For over two decades at the United Nations, the US trade embargo on Cuba has bested even Israel in the world body’s unpopularity contest.
In 2014, like the year before, 188 countries voted in favor of the resolution on the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” The Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau abstained. Only the US and Israel opposed.
But less than two months after the last vote on the embargo, held at last year’s General Assembly in October, US President Barack Obama revealed in a surprise announcement that decades of hostility between his country and the socialist island nation were ending, paving the way for the release of Jewish American contractor Alan Gross.
On August 14, US Secretary of State John Kerry reopened the American embassy in Havana, reestablishing full diplomatic relations between the countries. The administration “advocate[s] for and support[s] the lifting of the embargo,” Kerry declared during a press conference with his Cuban counterpart. “We believe that that is important.”
Israel was caught totally off-guard by the American about-face.
For years, Jerusalem had unquestioningly followed Washington’s lead on Cuba, considering it routine and necessary backing given America’s unstinting support for Israel in various international forums. Then America made its sudden, drastic shift toward Cuba. But Israel cannot follow suit — not at the moment, anyway — because Havana isn’t interested in ties with Israel.
Havana unilaterally cut ties with Jerusalem some 40 years ago and has been a fierce critic of Israeli policies ever since. But Cuba’s vicious Israel-bashing was not among the issues discussed in the months-long secret US-Cuban talks that led to the historic détente. Neither was Israel brought up during Kerry’s Havana visit two weeks ago.
Nobody in the administration updated Israel ahead of the drastic change in policy, leaving some Israeli diplomats feeling abandoned.
Given the sensitivity of the matter, Israeli officials refuse to comment on the record, but in private conversations they don’t hide their frustration at the awkward position Washington has left them in.
“We are following closely the development of US-Cuba relations,” a diplomatic official told The Times of Israel, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We have no conflict with Cuba; the disconnect between our countries is unnatural.”
Jerusalem considers Havana a key player in shaping public opinion in the Latin American left and therefore would like to reestablish diplomatic ties. In the 1950s and 60s cordial relations existed, with Cuba resisting Arab pressure to cut ties after the 1967 Six Day War. It severed relations in 1973 not because of the Yom Kippur War but because Fidel Castro sought the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement. Currently, Canada represents Israel’s interests in Havana, including assisting the country’s Jewish community.
If Jerusalem now drops its support for the embargo, very little should stand in the way of détente, officials say. Israel and Cuba will not see eye to eye on all issues, but that is true for other countries with which Israel has full diplomatic relations.
Yet such a scenario is unrealistic for the foreseeable future. That’s because the current government under Raul Castro is not in the least interested in repairing ties with Israel, due to Cuba’s strong ties with the Arab world, Iran and other Latin American countries critical of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
Still, runs the thinking in Jerusalem, the new page in Cuban-American relations and the subsequent end of the embargo are likely to effect drastic changes in Cuba, with the potential for a future rapprochement with Israel.
In 2010, Fidel Castro, who had been replaced as president by his younger brother Raul four years prior, told US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Israel has “without a doubt” the right to exist as a Jewish state. Asked whether Havana would consider resuming diplomatic ties, the elder Castro replied that such things take time, but he did not outright reject the idea. The former leader remains a vicious critic of Israeli policies, however, accusing Israel last year of conducting a “Palestinian Holocaust in Gaza.”
Despite Jerusalem’s irritation over the way the US administration handled its new Cuba policy, Israel will likely follow America’s lead this October, when the UN General Assembly will vote, presumably for the last time, on the need to end the embargo on Cuba. “I think we need to change our voting patterns,” a senior Israeli official said, “because there was a strategic change here.”