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Communists and Terrorists: Brothers in Arms or Allies of Convenience?

Rodica Eliza Gheorghe

Romanian sources provide a fuller picture of Eastern Bloc involvement in Middle East politics after June 1967, including connections to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Yasser Arafat & Nicolae Ceausescu, 1974
Yasser Arafat & Nicolae Ceausescu, 1974

In 2008, the Cold War International History Project published two conversations between Nicolae Ceaușescu and Anwar al-Sadat. Those conversations, which took place on the occasion of Ceaușescu’s visit to Cairo in April 1972, gave impetus to Romania’s mediation efforts in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Obtaining a mandate from the Egyptian side was no easy task for the Romanian delegation. After a 3-year hiatus in Romanian-Egyptian relations, caused by Romania’s exchange of ambassadors with Israel in 1969, Ceaușescu had to buy his way back into Middle East diplomacy by granting Egypt a loan worth $100 million.[1]

Nevertheless, the trip’s success exceeded Ceaușescu’s expectations: not only did Sadat ask Ceaușescu to be a mediator in the conflict with Israel, but the April 1972 meeting also planted the seeds for the close personal relationship that would develop between the Egyptian President and the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party.

Ceaușescu’s trip to Cairo marked the beginning of another friendship, between Ceaușescu and Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Declassified materials from the Romanian archives shed light not only on the bond between the two leaders, but also on PLO’s diplomacy and its role in the Cold War more broadly.

With the help of recently declassified archival materials from various archives in Bucharest, over the last decade Romanian scholars have been uncovering fascinating Cold War episodes that reveal Romania’s role in the Middle East and its relations with the PLO.[2] However, this scholarship remains largely inaccessible to international historians, as it has not yet been translated into English.

Although some of the most important decision-makers in Israel and Egypt have discussed, at least in passing, Romania’s role as a mediator in the Middle East,[3] the English-language historiography on the Arab-Israeli conflict largely overlooks Bucharest – perhaps with the exception of Ceaușescu’s reaction to the Six-Day War, when he refused to sever diplomatic relations with Israel as Moscow and most of the Eastern bloc did in June 1967. A few scholars have briefly touched upon Romania’s role in the Middle East in the late 1970s, crediting Ceaușescu with passing crucial messages between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat that led to Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem.[4]

Understandably, diplomatic historians, whose object of study generally consists of high-level politics and the foreign relations of states, find it easier to discuss Israeli-Romanian relations than PLO-Romanian ties. For a long time, the inaccessibility of PLO records and the emphasis on state-to-state diplomacy have confined the study of PLO foreign policy to the sidelines.

This is no longer the case. Path-breaking works like The Global Offensive by Paul Chamberlin have risen to the challenge of documenting the international relations of a non-state actor.[5] Chamberlin added empirical depth to the literature on the PLO during the Cold War, advancing the effort to write a truly international history of the PLO based on multi-archival, multilingual, and multifocal research. By using primary sources from the Middle East, Chamberlin argues that the PLO was not a terrorist organization on the margins of the Cold War, but a participant in the global anti-colonial struggle, fighting on the same barricades with the Front de la Libération Nationale in Algeria or the Viet Cong in Vietnam. For the Romanians, the Palestinians were “brothers in arms,” despite causing the leadership in Bucharest and the security services occasional headaches.

Documents from various archives in Romania – many now available in English translation on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive in the collection Ceausescu's Diplomacy in the Middle East– provide a fuller picture of Eastern Bloc involvement in Middle East politics after June 1967, and account for the place the PLO occupied on the priority list of communist countries, especially in regard to their interests in the Middle East.

Among other things, the translated archival sources confirm Chamberlin’s findings: for communist leaders in the Eastern Bloc, the PLO was, indeed, a fellow standard-bearer of the socialist revolution, fighting for the same cause. As a result of this affinity, the Romanian Communist Party duly provided Arafat with support and advice about political, ideological, organizational, and diplomatic matters.

