2018. Miller came to Tyler to speak to local agricultural leaders about the state of the Texas agricultural community. (Chelsea Purgahn/Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP)

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller stands in front of a Texas flag in Tyler, Texas, on July 12, 2018.

Photo: Chelsea Purgahn/Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP

“All the Land Was Given to Them by God”

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.

In March 2017, Miller, a conservative Christian who believes God gave Jews the land of Israel, made a trade trip to Israel to explore export opportunities for Texas agriculture companies and to meet with Israeli companies looking to invest in Texas.

By the end of Miller’s trip, the agriculture commissioner had signed a one-of-a-kind trade agreement with the Shomron Regional Council, which provides municipal services to 35 Jewish-only settlements in the northern occupied West Bank. Settlements in what Israelis call the Shomron region are part of the ever-growing infrastructure for Israeli settlers whose presence has sliced through the Palestinian West Bank, cutting off towns from one another and killing the dream of an independent Palestinian state.

“I wanted them to know that the Department of Agriculture and Sid Miller stand in solidarity with them, recognizing Israel as a country, as a sovereign nation, a sovereign people, and push back on the BDS movement, which is absolutely terrible,” Miller told The Intercept, referring to boycott, divestment, and sanctions, or the social movement trying to enact an economic price on Israel over its human rights abuses against Palestinians. “What we did over there is now being mirrored by Trump and his peace plan for that part of the region. So we were kind of the leading edge of it.”

Now, Miller, who says he remains in contact with Trump, says he thinks the White House will follow his lead and recognize Israeli settlements, which would mark a sharp break from decades of U.S. policy that held that settlements are an obstacle to Palestinian statehood.

“What we did over there is now being mirrored by Trump and his peace plan for that part of the region. So we were kind of the leading edge of it.”

Miller’s approach aligns with the Christian right’s backing of Israel’s settlement project. U.S. Christian nonprofits have sent tens of millions of dollars to Israeli settlements over the past decade, and hundreds of evangelicals go to the occupied West Bank every year to volunteer in Israeli settlement farming projects. That commitment has led to a flowering of ties between Christian evangelicals, right-wing American Jewish groups that also back Israeli settlements, and Israeli settlers themselves.

“They’re working openly, and have been for years, to argue there is no distinction between Israel and settlements, that all the land was given to them by God, and that making a distinction between settlements and Israel is anti-Semitic,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a liberal think tank whose work focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019 photo, shows a new housing project in the West Bank settlement of Naale. Data obtained by The Associated Press shows that the Israeli government -- with little resistance from a friendly White House -- has gone on a settlement push in the West Bank since President Donald Trump took office. That has laid the groundwork for what could be the largest binge in construction in years. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A new housing project in the West Bank settlement of Naale on Jan. 1, 2019.

Photo: Ariel Schalit/AP

A Political Winner

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.

“It was just natural. … I’m very good friends with many people in the House and Senate in Texas,” said Mike Isley, a supporter of the anti-BDS bill and the founder and president of Texans for Israel, an evangelical group that takes Christians to Israel. “Four Price and John Smithee are two of my state reps in the counties I’m part of. So, of course I went to them, and both of them are wonderful, they’re both lovers of Israel. So they were very supportive.”

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.)

In an email to The Intercept, state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, a Democrat from El Paso who was one of the few to oppose HB 89, said the bill “aim[s] to silence political expression, and do so at a financial cost that also erodes First Amendment rights. If a company can do the highest quality job at the lowest cost to the state, and we refuse to hire that company, Texas taxpayers pay more.”

But for Abbott, the Texas governor, the bill was a political winner that pleased a key part of the Republican base that put him in power and major campaign donors to his campaign and the GOP in Texas.

At the signing ceremony for the bill held at the Jewish Community Center in Austin, Abbott was surrounded by pro-Israel advocates his staff had invited like Jerry Greenspan, the southwest regional political director of the American Israel Political Affairs Committee, or AIPAC; Sandra Hagee Parker, daughter of the San Antonio preacher John Hagee; and Shulkin, the Texas doctor who helped pay for the ALEC delegation to Israel.

