Is California Gov. Newsom’s Israel visit ‘helpful for morale’ or risky political maneuver?

In a surprise itinerary change, California Gov. Gavin Newsom is stopping Friday in Israel on his way to a planned trip to China, visiting the country-at-war with no official diplomatic agenda and raising more questions about his long-speculated presidential ambitions.

In a social media post Thursday, Newsom said he will be meeting “with those impacted by the horrific terrorist attacks and offering California’s support.”

Newsom’s trip comes just two days after President Biden became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Israel during a war and a day after New York’s Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul spent two days there, meeting with families as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Newsom’s visit is welcome news to Galia Mizrahi, a 55-year Southern California woman who flew to Israel after two of her close relatives — a father and daughter — were killed and his wife and three other children were taken hostage during the deadly Hamas attack and massacre two weeks ago.

“Any honest candidate’s support is helpful for morale,” Mizrahi, from Tarzana, said in a phone call from Israel on Thursday, “and anyone who is willing to put themselves out there and meet with families and hug someone and tell them that they’re here to listen without judgment matters.”

Political observers say Newsom’s trip is politically risky — he doesn’t want to be seen as an opportunist — but the trip could bolster his international credentials should he become a presidential contender. It will also provide Newsom fodder for a televised debate planned for Nov. 30 with GOP presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who made news this week by using state money to charter flights to Israel to bring home stranded Floridians for free.

David McCuan, Sonoma State professor and chair of the political science department, said Newsom is looking beyond Sacramento.

“He’s trying to do what I would argue is the Newsom ‘two-step’,” said McCuan, who said Newsom is trying to show support for the Biden administration without ruffling feathers. “For a guy who is not running for president, he sure acts like he’s running.”

Biden, 80, is running for a second term, and Vice President Kamala Harris, California’s former attorney general and former U.S. Senator, is an old friend of Newsom’s since their days in San Francisco where he was mayor and she was district attorney.

President Joe Biden, center left, pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center right, in Tel Aviv on October 18. 

Newsom has adamantly denied he is interested in the White House, but “he is in a place where if something happens, he’s willing to fill the breach,” McCuan said. “He also is someone who doesn’t go off the national stage even when he’s termed out in 2026. … So this is still about building power.”

Newsom is not the first California governor to visit a war-torn country. In 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited Iraq to meet with American troops there, and in 1971, Gov. Ronald Reagan flew with his wife and son to Vietnam to deliver a message from President Nixon congratulating the country’s president on his re-election.

Newsom’s roundabout trip to China — one pundit says its like “flying from San Jose to Sacramento by way of Chicago” — follows a trip by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Schumer chastised the China foreign minister “for showing no sympathy or his support for the Israeli people” after the attacks. During Newsom’s weeklong trip to China, visiting three cities and two provinces, he will be discussing climate change, electric vehicles, economic development and other issues.

What exactly Newsom will be doing in Israel on Friday and whether he was specifically invited is unclear. But the governor says his trip is about supporting Israel and the victims there. California is sending medical supplies to the region, his office said, including provisions intended for the Gaza Strip.

“It’s both the politically smart thing to do and the right thing to do,” said Dan Schnur, professor of politics and communications at UC Berkeley and USC. “California has a very significant Jewish population, and for a political leader to show solidarity with Israel right now sends a very important message.”

It also sends a message to Republican voters who perceive Newsom as no more than a knee-jerk San Francisco liberal who has let homelessness thrive in his home city. Newsom’s trip shows that support for Israel is bipartisan.