Israel balks at US request to praise new Cuba policy
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Israel balks at US request to praise new Cuba policy

Shut out of decision, America’s lone embargo supporter holds off on welcoming historic thaw with Havana

Young students carry a large Cuban flag, as they attend a parade through the streets of Gibara, Cuba. January 20, 2014. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Young students carry a large Cuban flag, as they attend a parade through the streets of Gibara, Cuba. January 20, 2014. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Israel has not agreed to an American request that it officially welcome the new thaw in US-Cuban relations.

Last week, Washington and Havana agreed to work to end five decades of mutual enmity and suspicion. The two governments exchanged prisoners, including Alan Gross, an American Jew, and began to speak about ending the long-standing US embargo on the island nation.

The move came as a surprise in Washington – and in Israel.

Each year, the UN General Assembly votes on a resolution calling on the US to lift the Cuba embargo. And each year, including this last October, Israel is the only nation that votes with the US against the resolution.

So Israeli officials were surprised that the dramatic policy change was announced without them being notified, Haaretz reported on Thursday.

“They didn’t even give us a few minutes’ warning,” one senior Foreign Ministry official told the Israeli daily.

Alan Gross, recently released by Cuban authorities, concludes his remarks with his wife Judy at a press conference in Washington, DC, shortly after arriving in the United States, December 17, 2014 (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)
Alan Gross, recently released by Cuban authorities, concludes his remarks with his wife Judy at a press conference in Washington, DC, shortly after arriving in the United States, December 17, 2014 (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

The Obama administration’s new Cuba policy has faced criticism from Congress. Some of the most strident critics of the policy, such as Havana-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez, are among Israel’s most vociferous supporters in Washington.

So when US embassies around the world asked governments to welcome the new policy, Israeli officials balked.

The sense that its lone support for the American policy toward Cuba had not even earned it fair warning about the policy about-face, coupled with a desire not to anger the other side of the political aisle in Washington, led Foreign Ministry officials to stall on responding to the American request.

Israeli-Cuban relations have their own troubles independent of American policy.

“Israel supported the American Cuba policy in international forums in the context of the strategic alliance between the two countries and because of Cuba’s critical line on Israel in these forums,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel Monday.

Cuba unilaterally cut ties with Israel in 1973, not due to the Yom Kippur War — as often wrongly assumed — but because the country’s then-leader, Fidel Castro, sought the presidency that year of the Non-Aligned Movement. Relations have since seen ups and downs but mostly remained extremely bitter. In 2010, for example, Fidel Castro compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Nazi genocide of the Jews. “It would seem that the Fuehrer’s swastika is today Israel’s banner,” the leader, then 83 years old, stated.

This year, he accused Israel of “genocide” in Gaza and called Operation Protective Edge a “new, repugnant form of fascism.”

In 2010, however, Fidel Castro, who had by then been replaced as president by his younger brother, Raul, told US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Israel has “without a doubt” the right to exist as a Jewish state. Asked by Goldberg whether Havana would consider resuming diplomatic ties, the elder Castro replied that such things take time, but he did not reject the idea outright.

Despite its initial wariness over the American policy change, officials in Jerusalem have suggested a change in Israel’s policy toward Havana is likely to follow the American example.

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