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NY leaders' Israel trip called 'good politics'

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo meets with

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Yancey Roy

For his first overseas trip as chief executive, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo went with a time-honored tradition among New York politicians: a visit to Israel.

Cuomo led a New York delegation this week to visit Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and tour southern areas of the country along the Gaza Strip. Among those with Cuomo, Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) was on his third trip to Israel and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said he's made "tens of trips," too many to recall.

The recent political visitors all said they wanted to show support for Israel during the current conflict in Gaza. But making the trip is not a new phenomenon, analysts pointed out, and it can't hurt in a state with a large Jewish population.

"It's sort of a political pilgrimage," said Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based political consultant. "If you are running in a place with such a large Jewish constituency, you can't look like you don't care."

A force in NY politics

Cuomo and the delegation aren't the only ones making the pilgrimage. In the race for the Nassau County-based 4th Congressional District, Democratic candidate Kathleen Rice recently completed a three-day trip to Jerusalem, and Republican Bruce Blakeman, who is Jewish, is slated to go soon.

"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," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. Reasons for going range from generic to the "very personal," he added.

"In some instances, regardless of their personal feeling about the [Gaza] crisis, it's good politics," Levy said. "In other cases, they also may have an active base of conservative Christian voters who feel a kinship with Israel."

Cuomo, during the trip, frequently told Israeli officials and soldiers that New York State has about 1.7 million Jews, the most of any entity outside Israel. Though it was his first trip as governor, it was his fourth journey to Israel overall. He said this venture showed support in "times of crisis."

"This is a precarious time," he said. "Israel is under attack."

Cuomo is up for re-election this year. Though heavily favored, he faces Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout and comedian/activist Randy Credico in a Democratic primary, and, provided he wins that, Republican Rob Astorino in November.

A Democratic source said the trip was about Cuomo shoring up support for re-election. But others saw a governor, who some have mentioned as a possible future presidential candidate, as wading into international politics.

"When a guy goes on a day-and-a-half jaunt halfway around the globe, to an area some consider a war zone, speculation begins immediately" about the purposes, said another Democrat who asked not to be identified. "If a guy wants to keep people guessing about whether he's running for president, the best way is to keep himself visible in the international sphere."

Motives questioned

In contrast, Cuomo's rivals have questioned whether the trip was a way to break away from a tough political stretch.

The governor has been facing heat for his administration's possible interference with an anti-corruption commission, often referred to as the Moreland Commission.

"As governor, he should be facing up to his interference with the Moreland Commission," said Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins. "This seems like just another bad attempt to change the topic."

Cuomo wasn't the most outspoken supporter of Israel on the trip. That title would go to Skelos. When Cuomo declined to say whether he'd accept a Palestinian's invitation to visit Gaza, Skelos emphatically said he wouldn't, saying he wouldn't do anything that could legitimize Hamas militants there.

Skelos long has voiced support for Israel. Levy pointed out that not only does Skelos' district have a significant Jewish population, but also Senate Republicans would like to count on support from Jews and conservative Christians.

In the race to succeed Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), Blakeman has made Israel a key component of his campaign. He was presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature and represented the heavily Jewish Five Towns region of the county. He has visited Israel numerous times, a spokesman said.

"Obviously, Bruce is the stronger candidate on Israel and the Middle East," said spokesman Matt Coleman.

Rice went to Israel three weeks ago, her second trip there. Afterward, she said: "Our congressional district has a special bond with Israel, and nobody is more committed than I am to strengthening that tie."

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