Interestingly, it was Cuba’s Fidel Castro who actually decided to sever unilaterally 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 ever since.
With Castro angling for the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement in Algeria in 1973, and being pressed by the likes of Moammar Gadhafi and Hafez al-Assad to cut all ties with Israel, the Cuban leader made the announcement in Algiers. It was also true that 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 Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) correspondingly increased (including military aid during the 1987 Intifada).
But now that Washington and Havana established formal diplomatic relations last month, will both Israel and Cuba also move to restore full diplomatic ties? Second, and perhaps more important, can the two countries get beyond the sharp differences that have ostensibly frozen bilateral relations since the early 1970s?
It is worth emphasizing that 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 (UN) General Assembly in 1947. It is equally true that following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the Castro government had a cordial and friendly relationship with Israel (which was one of the first countries to recognize the revolutionary government).
Fidel Castro himself has always maintained a soft spot and warmth for the Jewish state. Moreover, 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—in keeping with much of the global community - from the occupied territories. And its close and expanding relations with both Venezuela and Iran also make the Israelis nervous.
For their part, the Cubans have taken umbrage at the fact that Israel continues to support the five decades-long U.S. economic embargo against the island. In the late 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 (against 188 backers) that sided with Washington - and it has done so ever since the first UN vote on the embargo was held in 1992.
In light of U.S.-Cuban talks on normalizing relations, the Israeli government is now examining the state of Israeli-Cuban relations. (The Israelis are presently represented through an interest section in the Canadian embassy in Havana.) But no decision has been taken on whether a similar rapprochement is possible between Tel Aviv and Havana.
But 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 Barack 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.
Having said that, it would be a mistake for Havana and Tel Aviv not to take advantage of this diplomatic opening. They already have mutually beneficial commercial, cultural and person-to-person (e.g., regular tourist travel) relations, and those can only grow as normalized diplomatic contacts take root.
Yes, they will no doubt “agree to disagree” on mid-East 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.