JERUSALEM — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, saying he wanted to make a strong statement, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express support for the country during its conflict in Gaza.
Cuomo chose Israel for his first overseas journey since taking office in 2011, meeting not only Netanyahu but also Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in a whirlwind first few hours on the ground here. Cuomo is up for re-election this year and, some Democrats believe, positioning himself for a possible future presidential run.
Besides meeting with Israeli leaders, the governor had pizza al fresco with a handful of New York students who are studying at Hebrew University this summer, and walked the Four Quarters section to visit the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall. The delegation featured Senate co-leaders Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).
The governor and legislative leaders are using campaign funds to pay for the trip.
Cuomo said his main mission was to voice support for Israel.
“Prime minister, you are going through a very difficult time. That is precisely why we wanted to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel,” Cuomo told Netanyahu at a photo opportunity at the prime minister’s offices. “We pray for peace. We stand with you in defense.”
Netanyahu, in his remarks, likened Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, to the ISIS terror group in Iraq. He said it would be wrong to put the United States on the same moral plane as ISIS, just as it would be to put Israel and Hamas on the same moral plane.
In a similar brief photo opportunity with Rivlin, Cuomo told him: “All of New York stands with you.”
Later, when asked why he visited sites sacred to Christians and Jews but not the nearby Dome of the Rock, a Muslim site, Cuomo said there wasn’t enough time.
“You can’t make every gesture on every trip. We are using every available moment,” the governor said. “Everyone does have a role in peace and the Muslim community has . . . a role at the table.”
Skelos was critical of Hamas, saying the Gaza conflict is bigger than the Palestinian group versus Israel.
“The threat today is not just with Israel. It’s a global threat,” Skelos said. “They see Israel as the United States and the United States as Israel . . . They see destroying Israel as the first step to destroying the United States.”
The Israel visit comes as Cuomo is battling not only Republican Rob Astorino, but also two foes in a Sept. 9 Democrat primary: Fordham University professor Zephyr Teachout and comedian/activist Randy Credico. Cuomo won the endorsement of the liberal Working Families Party after an intense battle with Teachout.
His rivals haven’t criticized the governor’s trip, but questioned its timing, saying he wants to change the subject away from the campaign and away from a federal probe of an anti-corruption commission he shuttered.
Cuomo tried to dismiss such criticism. “This is a country under attack and while you’re under attack and you’re wondering who your friends are, we showed up,” he said. “I’m proud that we did this.”
He had a lighter time walking the streets before stopping for a prearranged pizza with four New York students studying Hebrew this summer, including Grant Hartman, 26, of West Hempstead.
The politicians mostly laughed and chatted amid cheese slices, but did hear tales about running to bomb shelters amid the conflict. Afterward, Cuomo gave the students “I Love NY” baseball caps.
“At first, I thought it wasn’t real. Then, I found out he was coming,” Hartman said. “I was impressed that he’s showing some kind of stand.”
On the flight to Israel, Cuomo enjoyed a bit of a movie-star treatment on an El Al 747 filled with Israelis and Israel supporters.
A little over 90 minutes into the 10-hour flight from New York, Cuomo left business class and walked the aisles to meet passengers. Their enthusiasm built quickly.
In minutes, some were chanting “Cuomo! Cuomo!” Adults and children jumped out of their seats to take selfies with the governor. Others stopped him to shake hands or have detailed chats.
“My pleasure. My pleasure,” Cuomo said, pausing for another photo with a family in aisle 45.
“Where are you from?” Cuomo engaged another, before repeating their answer. “New Jersey!”
One woman jumped up from the middle of the 10-seat aisles and exclaimed: “I’m very happy you’re going to Israel.”
Cuomo continued his impromptu tour for 20 minutes, down the left side aisle to row 61, the last one, and then up the right side all the way back to first class. The Democrat, dressed casually in a blue-and-white striped button-down shirt and khaki slacks, lingered as long as anyone wanted.
Renee Bodner-Reinharz, a former Queens resident now living in Ramat Gan, Israel, was one of those Cuomo stopped for.
“As an ex-New Yorker, I’m always happy to see people who represent New York do what I think is the right thing,” she said, adding that she believed Israel’s image was being “tainted” by coverage of the Gaza violence.
After saying the Democrat was “extremely gifted in communication skills,” she added: “I’d like to see someone like Governor Cuomo in the White House.”