On September 26th 2012 as he was on his way over to the United States to address the United Nations General Assembly, a picture was posted on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Facebook page.
The image showed Netanyahu travelling on an airplane with an aide, reviewing a pile of documents, on a table before him lies a pair of glasses, a cup of water and a book entitled ‘On China,’ by Henry Kissinger.
On December 19th, a day after the U.S. State Department accused Israel of engaging in a “pattern of provocative action” following the announcement of new building in East Jerusalem, Netanyahu ascended to the balcony of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Peering down at the Old City’s walls, he defiantly declared, “All Israeli governments have built in Jerusalem. We’re not going to change that.” Standing beside him was the Chinese Ambassador to the country, along with other Asian and South Pacific representatives.
This week Bibi embarked on a five day trip to the emerging superpower and is clearly investing a great deal in Israel-China relations. Historically, Israel’s relationship with China has been erratic and complicated. Of late, however, it is clear that there is a concerted effort on the part of both nations to move toward closer co-operation. For China the benefits are manifold, and for Israel, the relationship with China is among the most important diplomatic relationships to be cultivating for the following reasons.
1. China is free of anti-Semitic baggage. As Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear during his trip this week, “China is not only one of the few countries untainted by anti-Semitism but has supported the Jews.” Netanyahu also pointed to China’s welcoming of Jewish refugees from Europe preceding the Holocaust, saying, “even as most of the world closed its doors to the Jews 70 years ago, Shanghai was among the few places that opened its gates.” While many in European countries may seek to falsely paint Israel as some form of aggressor in a twisted effort to half forgive their historic atrocities committed against the Jews, Beijing arrives at the table with a clean slate. Without a historic agenda, the Chinese will be more open to appreciating Israel’s narrative.
2. China can be reasoned with. It is true that China is a major consumer of Iranian oil, has been an opponent of sanctions against the terror state and has also shamefully backed the Syrian regime at the United Nations. However, the country has been responsive to compelling arguments against these positions. In 2010 The New York Times suggested that Israel may have been instrumental in convincing the Chinese to back U.S. led sanctions on Iran. “In February, a high-level Israeli delegation traveled to Beijing to present alleged evidence of Iran’s atomic ambitions,” wrote the Times. “The Chinese didn’t seem too surprised by the evidence we showed them,” said an Israeli official, “but they really sat up in their chairs when we described what a pre-emptive attack would do to the region and on oil supplies they have come to depend on.”
“The episode demonstrates how Israel — a small country with limited influence on China — has found ways to engage an emerging superpower whose geopolitical heft is increasingly vital to the Jewish state,” the Times concluded.
This week China suggested that it would like to try its hand at Israel-Arab peacemaking. While unveiling a plan that pretty much mirrored international demands for territorial concessions from Israel, an important policy influencer in Israel has shared with me that the Chinese have been expressing an increasing interest in understanding Israel’s security concerns.
3. The Chinese have great respect for Jews. A popular Chinese cartoon that made the rounds earlier this year asked, “Why are Jews so smart?” and claimed in a different episode that “Chinese IQs are about even with Jewish people; together they’re the two smartest ethnicities in the U.S.” According to The New York Times, “there are over half a dozen centers in China dedicated to studying Judaism,” and an account on China’s largest microblog site, Sina Weibo, entitled “Revelations of Jewish People’s Wisdom,” has nearly one-and-a-half-million fans. The Times reporter relays that “there is a general feel-good attitude — bordering on fascination — toward Jews.”
“One friend who stayed at a large Beijing hotel near the Chabad community center told me with amazement how eager the Chinese staff were to help their Jewish guests. Seeing him sport a kippa they would rush to open doors, switch on lights or turn up the air-conditioning — knowing that Orthodox Jews are not allowed to perform these activities themselves on the Sabbath,” she adds anecdotally.
Within this existing framework of mutual respect, Netanyahu’s recently stated goal of increasing Israeli trade with China to $10 billion annually may just be the beginning.
For Israel, which faces many threats, not least among them international isolation, China’s willingness to engage presents a host of opportunities. If appropriately developed, it is a relationship that may well shape the future of Israel’s international diplomatic standing.