However, there was much more to the camaraderie with the Palestinians than meets the eye. Similarly to the dynamics between Czechoslovakia and Carlos the Jackal discovered by Daniela Richterova, the Palestinians posed several problems for the Romanian security apparatus.[6]

First, the recurrent attacks carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFPL) on Israeli diplomats in Bucharest threatened a break-down in Romanian-Israeli relations. For Bucharest, everything had a price, and the cost of solidarity with the Palestinians exceeded the Romanians’ purchasing power. Bucharest’s profit-seeking approach explains why, despite the brotherly relationship between Ceaușescu and Arafat, the Romanians remained keen on the Camp David Accords, which the Palestinians saw as a betrayal.

Second, for the communist leadership in Bucharest, the economic potential of the independent state of Palestine represented a fraction of the advantages that could be extracted from Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and, above all, the United States. Throughout the years, the Romanians sided with the stronger camp, making sure to provide the losers with some form of compensation.

Last but not least, these documents reveal much more flexibility in the US’s attitude toward Palestinian participation in the peace negotiations in Geneva than previously assumed. In December 1973, the Romanians passed on secret messages from Yasser Arafat to Henry A. Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor. Kissinger’s reply was surprising – it was much less rigid than most scholars would expect. It did not matter whether his interlocutors were communists or terrorists. To Kissinger, they were all the same. What he cared about was whether they could help him (intentionally or unintentionally) advance America’s redefined global preeminence.[7]

To view 26 documents contributed and translated by Liz Gheorghe, click here to be redirected to the collection “Ceausescu's Diplomacy in the Middle East” on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive.

List of Documents

Protocol No. 22 of the Meeting of the Permanent Presidium of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party, June 12 1967

ANIC, CC al PCR, Secţia Cancelarie, dosar nr. 90/1967. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Meeting of the Permanent Presidium of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party discussing the end of the Six Day War. The Romanian Party shows support for the June 10, 1967 Declaration, an end to the armed conflict, and support for the United Arab Republic (Egypt) and other Arab countries.

Minutes of Conversation [taken at] the Meeting of the Executive Committee of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party, June 12 1967

ANIC, CC al PCR, Secţia Cancelarie, dosar nr. 90/1967. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Minutes of conversation of a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party to discuss the diplomatic response to the Six Day War, including Israel's support from the West, food aid to Egypt, and the USSR helping the Arabs in the future.

Minutes of Conversation between Comrade Nicolae Ceaușescu and the President of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, in Cairo, April 5 1972

ANIC, C.C. al P.C.R., Sectia Relatii Externe, dosar 19/1972, pp. 71-92. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Nicolae Ceaușescu and Yasir Arafat discuss the struggles of Palestine and goals in regards to Israel.

Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in Cairo to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 264.451, April 21, 1972, Secret

Arhiva diplomatică - Ministerul Afacerilor Externe, dosar 1938, problema 211/1972, pp. 31-32. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Romanian consul in Alexandria reports on shipments to the PLO and conversations members of the PLO have had with other Eastern BLOC countries including Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

Memorandum on the Reactions of the Americans to the Suggestions relayed on behalf of Yasser Arafat (Conveyed by the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the Reception given in the Evening of December 5, 1973)

ANIC, C.C. al P.C.R., Sectia Relatii Externe, dosar 284/1973, pp. 2-3. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

A memorandum reporting on the American feelings toward Palestine and the territorial lines for Israel and Jordan.

Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in Geneva to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 031616, December 17, 1973, Secret

Arhiva diplomatică - Ministerul Afacerilor Externe, dosar 4022, problema 220/1974. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in Geneva clarifying that Henry Kissinger did not have a meeting with a PLO representative in Lebanon, but there was a meeting in Damascus.

Telegram from Damascus to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 031522, January 10, 1974

Arhiva diplomatică - Ministerul Afacerilor Externe, dosar 4009, problema 220/1974. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

The Foreign Ministry saying a newspaper is reporting that Romania is stopping Jewish emigration to Israel.

Minutes of Conversation between Nicolae Ceaușescu, the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, and the Delegation of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat, 14 February 1974

ANIC, C.C. al P.C.R., Sectia Relatii Externe, dosar 20/1974, pp. 94-116. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Yasir Arafat and Nicolae Ceaușescu discuss policy for Palestine and the diplomatic relationship between the two entities.

Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 078251, July 3, 1974, Secret

Arhiva diplomatică - Ministerul Afacerilor Externe, dosar 4022, problema 220/1974. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

The State Department tells the Romanians about their thoughts on the situation with Palestine.

Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in Tel Aviv, to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 070.814, July 9, 1974, Secret

Arhiva diplomatică - Ministerul Afacerilor Externe, dosar 4022, problema 220/1974. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Romanian telegram about the relationship and ideas of the USSR and the United States toward the Palestinian question and relations with Israel.

Telegram from Beirut to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 015.971, September 17, 1974

Arhiva diplomatică - Ministerul Afacerilor Externe, dosar 4009, problema 220/1974. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Discussing the Romanian-Palestinian relationship and the support Romania gives to Palestine while remaining friendly to Israel.

Ion Pățan and Ștefan Andrei, 'Memorandum: Issues Raised by the Palestinian Delegation,' 14 October 1974

ANIC, C.C. al P.C.R., Secţia Economică, doar 12/1974, p.161. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

A memorandum discussing Palestine requesting financial aid and supplies from Romania.

Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in Cairo, to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 028.028, November 9, 1974, Secret

Arhiva diplomatică - Ministerul Afacerilor Externe, dosar 4022, problema 220/1974. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Romanian Consulate in Cairo reporting that Kissinger and Arafat did not meet in Cairo, despite the news reports.

Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in Tunis, to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 074.388, November 11, 1974, Secret

Arhiva diplomatică - Ministerul Afacerilor Externe, dosar 4022, problema 220/1974. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Romanian embassy in Tunis reporting that Henry Kissinger and Yasir Arafat did not meet due to a disagreement between the PLO and the United States about how official or secret the meeting would be.

Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in London, to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 048.478, November 15, 1974, Secret

Arhiva diplomatică - Ministerul Afacerilor Externe, dosar 4022, problema 220/1974. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Romanian embassy in London reporting that the United States has not given its opinion on the Palestinian question and is waiting for the UN to have further discussions.

Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in Vienna, to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 076945, November 19, 1974

Arhiva diplomatică - Ministerul Afacerilor Externe, dosar 4022, problema 220/1974. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Telegram saying that Henry Kissinger and Yasir Arafat are preparing to meet.

Telegram from London to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 048.604, December 3, 1974

Arhiva diplomatică - Ministerul Afacerilor Externe, dosar 4009, problema 220/1974, pp. 55-56. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

A telegram discussing the possible allies the Palestine Liberation Organization has in the United States, USSR, UK, and especially in Romania.

Colonel Stefan Blaga, No. 009794/05.12.1977, 'Action Plan: Regarding the Surveillance of Target "OLGA" (PLO),' 5 5 December 1977

Consiliul Național pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securității, Folder D13891, Volume 43, Surveillance Target: OLGA [Palestine Liberation Organization], pp. 4-5. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

An action plan concerning intelligence gathering on the PLO.

Colonel Ștefan Blaga, No. 009794/03.03.1980, 'Report regarding the Intelligence Measures undertaken within the PLO Office in Bucharest,' 3 March 1980

Consiliul Național pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securității, Folder D13891, Volume 43, Surveillance Target: OLGA [Palestine Liberation Organization], pp. 49-52. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Report about the establishment and activities allowed in the PLO office in Bucharest.

No. 00561833/10.04.1980, 'Memo regarding Terrorist Threats to Our Country,' 10 April 1980

Consiliul Național pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securității, Folder D13891, Volume 43, Surveillance Target: OLGA [Palestine Liberation Organization], p. 56. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Report about possible terrorist threats made against Romania concerning its relationship with Palestine and the PLO.

Ministry of the Interior, Department of State Security, Military Unit 0544, No. 103/27/0015686, 17 May 1980

Consiliul Național pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securității, Folder D13891, Volume 43, Surveillance Target: OLGA [Palestine Liberation Organization], pp. 59-60. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Memo on a Palestinian medical student in Romania, who is a part of the PLO.

Ministry of the Interior, Department of State Security, Military Unit 0195, No. 329/0058759, 21 April 1981

Consiliul Național pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securității, Folder D13891, Volume 43, Surveillance Target: OLGA [Palestine Liberation Organization], p. 95. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Report about Palestinian organizations in Iraq including the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF) and Al Fatah.

