Will we see an Israeli-Cuban rapprochement?

Peter McKenna

Ever since Cuba’s Fidel Castro decided to  unilaterally sever relations with Israel in 1973 – just days after the end of the Yom Kippur War – the two countries have, for the most part, remained cool to each other.

With Castro then angling for the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement in Algeria, and being pressed by the likes of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Syria’s Hafez  Assad to cut all ties with Israel, the Cuban leader made the announcement in Algiers. Castro was seeking to expand Cuba’s ties with developing world countries, including Arab “socialist” states like Egypt, Syria and Libya. And, as its relations with Israel continued to deteriorate over time, Cuba’s interactions with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) correspondingly increased (including military aid during the 1987 intifadah).

But now that Washington and Havana have set in motion a process to normalize bilateral relations, will Israel and Cuba also move to restore diplomatic ties?

Pre-revolutionary Cuba supported national independence for the Jewish people in 1919, condemned the extermination of Jews by the Nazis in 1942, and voted against the Partition Plan in the United Nations General Assembly in 1947. Following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the Castro government maintained a cordial and friendly relationship with Israel, which was one of the first countries to recognize the revolutionary government.

Castro himself has always maintained a soft spot and warmth for the Jewish state. Havana has never challenged Israel’s right to exist, has condemned the 2010 anti-Semitic remarks of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and created a positive milieu for the Jewish community in Cuba. 

But Cuba has been very critical of Israel within international fora like the UN (backing Resolution 3379 that equates Zionism with racism) and has assisted PLO guerrillas with military training. In addition, it has consistently called for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories. 

Cubans have taken umbrage at the fact that Israel continues to support the U.S. economic embargo against the island. In the October 2014 UN vote on a Cuba-sponsored resolution that condemned the U.S. blockade and called for its repeal, Israel was the only country that sided with Washington – and it has done so ever since the first UN vote on the embargo was held in 1992.

According to Rafi Eitan, a former Mossad official, member of the Israeli Knesset, and business operator in Cuba’s agricultural sector, the Cubans are still interested in restoring diplomatic linkages with Israel. “Renewing diplomatic ties with Cuba depends first and foremost on Israel,” he recently told the Jerusalem Post.

In light of U.S.-Cuban talks on normalizing relations, the Israeli government is now examining the state of their relations – the Israelis are represented through an interest section in the Canadian embassy – but no decision has been taken on whether a similar rapprochement is possible. 

The early signs are not encouraging. In fact, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu – miffed about not being consulted about Washington’s Cuba gambit, nonplussed about the generally poor personal relations with the Obama White House, and not wanting to offend Republican allies in the U.S. Congress – has even withheld public support for the U.S.-Cuba normalization talks.

It would be a mistake for Israel and Cuba not to take advantage of this diplomatic opening. They already have mutually beneficial commercial and cultural relations, and those can only grow as normalized diplomatic contacts take root. More importantly, a diplomatic breakthrough clearly serves the domestic and foreign policy interests of both countries.

Yes, they will no doubt “agree to disagree” on Mideast matters, but there is no reason why the entire relationship should be held hostage by that impasse. It’s time to turn the page on the past and look toward a more co-operative future. 

Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island and the editor of Canada Looks South: In Search of an Americas Policy.