A relationship of convenience

22/10/2020

Did you know that during the Cold War, Romania was the only communist country to keep diplomatic ties with Israel?

Romanian leader Nicolas Ceausescu with Prime Minister Golda Meir during a visit to Bucharest in 1972

Around 350,000 Jews lived in Romania at the end of World War II - the second-largest surviving Jewish population in Europe after the Soviet Union, and until 1948 tens of thousands escaped from the new communist regime to the Palestinian Mandate almost without obstacles. But after the independence of Israel, any Zionist activity was regarded with suspicion by the authorities and emigration restricted, although not completely banned. Romanian Foreign Minister Ana Pauker, herself a Jew with a father and brother in Israel, negotiated an agreement under which 4,000 Jews would be allowed to move to Israel every month in exchange for Israeli economic aid.

By 1965, Israel was funding many agricultural and industrial projects throughout Romania, while thousands of Jews were leaving the country every year. That same year Nicolae Ceausescu came to power and stopped this deal in deference to his Arab allies. However in 1967, when the Soviet Union and all its Warsaw Pact partners broke off diplomatic ties with Israel following the Six Day War, Romania refused to do the same. Instead, Ceausescu started pursuing a certain degree of political autonomy and economic independence from Moscow. For this he needed a regular flow of money and a good relationship with the West. Therefore, Ceausescu decided to restart the trade in exit visas but this time he demanded payment in cold cash, credit lines and military equipment. Besides, he requested that the Israeli government exerted its influence on Washington in Romania's favour. His condition was that these arrangements be kept secret. This required a highly secretive operation run entirely between the countries' two intelligence agencies under the radar of official diplomatic channels.

Ceausescu didn't want a mass exodus since Romanian Jews were a very valuable commodity, so he would let go about 1,500 every year. The exact payment per person was determined by the age, education, profession, employment, and family status of the emigrant. From time to time Ceausescu also sold the Israelis secrets and information regarding the Arab world. He also had a role in sensitive deal-making, including the groundwork which led to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and efforts to free Israeli prisoners and hostages held in Lebanon.

As a result of these convert transactions by 1989, the year of Ceausescu's downfall, Romanian-Jewish community had gradually shrunk, becoming by then Israel's second largest immigrant community behind the Moroccans.