(photo credit: Archives)
It's easy to overshoot the Tel Aviv embassy of the People's Republic of China, located on Rehov Ben-Yehuda not far from the beach and the Mediterranean. You enter an unassuming structure scarcely in keeping with China's status as an aspiring superpower.
What's really notable, however, given the long decades of Chinese communist hostility toward the Jewish state, is that China maintains an embassy in Israel at all.
It's been a bumpy relationship.
When Foreign minister Moshe Sharett cabled Jerusalem's recognition of China back in January 1950 to foreign minister Zhou Enlai, Israel became the first Middle East country to recognize the PRC. Throughout the mid-1950s, a lone Asia-based Israeli diplomat named David Hacohen struggled mightily to foster ties between China and Israel. Hacohen became Israel's first ambassador to Burma and used his Rangoon base to promote Jerusalem's interests throughout Asia.
In December 1953 he met with Chinese ambassador Yao Chu Ming, who told him that Peking (as it was then called) was interested in diplomatic relations. The following year, Yao told Hacohen that China wanted to at least establish trade relations (presumably to get around the US embargo of Red China).
But back in Washington, Israel's ambassador to the US, Abba Eban, under State Department pressure, was pulling in the opposite direction. It was Eban who would prevail.
In June 1954, the indefatigable Hacohen met with Zhou Enlai in Rangoon and was invited to "visit me when you are in Peking." A few days later, Zhou told the People's Congress that negotiations were under way to establish normal relations with Israel.
Around this time, though, Eban sensed he was moving closer to clinching an arms deal with Washington, forcing Hacohen to forgo a follow-up meeting with Zhou.
The momentum toward an Israel-China relationship had been halted dead in its tracks. The consequences would be tragic.
The first intimation that China had given up on Israel and turned to the Arabs came in April 1955 at an international conference in New Delhi. The Chinese delegation voted for a resolution calling on Israel to accept the return of the Arab refugees who had fled during the 1948 War of Independence.
But the real turning point came later that year, at the Bandung Conference, which Egypt helped organize. It brought together newly independent Asian and African states with the goal of establishing a bloc allied with neither the West nor the Soviets. China was keenly interested in playing a leading role in this so-called Third World movement, and that required courting favor with the Arab states.
It was at Bandung that Zhou first met Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and heard a full exposition of the Arab case against Israel's establishment as a Jewish state in the Muslim Middle East. Ahmed Shukeiry, who would go on to become the first leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (established by the Arab League in 1964), joined Nasser in his meetings with Zhou.
For the next several decades China's political system grew ever more radicalized. It was in this fanatical, ersatz revolutionary context that Chinese denunciations of Israel became ever more vitriolic. For instance, in March 1965 Mao told a PLO delegation: "You are one gate of the great continent. We are the other. They created Israel for you, and Formosa for us. Their goal is the same: to exploit us. The West does not like us... The Arab battle against the West is the battle against Israel."
Thus long before there was an "occupied West Bank" China enthusiastically embraced the PLO cause. Indeed, while few in the West even knew the PLO existed, Shukeiry was having audiences with Zhou and Mao in Beijing and being feted like a head of state.
Revolutions may consume their own, but they don't last forever. The end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 saw China inching toward acceptance of "bourgeois" international norms. A subtle shift in China's understanding of the Arab-Israel conflict had been discernible as early as 1975. Foreign minister Chiao Kuan-hua made a "secret speech" arguing that Israel was a fait accompli and that repatriating the 1948 Arab refugees was unrealistic.
With Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem as a turning point, and Mao dead and buried, Chinese policymakers embarked on a long, slow journey which took them from wholeheartedly embracing the Arabs' intransigent position of "no peace, no negotiations and no recognition" toward favoring a negotiated settlement between Israel and its neighbors.
Diplomatic relations were finally established between China and Israel in January 1992; China welcomed the 1993 mutual recognition agreement between the Palestinians and Israel - the Oslo Accords - as "an important turning point."
These days scores of Israeli businesses are active in China and Chinese investment in Israel is aggressively encouraged. Last year bilateral trade surpassed $2.6 billion. Israel's military industry has reportedly sold billions of dollars in advanced weapons to China since 1984 and would gladly keep the spigot flowing were it not for Washington's intermittent moves to block our efforts.
These thoughts ran through my mind as Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon and I sat down with Ambassador Chen Yonglong at the embassy in Tel Aviv on a sweltering day earlier this week.
A practiced diplomat, Chen has served here, with little media attention, for several years. His previous postings include Amman, Washington and the UN in New York.
The drapes are drawn to keep out the heat. I've never been to China, but the decor gives me a sense of what it must be like. A valet serves tea. There are Chinese sweets on the coffee table.
This is the same Ambassador Chen who on May 18 was summoned to Jerusalem by Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General Raphael Schutz for an unprecedented reprimand - expressing Israel's chagrin that a Chinese diplomat based in Ramallah, responsible for liaison with the Palestinian Authority, had held meetings with Mahmoud Zahar, foreign minister of the Hamas-led government.
Message sent - and ignored. On May 30, Zahar arrived in Beijing to attend a Sino-Arab forum.
So what gives? Does China want good relations with Israel or with Hamas?
Wrong question. China, the ambassador will tell you, is friends with Israel and with the Palestinians. At every opportunity China urges the Palestinians to end the violence, recognize Israel, and accept agreements reached between Israel and the PLO.
Besides, China didn't invite Hamas to go to Beijing, the ambassador explains. China invited the Arab League, and the Palestinians are part of that group. And Mahmoud Abbas himself selected the Palestinian delegation.
The ambassador addresses the threat from Iran with similar dexterity - and evasiveness. China imports 58 percent of its oil from the Middle East - 11% from Iran. China, he tells us, wants Iran to honor the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and has communicated this position to Teheran time and again. At the same time, China strongly favors dialogue and opposes sanctions. Talk is better than sanctions.
It's all a bit frustrating. The ambassador does not tell us what we want to hear. He won't say that China recognizes the danger the Islamist threat poses to the region; that Hamas is incorrigible; that Iran is as much China's problem as anyone else's.
And why should he? Today's China genuinely wants to see Mideast "peace and stability" so that Beijing can pursue its primary global interest - not "national liberation" or "revolution," but economic growth.
In the Chinese hierarchy of foreign policy concerns, neither Hamas nor Iran tops the list. Whether Chinese decision-makers can be persuaded that an Islamic regime in Iran, armed with nuclear weapons, threatens not only Israel and the West, but also China's long-term strategic interests, remains to be seen.
China's long-standing and genuine sympathy for the Palestinian cause helps explain Beijing's willingness to show courtesy even to a Palestinian regime led by an extremist religious movement long engaged in anti-civilian warfare.
Whatever the disappointments from the Israeli perspective, China's current attitude to the Arab-Israel conflict is like the proverbial journey of 1,000 miles, from the days when Beijing openly fueled Palestinian violence and denied Israel's right to exist.
Plainly, the more exposed Chinese officials are to the Israeli narrative, the better our chances of fulfilling David Hacohen's long-ago dream of harmonious relations between our two civilizations.
A certain amount of wisdom is needed as Israel (population seven million) contemplates strengthening ties with China (population 1.3 billion). To that end, we need to spend less time calling Chinese diplomats on the carpet and expend more effort in explaining our position.
We need to promote more cultural exchange, and welcome more Chinese workers (there are only 3,000 here now, mostly in construction). Jerusalem needs to facilitate a protocol, now pending, that could bring thousands of Chinese tourists here - something the ambassador has been pushing for.
As Mao said: "All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience."
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