Can Israel serve as a bridge between Taiwan and China? It certainly has good relations with both, and at least one Knesset member thinks Jerusalem could be the key to peace across the Taiwan Strait.
MK David Tal (Kadima), one of five legislators who visited Taiwan in September at the invitation of the Taiwanese government, said Israel was ready "to host a reconciliation meeting and even act as mediators" between China and Taiwan.
"At the moment, there's a situation in which China is in the United Nations and Taiwan is outside, and one cannot help but feel the tension between them," Tal told The Jerusalem Post. "I think with the correct kind of dialogue, Israel can play a role in reducing this tension. Unfortunately, we have had a lot of experience in such things."
The five MKs (David Azoulay, Yitzhak Vaknin and Avraham Michaeli of Shas, the National Union-NRP's Nissan Slomiansky and Tal) were the highest-level Israeli political delegation to visit Taipei.
A report about their trip in the Post triggered a strong protest to the foreign ministry by China's ambassador, Chen Yonglong, over what he called Israel's violation of the One China policy barring diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Tal said the MKs had held only low-level meetings with Taiwanese officials, and China had nothing to worry about.
"We kept a low profile," he said.
Although Israel follows the One China policy, it has maintained strong economic ties and friendly relations with Taipei since exchanging trade offices in 1993. Bilateral trade is expected to exceed $1.2 billion this year, officials on both sides say.
"The official position of Israel is what we call the policy of One China, and this is the policy that most countries follow," Israel's new envoy in Taiwan, Raphael Gamzou, told the Post.
Gamzou took up the post of "representative" at the "Israel Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei" in August.
Asked if Israel would consider voting in favor of Taiwan's bid for membership at the United Nations, he replied: "There would not be a change of our position in that regard because of the One China policy."
Gamzou, however, was quick to note that Israel abstained in the World Health Organization's vote in March against allowing Taiwan observer status. And he pointed to the similarities and strong economic ties between Israel and Taiwan.
"We encourage cooperation between the two parties that could benefit both populations," he said. "And we have a lot to learn from our Taiwanese friends."
Hovav Ref, who has been director of economic affairs at the Israel office in Taipei for two years, said the two countries "have very good synergy," because Israel is a leader in hi-tech while Taiwan has become a manufacturing giant.
"We have very good capabilities and experience in innovation and R&D," Ref said. "And Taiwan is of course an expert in manufacturing, in commercialization and in marketing." He said recent years have also seen an increase in investments by Taiwanese companies in Israel, and Israeli firms in Taiwan.
"We see that companies can cooperate rather than competing," Ref said. "We try to encourage as many companies [as possible] to work together and find the right partner - Israeli companies here in Taiwan or vice versa."
Since opening trade offices 13 years ago, bilateral trade has soared, with exports and imports "about even," Ref said.
Taiwan is Israel's third-largest trading partner in Asia after China and Japan. Israeli exports to Taiwan totalled $558 million last year, compared with $615 million to China.
Exports comprise electronic equipment and machinery, as well as chemical, medical and optical products. Imports reached $582 million last year, and included electronic equipment, machinery, plastics and metals.
In addition, there have been bilateral deals in agriculture, science and technology, and a delegation of Taiwanese agricultural experts was not even put off by the recent war against Hizbullah, visiting Israel in the midst of the conflict.
ALTHOUGH DIPLOMATIC meetings between Israeli and Taiwanese officials cannot take place in their respective countries, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - whose paternal grandfather fled Russia to China and is buried in Harbin - is reported to have had at least two meetings with Taiwan's foreign minister, Mark Chen, in the United States last year, when he served as deputy premier under Ariel Sharon.
According to press reports in Taiwan, Taipei has purchased arms from Israel, despite Israel's military relationship with mainland China.
The reports claimed that Taiwan had bought missile boats and Kfir fighter jets from Israel, and even modeled its Tien Kung surface-to-air missile on Israel's Gabriel missile.
China is said to be closely monitoring the situation, concerned that Israeli military assistance could encourage Taiwan to seek formal independence.
Taiwanese officials wholeheartedly agreed with the Israeli assessment of burgeoning relations, but urged the Jewish state to upgrade ties and recognize Taiwan's sovereignty, over China's objections.
"We don't want war with China. We really hope that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait can sit down and talk soon," said Chih-Peng Huang, director-general of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, remarking that Taiwan derived inspiration from Israel.
"People in Taiwan do not have the right to be pessimistic," he said, "because a country like Israel, surrounded by Arab countries, has such a difficult situation to survive, and still has managed to unite together and develop economically so well, and to have good hope and a bright future."
Huang revealed that a meeting at the vice-ministerial level is to be held between Israel and Taiwan in Tel Aviv in December.
There are no direct flights from Israel to Taiwan, due to the Israeli government's decision to follow the One China policy, but El Al in September announced a fourth weekly flight to Hong Kong, which is a short flight away from Taipei.
Thousands of Israelis visit Taiwan for business and pleasure every year, and Gamzou hosted a meeting in September with a dozen Israelis studying in the country. He said there was even a minyan at a local hotel every Shabbat and on Jewish holidays.
Asked for his view on the political situation in Taiwan, Gamzou called the issue of Taiwanese identity "complicated and fascinating."
"One thing I can definitely tell you on the record is that the Taiwanese people are lovely people, and very welcoming, especially to foreigners," he said. "They really embrace foreigners. It has to do with the local character. It has to do probably with the fact that due to international isolation, they feel that interaction with foreigners is important. But people are really nice here."
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