A Cuban flag hangs from a building in Havana.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last month, the United States and Cuba completed a swap of prisoners as part of a renewal of diplomatic ties between the decades-long adversaries.
In addition to freeing Alan Gross, the American Jewish contractor who worked for USAID, Cuba also released an intelligence agent who spied for the United States and was held for nearly 20 years, and the United States in return freed three Cuban intelligence agents held in the United States. Cuba also pledged to free 53 prisoners who are considered "opponents of the regime and political activists."
Despite fierce opposition at home, US President Barack Obama decided to take an historic step beyond the agreement over prisoners – renewing diplomatic ties with Cuba, which is expected to lead to a lifting of the embargo and an end to 50 years of hostility. Nonetheless, Obama's courageous move is liable to run into many obstacles, not least among them is the opposition of the Cuban-American community in Florida, a key electoral state in American politics. Obama's Cuba gambit is also being severely criticized in Congress, both houses of which are now under the control of the Republican Party.
The Americans have a considerable presence in Cuba. Its military operates a base at Guantanamo Bay, where dozens of suspected terrorists belonging to al-Qaida have been detained since September 11, 2001. Washington also sent a large delegation of 600 diplomats who are working in the US Interests Section in the Swiss embassy.
It will be interesting to see whether Congress permits the Obama administration to renew ties with Cuba. It will also be interesting to see whether Congress approves an administration nominee for ambassador to Havana. One country that is closely following these developments is Israel.
Cuba severed diplomatic ties with Israel immediately following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Led by Fidel Castro, Cuba was one of the leading players in the "nonaligned" camp. Cuba was known for its support of the "socialist" Arab countries like Nasser's Egypt, Gadhafi's Libya, and Assad's Syria. It also has consistently supported the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In recent years, however, ties between Israel and Cuba have improved. Israeli tourists visit the island, and Israeli businessmen took a trip to Cuba as part of a junket organized by the Joint Distribution Committee.
"I have no doubt that Cuba is interested in ties with Israel," Rafi Eitan, a former Mossad official, member of Knesset, and government minister told me. Eitan also has business interests in Cuba, particularly in the field of agriculture.
"Renewing diplomatic ties with Cuba depends first and foremost on Israel," he said.
The Israeli government, for its part, which is represented by an interests section in the Canadian embassy in Havana, is in no rush.
"We have no intention of initiating any such move," a Foreign Ministry source told me. "We are waiting to see how relations with the US develop. Only then will we make decisions."Yossi Melman is an Israeli journalist and writer who specializes in security and intelligence affairs. He is co-author of
Spies Against Armageddon: inside Israel's Secret Wars.
Visit Yossi Melman's blog: www.israelspy.com