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Cuomo’s Encore in Israel

Jacob Kornbluh, Jerusalem

The New York governor’s whirlwind Israel tour boosted his support at home and strengthened ties with Israel amid a spate of anti-Jewish vandalism and threats

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

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Andrew Cuomo solidified his relationships with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Rivlin while enhancing economic cooperation between New York and Israel (Photos: Flash90)

"W ho is that?” was the common question posed by bystanders as Andrew Cuomo walked the slippery cobblestoned allies in the Old City of Jerusalem on his way to the Kosel on Sunday.

“That’s the governor of the state of New York,” a reporter answered time and again.

“Ah, what’s his name?” was the usual response.

The repartee contains a kernel of truth. While the governor may not be well known outside his state of New York, there are whispers that Cuomo, son of the late Governor Mario Cuomo, may be an early contender for the Democratic ticket in 2020. 

And so his whirlwind 15-hour visit to Israel on Sunday might indicate he’s shoring up his base of Jewish support with a mind to the future. But no doubt the immediate cause of Cuomo’s trip was a show of New York’s support for the Jewish People amid a spate of anti-Semitic attacks, bomb threats, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries across the United States.

“Hineini. I am here. I’ve been here before. I will be here again,” Cuomo said in a joint appearance with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, following a moving tour of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem Sunday morning. “To the people of Israel, I say that these acts will not be tolerated. New York State has reacted aggressively with extraordinary measures, more aggressively than any other state in the nation, I am proud to say.”

Cuomo was visibly moved as he concluded the tour at Yad Vashem and prepared to return to the King David Hotel to meet with Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat and New York and Israeli business leaders. “It is personal. I want the Jewish community to know. I want my nieces [the children of his two Jewish brothers-in-law] to know that we are doing everything we can to fight anti-Semitism. If you really care and it really is important to you, you show up. And I really care. I care as a person. I care as a family member. 

And as the governor of the state of New York, I want to make it clear that this in no way represents the sentiments of the people of the state of New York.”

Cuomo said it was up to Israel to decide whether an embassy move was in its best interest and urge the White House to act: “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel”

In a brief interview with Mishpacha in the hotel, Cuomo described the “powerful” experience of the Holocaust memorial. “What Yad Vashem does brilliantly is it takes the facts that you know intellectually and historically — six million lives — and gives it the face and feel of humanity that makes it almost unbearable. 

When you put the number ‘six million’ together with the faces, the facts, and the stories, it’s devastating, and it is powerful. And it does it remarkably well. It brought the entire experience to a human experience, which is just painful to endure.”

Building Business

During his visit, the governor met with leaders of the business community to discuss the other purpose of his second trip to the Jewish State as governor — strengthening the economic ties between the Empire State and the State of Israel. The atmosphere was warm and personal. As the Israeli business leaders introduced themselves to Cuomo, one participant noted that he still has a New York accent.

“Don’t give it up,” Cuomo quipped.

In his remarks, which were open to the press, Cuomo announced a new 22-member economic development commission and shared his commitment to supporting Israel in more personal terms.

 “You can’t grow up in New York without feeling the cultural closeness to the Jewish community,” he said. “[In] my family, from day one, I remember my grandfather telling stories about his friends in the Jewish community. My father (former Governor Mario Cuomo), G-d rest his soul, used to tell a story about how he was a Shabbos goy. I have three sisters. Two of the three sisters married Jewish men.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, who attended the business roundtable, said he was “touched” by Cuomo’s decision to come on such short notice “at a time when the U.S. Jewish community is feeling vulnerable because of the anti-Semitic incidents over the last weeks, and tying that to the vulnerability Israelis always feel because of the threats they face.”

Cuomo insisted that the trip had nothing to do with his political ambitions. “It’s unfortunate in many ways because it suggests a political nature to everything, which frankly fuels the cynicism about the whole process,” he said.

But with a calculated politician like Cuomo, one cannot ignore the optics. A two-term governor first elected in 2010, Cuomo has built his liberal bona fides by pushing issues dear to his progressive base at home. He’s approved same-gender marriage in New York and tightened gun control laws. New York State is also home to the largest population of Jews outside of Israel, so showing affinity for the Jewish state surely pleases his Jewish backers at home.

Appearing very much as the possible presidential candidate, Cuomo didn’t shy away from commenting on foreign policy affairs. After receiving a security briefing at Israeli police headquarters in the Old City of Jerusalem, accompanied by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Mishpacha asked the governor if he supported moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and likewise asked the minister how he would deal with expected Palestinian violence if such a move took place.

Erdan didn’t like the timing of the question. “I think this is a professional visit how to fight terror attacks. We are not going to discuss — I mean, me — I am not going to discuss political issues.” But Cuomo encouraged his host to comment on a topic that has become a political football. “No, go ahead,” Cuomo told the minister before breaking into loud laughter. “Why not? Do it.”

Erdan, a senior Likud minister and a potential successor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, took the offer and responded: “Of course, I would be very happy if the administration will decide to move the embassy, but I won’t say more than that.”

Chiming in, Cuomo said it was up to Israel to decide whether an embassy move was in its best interest and urge the White House to act. At the same time, he made it very clear that “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.”

Addressing the U.S.-Israel relationship in general, and the erosion of support for Israel within the Democratic Party, Cuomo said that he formed an economic development commission with Israel in part because the political divides are getting “harsher and louder and people now debate whether you need Israel as a strategic ally. I think fortifying the relationship with the cultural and economic aspects will make the relationship even stronger and clearer for all Americans.”

Jokes With Bibi

The governor concluded his short visit with a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem. Finding some time on a busy Sunday to meet the Democratic politician, Bibi understood the importance of giving Cuomo the royal treatment. “Let’s go over to the flag,” Netanyahu quipped as he welcomed Cuomo into the cabinet room. “You know which one is yours?” The two shared a hug and smiled to the cameras before sitting down with the delegation in what could be a rehearsal for a meeting of more import in 2021. (excerpted)

Jacob Kornbluh is the political reporter for JewishInsider.com

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