The launching of Cuomo’s Israel tour

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Andrew Cuomo on the plane to Israel. (Laura Nahmias)
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TEL AVIV—Governor Andrew Cuomo made his way down the aisle toward the back of the cramped cabin of the Boeing 747 shortly after the jetliner’s departure for Israel, shaking hands and posing for "selfies" with excited passengers.

He’d removed the suit jacket and tie he was wearing a few hours earlier when he stood with Senate leaders Dean Skelos and Jeff Klein and Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver in a makeshift room just inside the JFK airport terminal to announce the group’s “unity tour” to Israel.

Now he was more casual, in a blue striped button-down and khakis, sleeves rolled up.

“Thank you for your support,” one woman said, before giving him a hug.

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Cuomo, trailed by a half-dozen members of the press corps, quizzed two teenage girls from Israel who were returning from a visit to his own state.

“Where’d you go in New York?” he asked.

“Long Island,” one girl replied.

“Just Long Island?” he asked.

In one row about a dozen seats from the rear of the plane, a father traveling with his wife and two children explained to his daughter that the governor was on board the plane.

“He’s a very, very important person,” the father said to his daughter.

“But every person is a very important person,” she replied.

As Cuomo made his way down the opposite aisle, shaking hands and hugging passengers, a woman seated behind me wondered, “What’s his brother’s name?” referring to Cuomo’s brother Chris, an anchor at CNN. “I like him, but I really like his brother.”

The governor turned to head out of the economy class cabin toward his own seat in business class, the plane still nine hours away from arriving at its destination in Tel Aviv, more than 6,000 miles from his own state.

“Now we all have to get some sleep,” he said.

The Israel visit, his first international trip since taking office in January 2011, is a familiar rite for New York politicians, especially gubernatorial candidates seeking election.

It comes at a convenient time for Cuomo, taking the focus of the New York political media and pundit class off the simmering Moreland Commission scandal that has engulfed the governor in the last several weeks, and redirecting it toward a traditionally winning action for any New York politician—declaring support for Israel. The country is engaged in a conflict in Gaza in which more than 1800 Palestinians, many of them adult civilians and children, have been killed by Israeli assaults meant to stop rocket fire and assaults through tunnels. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians have been killed since the fighting started. A three-day ceasefire between Israel and Palestine is scheduled to end tonight.

Cuomo has rarely left the state since assuming office, traveling just a handful of times outside New York, including trips to Washington to plead for aid in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, to California for a smattering of high-dollar fundraisers, and to Puerto Rico for Somos El Futuro, the annual conference of Puerto Rican and Latino lawmakers.

His father, Mario Cuomo, attracted criticism for flying out of state as governor, and Andrew came under fire near the end of his term as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in President Clinton’s administration for his frequent out-of-state trips to New York, which were seen as the unseemly beginnings of his first run for governor.

His opponent in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Carl McCall, was ridiculed for traveling to Israel and posing for a photograph while holding an AK-47. McCall, who was serving as the state’s comptroller at the time, was also the subject of withering criticism from Andrew Cuomo’s campaign for taking a taxpayer-funded trip to Israel to research the state’s pension investments there, which Cuomo campaign officials decried as a naked ploy to drum up support from Jewish voters in advance of the Democratic primary.

Cuomo doesn’t exactly need to shore up support with Jewish voters either, who make up around 25 percent of the voters in a Democratic primary.

According to Steve Greenberg, a pollster for Siena College, about 65 percent of Jewish voters view Cuomo favorably, according to the most recent Siena poll. Only 27 percent view him unfavorably. That's better than Cuomo does Catholics, Greenberg said. Fifty-seven percent of Catholics hold a favorable view of the (Catholic) governor, while 38 percent see him unfavorably.

Cuomo, who as of this writing is en route to Jerusalem, will meet first this afternoon with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin in Beit Hanasi before meeting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu later this afternoon. Cuomo and the delegation plan to travel to southern Israel tomorrow.

Cuomo's meeting with Netanyahu will be closed to the press.