No. 0620/D/003105/25.05.1981, 'Memo [about a Meeting between Yasser Arafat and Palestinian Students],' 25 May 1981

Consiliul Național pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securității, Folder D13891, Volume 43, Surveillance Target: OLGA [Palestine Liberation Organization], p. 96. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Memo about Yasser Arafat's meeting with Palestinian students.

Col. Horia Brestoiu and Lt. Col. Ioan Ciobanu, No. 0620/0013646, 22 August 1981

Consiliul Național pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securității, Folder D13891, Volume 43, Surveillance Target: OLGA [Palestine Liberation Organization], pp. 109-110. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Report about Abu Nidal and his work developing the revolutionary group Al Fatah.

Lt. Ioan Plugaru, No. PI/00124, 'Report regarding the Intelligence obtained by Contacting ‘ALBU’, Foreigner,' 7 November 1981

Consiliul Național pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securității, Folder D13891, Volume 43, Surveillance Target: OLGA [Palestine Liberation Organization], p. 126. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Report on Palestinian feeling about the death of Sadat and Romania sending a representative to the funeral. The report also describes tensions and the need for Yasser Arafat to deal with them.

Captain Ion Iordache, No. 32/II/0012309/23.07.1982, 'Memo [on a Meeting with "MARIAN"],' 23 July 1982

Consiliul Național pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securității, Folder D13891, Volume 43, Surveillance Target: OLGA [Palestine Liberation Organization], p. 137. Contributed and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.

Memo about information coming from PLO informants about the Israeli invasion into Lebanon and the ensuing conflict.

 


[1] Archives of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (AMAE), 220/1972 Egypt, folder 3582, p. 86.

[2] Daniela Bleoanca, Nicolae-Alexandru Nicolescu, Cristina Păiușan, Dumitru Preda, România-Israel: 50 de ani de relații diplomatice [Romania-Israel: 50 years of diplomatic relations] (București: Editura Sylvi, 2000);Cristina Păiușan Nuică, Relațiile româno-israeliene. 1948-1978 [Romanian-Israeli relations. 1948-1978] (București: Editura universitară, Colecția Histria, 2008);Raluca Rus, România și conflictul israelo-palestinian [Romania and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] (Iași: Lumen, 2008); Sielke Beata Kelner, Coinvolgimento della Repubblica Socialista Romania nel conflitto arabo-israeliano [The involvement of the Socialist Republic of Romania in the Arab-Israeli conflict], BA Dissertation, Universita degli Studi di Roma Tre, 2009.

[3] Golda Meir, My Life (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975), 335-337; Abba Eban, Personal Witness. Israel through My Eyes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993), 341-343, 542-544; Moshe Dayan, Story of My Life (London: Sphere, 1978); Anwar Sadat, In Search of Identity (London: Collins,1978), ; Ismail Fahmy, Negotiating for Peace in the Middle East (London & Canberra: Croom Helm, 1983), 253-255.

[4] Mohamed Heikal, Secret Channels. The Inside Story of Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations (London: HarperColllins, 1996), 252-254; Ian Black, Benny Morris, Israel’s Secret Wars. The Untold History of Israeli Intelligence (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1991), 275, 376; Arthur Jay Klinghoffer, Judith Apter, Israel and the Soviet Union. Alienation or Reconciliation? (Boulder & London: Westview Press, 1985), 54-56, 202-205; Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall. Israel and the Arab World (London: Penguin, 2000), 357-358.

[5] Paul Thomas Chamberlin, The Global Offensive: The United States, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order, Oxford Studies in International History (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[6] Daniela Richterova, “The Anxious Host: Czechoslovakia and Carlos the Jackal 1978–1986,” The International History Review 40, no. 1 (January 2018): 108–32, https://doi.org/10.1080/07075332.2017.1309560.

[7] Jeremi Suri, Henry Kissinger and the American Century (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 184.

About the Author

Rodica Eliza Gheorghe

Eliza Gheorghe

Romanian Cultural Institute Scholar;
Assistant Professor in the International Relations Department at Bilkent University
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