Israeli official, DeSantis administration at odds over alleged ammunition shipment

FILE PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis campaigns in South Carolina

By Gram Slattery and Alexandra Ulmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -An Israeli diplomat in Miami on Thursday pushed back against an assertion by the administration of Ron DeSantis that the Florida governor had coordinated with his office to facilitate the shipment of ammunition and weapons to Israel.

Earlier on Thursday, a DeSantis spokesperson said the governor's office had contracted cargo planes to send drones, body armor and helmets to Israel and worked to "get weapons and ammunition to Israel through private parties."

There were few details disclosed about the shipments, including where the materials originated, and which third parties Florida worked with.

"At the request of the Israeli Consul General in Miami, cargo planes contracted by Florida were used to transport healthcare and hospital supplies, drones, body armor, and helmets that first responders can use," Jeremy Redfern, the press secretary for DeSantis' gubernatorial office, wrote in a statement to Reuters.

"We also worked with the Consul General to help get weapons and ammunition to Israel through private parties."

In an interview with Reuters, however, Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, the Israeli consul general in Miami, said his office did not work with the governor to send any weapons or ammunition to Israel through private parties, though he had once been in contact with the governor's office about a plane that was carrying rifle parts.

"This is not how I would describe it," he said of the statement released by the governor's office.

Elbaz-Starinsky said DeSantis' office had contacted various Israeli government institutions, and that DeSantis had facilitated a shipment of medical supplies, which had been requested by the Israeli health ministry.

He said that earlier in the month, there was a flight that included some "rifle inserts" that had been ordered by Israeli authorities, scheduled to leave Miami, and that he had contacted various "stakeholders" including members of Congress and the governor's office to make sure it would be able to depart. He said he was not sure what influence, if any, the governor's office had on the flight's departure.

"I am not aware and would find it very, very bizarre to think that somebody is procuring weapons and sending it to Israel," Elbaz-Starinsky said. "This is not how we work. And certainly not privately funded."

Asked to clarify, Redfern said the governor's office "was contacted by the Consul General's office for assistance to clear federal bureaucratic hurdles associated with getting those items to Israel."

While it is legal for a U.S. state to send aid to a foreign government, exporters of ammunition and other types of military equipment, including many types of body armor, generally must navigate U.S. export license requirements.

The DeSantis administration did not respond to requests for comment regarding the details of its shipments to Israel.

"There are laws and regulations which govern how the export process is handled. And that's all done through (the Commerce Department.) I couldn't speak with authority today about whether the governor has checked all those boxes or not," White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Thursday.

The U.S. Commerce Department, which oversees many of the export controls related to ammunition and military-grade equipment, said it was working with "interagency partners" to expedite applications to send aid to Israel, but that it could not discuss specific transactions.

DeSantis, who is running for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic President Joe Biden in the 2024 presidential race, has tried to portray himself as the staunchest Israel ally in the primary field.

He has sharply criticized former President Donald Trump, who is by far the frontrunner in the race for Republican nominee in the election, for criticizing Israel's intelligence capabilities in October and calling Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah "very smart."

DeSantis and other presidential contenders will be attending the Republican Jewish Coalition's (RJC) weekend donor gathering in Las Vegas, where he will be vying for donor money to bankroll his campaign.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery in Washington and Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco; additional reporting by James Oliphant, Steve Holland, Humeyra Pamuk, David Shepardson and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin, Jonathan Oatis, Daniel Wallis and Deepa Babington)