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Why Texas Ag Chief Sid Miller signed a deal with disputed Israeli settlements

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has opened trade relations with group of Israeli settlements in the West Bank that neither the United States nor the United Nations legally recognizes.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller tours the Naama Agricultural Community in Israel's Jordan Valley.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, the cowboy hat-wearing Republican who often draws attention for posting controversial messages on social media, made a bold geopolitical statement during an international trip he wrapped up Wednesday: He opened up trade relations with a group of Israeli settlements in the West Bank that neither the United States nor the United Nations legally recognizes.

Miller last week signed a declaration of cooperation with the Shomron Regional Council, vowing to stoke agricultural trade and other exchanges between the Texas Department of Agriculture and the council. The agreement might appear routine — if not for the fact that the council provides municipal services to 35 Israeli settlements in the northern part of the West Bank, a disputed territory long at the center of Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

The United Nations has long condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank — known to the Israeli government as Judea and Samaria Area — as illegal and harming prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The United States does not recognize the settlements as legitimate extensions of Israel either, and it has viewed them as undermining Israeli security. President Donald Trump has yet to clearly outline his position, though his ambassador to Israel, sworn in Wednesday, has staunchly supported settlements. 

Miller, during a 10-day trade and marketing mission throughout Israel and surrounding territories, added a Texas brand of support to the idea of treating Israel and the settlements as one and the same.

Miller said his trip, which included visits with government and business leaders across sovereign Israel, had many purposes, including finding new markets for Texas ranchers and farmers and learning about Israeli agriculture technology — all as he revived a broader Texas-Israeli exchange program that went dormant under his predecessor, Todd Staples

But the settlement visits were “specifically targeted to send a political message,” Miller said in a phone interview Wednesday morning from his hotel patio in Tel Aviv. “It’s just time the world recognizes that Judea and Samaria are legitimate. They’re a mainstream part of the economy and the government of Israel.”

In a news release last week that drew little notice stateside, the Texas Department of Agriculture called the West Bank “the heartland of Israel.” The release quoted Yossi Dagan, the grassroots organizer who heads the Shomron Council, criticizing U.S. policy on settlements and praising Miller.

“In recent years, many U.S. leaders have turned their back on Israel,” Dagan said in the release. “So it is gratifying to know that there are leaders of courage like Sid Miller willing to stand in solidarity with Israel and visit these territories that others may consider ‘disputed.’ My friend, Sid Miller, understands that there is no dispute about this region in the eyes of God.”

A report last week by the Jerusalem Post described Miller — a “pro-Trump Maverick” — twirling a lasso above his head as he and Dagan rode horses atop a rocky hilltop in Itamar, one of the settlements.

Texas leaders have long sought ways to up the ante in their support for Israel’s sovereign government, and some bills moving through the Legislature this year would do just that. But experts in Middle Eastern policy said they were unaware of any equally bold efforts from Texas — or other U.S. states, for that matter — to legitimize the settlements.

“The optics are bad because it makes absolutely no distinction between the West Bank and Israel proper,” said Brent Sasley, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington who conducts research on Israeli and Middle Eastern politics. “[The West Bank] is not considered the heartland of Israel, or it’s only considered that by certain people because it’s not sovereign Israeli territory.” 

Asked if he sought outside advice about forging a relationship with an unrecognized government, Miller told the Tribune: “If I was supposed to, I didn’t. “

The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office. 

Sasley said he wasn't sure Miller’s move would cause international ripples amid an already chaotic news cycle, but he called it a public relations win for settlement backers that might play well politically in Texas.

“There’s that sort of romantic vision of what [an expanded view of] Israel means for the redemption of the Jewish people,” he said.

Lara Friedman, incoming president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a nonprofit that promotes a two-state solution for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, found Miller’s move “problematic” and said supporting Israeli settlements and the Israeli state were two very different ideas.

“I worry that people who have very bad intentions are manipulating support for Israel in order to legitimize settlements or people with good intentions are not understanding what they’re doing here,” she said. “This trade agreement is part and parcel of the campaign we’re seeing across the United States to define settlements as indistinguishable from Israel.”

Miller’s trip came as some Texas lawmakers are trying to make their own political statements about Israel.

The Texas Senate last week approved Senate Bill 29, which would bar the state from entering into contracts or investing in any company that decides to “boycott Israel.” It’s a response to a Palestinian-led “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement seeking to pressure Israel into ending the settlements and expanding Palestinian rights in other ways. And in his budget proposal, Abbott called for Texas to divest from companies with stated anti-Israel policies, writing that “Texas pension funds should not fund our enemies.”

“If you discriminate by boycotting, you can’t do so with Texas dollars,” said Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who authored SB 29, now waiting for action in the House.

Creighton said his bill would not target companies that only boycott Israeli settlements (Many European Union states warn their companies against doing business in settlements). But language in SB 29 targeting boycotts involving a “person or entity doing business in Israel or in an Israeli-controlled territory,” appear to suggest otherwise. 

Creighton said he wasn’t aware of the specifics of Miller’s trip, but he’s “proud when any member of the Legislature or statewide official makes that journey and represents Texas well.”

Though Miller said he was “working his butt off” with official state business, leaving him little time for sightseeing in and around Israel, he said he was spending his own money and would tap his campaign account for some of the trip's cost.

“What it does is keep peckerwoods like you from writing about it,” he joked.

But he might later decide to bill the state for part of the trip, he added.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Arlington has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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