“I had to choose between continuing to express my support for Palestinian rights and the commitments I had made to sources as a journalist.”

Others who came to the signing ceremony included Zev Shulkin’s father Allan Shulkin, a physician involved in pro-Israel advocacy who donated $2,500 to Abbott’s campaign in 2014 and again in 2018, as well as $1,500 to Phil King, the Texas representative who co-authored the anti-boycott bill; Michael Dell, an Israel backer and the CEO of Dell Technologies, who has given $20,000 to Abbott’s campaigns since 2004 and gave another $50,000 to the Republican Party of Texas in 2006; and Aryeh Natan Lightstone, a senior adviser to U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. (Lightstone is a business partner of Phil King’s and, in his previous role as head of pro-Israel group Shining City, lobbied for the Texas anti-BDS bill, according to ProPublica.) Paul Singer, the New York hedge fund CEO and bankroller of neoconservative causes who gave $275,000 to the GOP in Texas in 2008, was invited but could not attend the signing ceremony.

Silencing Dissent

After the bill’s passage, state contracts added a clause that required contractors to pledge to abstain from boycotting Israel. The measure also required the Texas comptroller’s office to compile a blacklist of companies supporting the boycott of Israel. In April, Texas divested $72 million of stock from DNB ASA, a financial services group that put a handful of Israeli companies on a list of companies it wouldn’t invest in because of involvement in human rights violations.

In March of this year, the office added vacation rental website Airbnb to the blacklist after the company decided to remove listings from illegal Israeli settlers, who were profiting from land taken from Palestinians.

The decision to blacklist Airbnb had immediate impact. The University of Texas said no employee could use state funds to rent on Airbnb. Abbott similarly ordered that no public worker use Airbnb. Then, in April, Airbnb reversed the decision to remove its listings in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and in May was taken off the Texas comptroller’s list.

“The decision to stand up for human rights should have been applauded by state lawmakers,” said Meera Shah, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a group that defends the speech rights of Palestinian rights advocates. “Instead, they elected to punish the company and force its hand and force it to walk back that decision.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a lawsuit challenging the law in 2018. Their plaintiffs included Obi Dennar, a former University of Texas at Austin student who was asked to sign a no-boycott pledge as part of his work moderating high school debates; George Hale, the host of the popular crime podcast “Buried,” who was forced to sign the clause or forgo working on the show; and Bahia Amawi, a Palestinian American children’s speech pathologist who was forced to end nine years of work in public schools when she refused to sign the pledge.

“I had to choose between continuing to express my support for Palestinian rights and the commitments I had made to sources as a journalist,” said Hale, who ended up signing the contract but made a clear note of his disagreement in the margins.

In April 2019, a federal judge sided with the plaintiffs, blocking the anti-BDS law and issuing a scathing decision that blasted Texas lawmakers for passing a law “intended not to combat discrimination on the basis of national origin, but to silence speech with which Texas disagrees.”

But instead of backing down, Texas is continuing to crack down on boycott advocates. Two weeks after the judge’s decision, Abbott signed House Bill 793, a law amending the original bill to exclude individual contractors and narrow the law’s focus to companies with state contracts over $100,000.

Civil liberties experts say this law remains unconstitutional, though it may pave the way for Texas to get the current ACLU and CAIR lawsuit against the original bill dismissed because the amended law no longer applies to the plaintiffs. The Texas attorney general’s office said it plans to defend the law on appeal.

The Texas anti-boycott law may eventually be thrown to the wayside as a result of legal challenges. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will retain a memento to remind him of the state’s unwavering support for his government: A year after HB 89 was signed into law, state Sen. Brandon Creighton, who authored the Senate version of the bill, delivered the pen Abbott used to sign the anti-boycott law to Netanyahu.

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