JERUSALEM -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, saying he wanted to make a strong statement, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday 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 alfresco with a handful of New York students who are studying at Hebrew University this summer and walked the Four Quarters section of the old city to visit the Church of 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 Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. He said it would be wrong to put the United States on the same moral plane as the Islamic State group, 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."
The Israel visit comes as Cuomo is battling not only Republican Rob Astorino, but also two foes in a Sept. 9 Democratic primary: Fordham University Professor Zephyr Teachout and comedian and activist Randy Credico.
Later Wednesday, 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," he 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."
His rivals haven't criticized the governor's trip, but they have 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."