Following Israel’s media these days, everything looks like business as usual: strikes, scandals, another public commission, another damning report by the State Comptroller, Tzipi once again sniping at Bibi, another day of Arab soldiers slaughtering Arabs... Nothing new.
But there is one item that overshadows all others, though few Israelis seem to have paid any attention to it.
This week was the first-ever visit by a Chinese Chief of Staff, General Chen Bingde, to Israel. The visit “signals warming bilateral ties,” writes the official China Daily, somewhat innocuously.
In fact, the visit signals much more.
For years this rising super-power has been entering the Middle East as
quietly as possible, strengthening its economic, political and military
presence, while declining Europe has struggled to maintain its presence.
There have been several recent signs – some of them public– that China
may be planning to become more assertive and even-handed in its
treatment of the region. China may be moving away from some of its
traditional support for Arab positions. There is little doubt that
Chen’s visit (his itinerary did not include other regional countries,
just Ukraine and Russia) was followed closely and with suspicion by
Ankara, Cairo, Teheran as well as Ramallah.
Sino-Jewish and sino-Israeli relations have a long and, on balance, very
positive history. In January 1950, Israel became the first country in
the region to recognize the People’s Republic of China. In November
1973, Zedong remarked to Henry Kissinger that he had nothing against the
Jews, on the contrary – a remarkable statement at a time when
anti-Semitic campaigns were reaching a new high in the Soviet bloc.
After China and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1992,
bi-lateral relations and mutual high-level visits developed at a brisk
pace, including ties in the defense sector. These relations came to a
precipitous halt in 2000, when massive American pressure forced Israel
to cancel a contract to sell China an Israeli-developed airborne early
warning system, the Phalcon.
In 2004 a similar incident occurred regarding Israeli-made aerial drones
sold to China. This time the US accompanied its pressure with temporary
sanctions. Israel had little choice. Its friendship with the US is
Chen’s visit comes at a time when Israel is increasingly concerned by
multiple efforts to isolate and delegitimize it. His visit sends a
signal: China doesn’t share those sentiments. It’s important that this
opportunity to restore trust in the bi-lateral relationship not be
missed. Indeed, improved Israel-China ties could have a positive impact
not only on Israel but on the whole region. It could signal the Iranians
and their Arab followers, Hamas and Hezbollah, that notwithstanding the
help that some of them may have received from China in the past, China
has no time and no sympathy for wild, genocidal ranting. China’s rapid
ascendance and its interest in maintaining regional stability in the
Middle East means China may be more ready to play a role in regional
affairs and in the Middle East peace process.
That said, when China makes policy changes in important areas there is
never one sole reason. It is virtually certain that China is troubled by
the spreading unrest in the Arab world.
The extent of the current unrest came as a surprise to them, and now Israel may appear as a stable anchor.
The United States’ reaction to growing Israel-China ties will be
crucial. All efforts should be made to convince Israel’s closest ally
that it is in its own interest to let China lend a helping hand in
stabilizing the Middle East.
The Arabs and Iranians listen to China because they have to. China was
their great neighbor for thousands of years before the United States was
even formed, and before Europe become a power in the Middle East.
Today China is their most important Asian energy market, and provides
political cover because it does not ask them for political or
In his recently published book On China, Henry Kissinger continues his
most important struggle – to help avoid the clash between a traditional
and a rising great power which has occurred so often in history. He
suggests that America can and must cope with China’s peaceful rise, but
also asks the Chinese to become more involved in maintaining peace and
stability on a global level. Have the Chinese already listened to him on
the Middle East? Has the United States? Shalom Salomon Wald is a senior
fellow of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and author of China
and the Jewish people: old civilizations in a new era (JPPI, 2004) ;
Gedaliah Afterman is a JPPI fellow.