Just over two months before Israel and China celebrate 30 years of full diplomatic relations, the presidents of the two countries, Isaac Herzog and Xi Jinping, engaged in a lengthy telephone conversation on Wednesday.
In a sense, it was historic, because it was the first presidential, bilateral telephone conversation between the two countries.
Although there was military and other cooperation between Israel and China long before there were diplomatic ties, there was no official agreement prior to November 1991, when then-defense minister Moshe Arens paid a secret visit to China to negotiate the expansion of military cooperation and take steps toward diplomatic ties.
On January 24, 1992, then-foreign minister David Levy, during a four-day visit to China, signed an agreement for the establishment of diplomatic relations with his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen.
Since 1949, when China recognized Israel, there had been many failed attempts by the Jewish state to enter into full diplomatic relations, including one by Herzog’s late father in November 1986. While visiting Hong Kong, president Chaim Herzog paid a secret visit to the Chinese mainland where he met with high-ranking officials.
But there was still a need for much greater effort and a change of the political circumstances before the late British-born Zev Sufott, who had been wounded in the War of Independence and joined the Foreign Ministry in 1950, opened the liaison office of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Beijing in 1990, as a stepping stone to his becoming Israel’s first ambassador to China.
Not surprisingly, Chaim Herzog was subsequently the first president of Israel to officially visit China.
In their amicable telephone conversation on Tuesday, presidents Herzog and Xi discussed ways and means of enhancing bilateral ties, with each inviting the other to visit his country. It was not the first time they had been in contact with each other: Xi sent a congratulatory letter to Herzog in September, when the latter celebrated his 61st birthday.
Herzog expressed his deep admiration for Chinese culture and the Chinese people, and both leaders noted that Israel and China are two ancient civilizations that have much to contribute to the world.
Herzog updated Xi on matters related to the Abraham Accords, noting that this constitutes a positive development in the Middle East that must be encouraged.
He also stressed that this trend toward normalization stands in complete contrast to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s activities, which are damaging and undermining stability in the region. Herzog emphasized the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
Both presidents voiced hopes for greater Israeli-Chinese collaboration in the future, concurring that more meaningful cooperation can be promoted in the fields of culture, economy, tourism and more. They reaffirmed their commitment to the China-Israel comprehensive innovation partnership, which will find expression in the fifth meeting of the China-Israel Joint Committee for Innovation Cooperation in January 2022.