Culture Minister Miri Regev left on Sunday for a private visit to Cuba, Haaretz has learned. Senior officials in Jerusalem said that this was the first time since 1973 that a sitting minister has visited a country with which Israel has no diplomatic relations.
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Regev’s office said that the minister was on a private family trip to Cuba with no professional or official meetings. Senior officials in the Foreign Ministry were informed of trip details, but also told that the visit was private. Regev told the Cabinet Secretariat about her trip, following procedure. The Prime Minister’s Office said that Benjamin Netanyahu had not been informed specifically about Regev’s trip.
Israel has no diplomatic representation in Cuba, and the Canadian embassy in Havana represents Israel’s interests in the country, occasionally caring for Israeli tourists who encounter problems.
Senior officials noted that although it's private, Regev’s visit is unusual; since the establishment of the state, and especially since the relations with Cuba were severed in 1973, almost no sitting Israeli minister has visited Cuba, officially or privately.
Presumably the only sitting Israeli minister to visit Cuba was Rafi Eitan. He told Haaretz that he visited in April 2006, before being sworn in but after receiving the role of minister for pensioners’ affairs in Ehud Olmert's government.
Upon retiring from his work in the Mossad and in the Scientific Relations Bureau, Eitan began working in the private sector and conducted business in Cuba during which he befriended Cuban senior government officials.
He said that during his 2006 visit he met with a Cuban senior government official who was a personal friend. The Cuban official requested that Eitan refrain from visiting Cuba as long as he served as a government minister, due to diplomatic sensitivities.
Cuba voted against against the 1947 UN Partition Plan, but then recognized Israel and formed diplomatic ties with the young country in 1949. In the 1950s and 1960s Israel had a small diplomatic delegation in Havana. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, relations between the countries deteriorated, and Cuba began to publicly criticize Israel for occupying the territories.
Cuba cut off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973, on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. Fidel Castro, president at the time, even sent soldiers to fight alongside Syrians in the war against Israel.
In the 1970s and 1980s the Cuban government was an enthusiastic supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Yasser Arafat regularly visited Havana.
Beginning in 1992, Israel was one of the only governments to consistently vote with the U.S. against UN resolutions criticizing the U.S. for its embargo on Cuba.
However, despite the absence of diplomatic relations, many Israelis visit Cuba as tourists and there are Jewish Agency ties with members of the country's small Jewish community.
When the U.S. renewed its diplomatic ties with Cuba in July 2015 during the Obama presidency, several discussions took place within the Israeli Foreign Ministry about the possibility of following suit and renewing Israeli relations with Cuba, but no actual steps were taken. The main reason for inaction was strong opposition among Republican senators and representatives, considered supporters of Israel but are highly critical of Cuba.