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Cuomo, lawmakers leave on trip to Israel

(L-R) Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Governor Andrew Cuomo

(L-R) Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Governor Andrew Cuomo and State Senator Dean Skelos speak with the media before flying out of JFK International Airport to Tel Aviv as part of a show of solidarity with Israel on Aug. 12, 2014. Credit: Uli Seit

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Tuesday he's leading a delegation to Israel to make clear New York stands with it amid rising tensions in the Gaza Strip.

"Our message is simple and clear: We stand with Israel and we support Israel's right to defend itself in this conflict," Cuomo said at a news conference at Kennedy Airport before preparing to board a plane.

"This is a precarious time. Israel is under attack," Cuomo said. " . . . Everyone wants the killing to stop. . . . But at the same time, Israel must have the right to defend itself."

Cuomo was accompanied on the trip by Senate co-leaders Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).

It is the first international trip for Cuomo, a Democrat who is up for re-election this fall, since he took office in 2011. Spokesman Rich Azzopardi said Cuomo will use campaign funds to cover the costs for the governor and his staff.

Cuomo sought to deflect questions about an invitation from the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations to visit Palestinian territories to see all sides of the conflict.

"The letter came in very late today," he said. "This is a very short trip, about 30 hours on the ground . . . So there's not a lot of flexibility to this trip."

That prompted Skelos to step in to say he had no intention to visit Gaza. "Why would I want to go there and give any credibility to Hamas?" he said.

The delegation is slated to meet with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israel trip 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 activist Randy Credico.

The governor also has been facing heat for his administration's possible interference with an anti-corruption commission. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has taken over the work of the panel, which Cuomo created. His staff is reportedly set to meet soon with Lawrence Schwartz, secretary to the governor.

"I think the timing is a little suspect, but anything that shows unity between the U.S. and Israel is a good thing," said Astorino in an interview. "So I think having New York leaders go to Israel is fine with me."

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said, "Even in years in which there's no major conflict involving Israel, New York politicians routinely make trips there to appeal to Jewish voters who still are a force in New York politics."

He said the trip has only a slight chance of coming off as election-year pandering. "What one person might consider pandering, many others -- particularly in the community the politician is trying to impress -- might consider a show of respect and support," Levy said.

With Michael Gormley

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