Netanyahu heads to China for Iran, Syria talks

Trip to focus on economic matters, Mideast issues; little chance PM will meet with Abbas, also in the country.

Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: Koby Gideon/GPO)
Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: Koby Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will leave this afternoon for a five-day trip to China, where he will try to bring Israel’s perspectives on a slew of regional issues such as Iran, Syria and Egypt to the country’s new leadership.
Netanyahu will be meeting with the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, as well as with the country’s new prime minister, Li Keqiang, in an effort to shape their impressions of the Middle East as they begin what is expected to be a decade of rule.
While two previous attempts to arrange a visit by Netanyahu failed to materialize, the trip is being viewed in Jerusalem as an excellent opportunity to present Israel’s case at the highest levels just as the new Beijing government is beginning to formulate policy.
Government officials said it was very unlikely that Netanyahu would meet in China with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who will be in the country at the same time. Abbas is due to arrive in Beijing on Sunday and leave Tuesday evening, while Netanyahu will first be traveling to Shanghai, arriving in Beijing only on Wednesday.
When asked at a press conference Friday about a possible meeting, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said that “if the leaders of Palestine and Israel have the will to meet in China, China is willing to offer necessary assistance.”
One Israeli official said that while Netanyahu was “open to meeting Abbas at any time and in any place, it is not planned during this visit.”
China’s Middle East special envoy, Wu Sike, was in the region last week holding talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials prior to the visits this week.
For the most part, China has up until now not played an active role in the Mideast diplomatic process, though it has indicated an eagerness to join the Quartet, currently made up of the US, Russia, the EU and the UN.
In addition to providing the Chinese with Israel’s perspectives on regional issues, Netanyahu, who will be granting a number of media interviews and also address the Central Party School of the Communist Party near Beijing, will also focus on economic issues, trying to open doors for much more Israel-Sino trade and economic cooperation.
Currently the trade between the two countries stands at some $10 billion a year, with some $8 billion of that being Chinese exports to Israel.
Economic officials said Netanyahu wanted to understand why Israeli exports to China were not substantially larger and why the bulk of this business was being done by only three Israeli companies: Makhteshim Agan, Intel Israel and Israel Chemicals, Ltd. He will try to open doors for further Israeli business and see what can be done to facilitate trade.
Netanyahu is also interested in feeling out the possibility of beginning negotiations toward a free-trade agreement with China, as well as promoting investment in Israel by Chinese banks and government corporations.
Among other economic issues on the agenda will be the possibility of increasing direct flights from China to Israel – which currently stand at only three a week – as well as discussing China’s expected bid for the tender to build a high-speed rail line from Tel Aviv to Eilat.
In Shanghai, China’s commercial capital, Netanyahu will meet with top commerce leaders and Israelis doing business there. He will fly to Beijing for political meetings that begin Wednesday, and is scheduled to return Friday before Shabbat.
Netanyahu visited China during his first tenure as prime minister.
The last Israeli prime minister to visit the country was Ehud Olmert, in 2007. That visit, according to economic officials, led to a surge in Israeli-Chinese business activity.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said Israel and China had a “good relationship” and that it was hoped the visit “will serve as a vehicle to further the relationship – specifically to expand cooperation between the two countries.”
Regev said Israel had expertise in areas that China has identified as important for its own development, and that it was “possible to expand economic cooperation.”
Carice Witte, executive director of SIGNAL (Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership), an institute promoting Israel-China academic cooperation, said China was very interested in advancing relations with Israel.
“They see Israel as an island of stability in a sea of Arab Winter chaos, with valuable insights into the region,” she said. “In 2010, China’s leadership announced that they aim to raise China from being a manufacturing nation to a world-class innovator. Our colleagues in China advise us that in their view, partnering with Israel is a way to advance that goal.”