Gov. Greg Abbott is on his third official international trip since being sworn in last January. Yesterday in Jerusalem, the Governor met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last week Abbott said the purpose of the upcoming meeting was to promote business ties abroad.
However, since news broke over the weekend of the U.S. prisoner swap and an end to sanctions against Iran, Monday’s meeting seemed more like a political trip. That’s left some scratching their heads, and others nodding in approval.
Now questions are arising about what the change in plans mean for the Governor’s agenda. One such asker is Jeremi Suri, from the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. He says Abbott’s political message is a big deal.
During his trip, Abbott made statements about international policy. The biggest one, Suri says, is that – despite the policy of the U.S. government, which recently lifted its sanctions on Iran – Texas should invest and maintain any limitations it can on sending resources and working with companies or individuals from Iran.
“He wants to impose, in a sense, virtual sanctions from Texas on Iran,” Suri says. “Texas is a major part of the American economy, and, particularly the area of oil and gas, is one that the Iranians work in as well. And so this could potentially limit Iranian access to American knowhow and technology and engineering for a gas-oil exploration.”
Suri says that there are no other state governors looking to hold court in foreign policy like Abbott’s trying to do. Generally state officials try to avoid political statements when they travel abroad, because their genuine mission is to open business opportunities, not limit them.
“These kinds of political statements can impinge upon business opportunities for the state,” Suri says. “International trips tend to be less political, but this was clear exception to that.”
Some say Abbott, since his call for a constitutional convention more than a week ago, is laying the groundwork for an eventual presidential run. But Suri says as of yet, he doesn’t see one happening.
“I think he’s definitely trying to fend off attackers from the right and trying to make sure the Lieutenant Governor does not become a challenger to him in the state,” Suri says.
But, Suri says, many Republicans see Abbott as a moderate. “He fears that the Republican party in the state is, for the short run, dominated by people who have far right views on Israel and many other issues,” Suri says. “So I think that’s he’s appealing to them.”
Abbott’s rhetoric affects on Texans as a whole, not just the far-right Republicans, Suri says, in a few ways. The most immediate effect is that his position makes it more difficult for people in Texas who want to do business with Iran, Suri says.
“It (also) contributes to this ongoing debate in our society to whether the president’s policy in Iran is the correct one. And this certainly contributes to the detractors which makes it a little more difficult to implement that policy,” Suri says. “One way of looking at it is that we have an agreement between some leaders in Iran and some leaders in the U.S. and we have a lot of criticism of that agreement in both societies.”
Finally, Suri says it raises the temperature on what is already a big debate: whether the United States should remain as close to Israel as it has been. By extension, that includes how the U.S. builds relations with Muslim countries.
“There’s a racial and religious element to this that’s been most explicitly put on the table by candidate Donald Trump,” Suri says. “I think Governor Abbott’s statements give, unfortunately, some more weights to some of the things Trump has been saying.”
President Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, don’t seem to have a warm relationship either. “(Netanyahu) has continued to criticize the deal with Iran,” Suri says. “So certainly Abbott’s statements contribute a continuing rift between the Israeli leadership and the American president.”