That Time Fidel Castro Embarrassed Netanyahu - and Praised His Father

In an interview, Castro said he had great sympathy for the Jewish people and praised Netanyahu's historian father. Some in the U.S. were not pleased.

FILE: Cuba's leader Fidel Castro, right, greets Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Havana, Cuba. April 12, 2000.
FILE: Cuba's leader Fidel Castro, right, greets Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Havana, Cuba. April 12, 2000. Jose Goitia, AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found himself in a pickle in 2010 when, after he expressed his appreciation for remarks by Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro, who passed away Saturday, he inspired the anger of some in the U.S. and was forced to apologize.

Speaking to The Atlantic, Castro told Jeffery Goldberg at the time that “without a doubt” Israel had a right to exist.

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In that interview, Castro, according to Goldberg, expressed “great sympathy for persecuted Jews throughout history” and expressed admiration for Netanyahu’s father, Ben-Zion, who Goldberg described as “the world’s foremost historian of the Spanish Inquisition, and a hard-line Likudnik.”

After the interview, Netanyahu said that "the remarks attributed to Castro demonstrate his deep understanding of the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel," Haaretz's Barak Ravid reported.

Castro also referenced the Holocaust in the interview, saying "Now, let's imagine that I were Netanyahu," Castro said, "that I were there and I sat down to reason through [the issues facing Israel], I would remember that six million Jewish men and women, of all ages were exterminated in the concentration camps." 

Even then-President Shimon Peres praised the Cuban leaders for the comments, saying "I must confess that your remarks were, in my opinion, unexpected and rife with unique intellectual depth," the president wrote in a message addressed to Castro.

Some Americans, needless to say, were not pleased, with some even demanding an apology. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, a legislator since 1989 and Florida's most senior Republican woman in the U.S. House, who also chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is known in Washington for her hard line against the Cuban regime as well as her unflinching support for Israel.

Ros-Lehtinen was born in Havana, and as a girl came to Florida, where her father continued the anti-Castro campaign among Cuban expatriates. On hearing Netanyahu's praise for Castro's remarks, Ros-Lehtinen contacted several Israeli officials asking them to urge the prime minister to retract his comments.

On his visit to the U.S. two weeks ago, the prime minister called the lawmaker by phone and apologized.

The prime minister's bureau said at the time that Netanyahu's remarks "referred only to a specific article," adding, "the prime minister made clear he hasn't changed his position on a number of other things Castro said over the years, including over the past year, on the State of Israel."

Ros-Lehtinen reportedly said she had told Netanyahu, "I just said look, this guy has been an enemy of Israel, just because he said something that a normal person would say - after 50 years of anti-Israel incitement, it's one phrase from an old guy who doesn't even know where he's standing."

Castro has aimed his scorn at Israel and in 2014 described Israel’s offensive in Gaza as a “new, repugnant form of fascism.”

Castro made his comments in a column titled “Palestinian Holocaust in Gaza” and published in an official Cuban communist party newspaper. “Why does the government of this country (Israel) think that the world will be impervious to this macabre genocide that is being committed today against the Palestinian people?” Castro wrote.