In the first six months of 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited nine countries on five continents: Britain, the US, Singapore, Australia, Russia, China, Liberia, Greece, and France.
That was when Netanyahu was doing what Netanyahu does best: strutting the world stage, strengthening Israel’s relations around the world, upgrading Israel’s ties with areas largely ignored by Jerusalem in the past, leveraging Israel’s technological, military, and agricultural know-how and advantages into real currency that could then be used to dramatically improve the country’s standing in the world.
Think, for a minute, about that list of countries. Within five weeks – from mid-February to late March of 2017 – Netanyahu went to Washington, Moscow, and Beijing. No other world leader could boast of such an accomplishment.
One of Israel’s more underappreciated diplomatic achievements at the time was its ability to develop and maintain good relations with countries at tremendous odds with one another.
In 2017, Netanyahu flew to China for a state visit in March; the following January, he was feted during a visit to India. Three years later, he was in Washington on Tuesday and Moscow on Wednesday.
The rare diplomatic balancing act
This was not a given; not every country could carry out such a delicate balancing act. Back then, Jerusalem was in the enviable position of having excellent relations with Washington, as well as good relations with Washington’s rivals: Moscow and Beijing.
Now fast-forward to 2023.
In the first six months of this year, Netanyahu has visited five countries on two continents: Jordan, France, Italy, Germany, and Britain. Netanyahu-style diplomacy – trying to make breakthroughs in areas long viewed as out of bounds for Israel – has been stymied. One rarely hears him talking about expanding Israel’s relations with Africa and Latin America anymore. Establishing ties with Saudi Arabia is very much in America’s hands.
He famously hasn’t been to the US yet; Russia is off-limits, though now there are efforts to arrange a trip to Ukraine; and announced plans this week of a visit to China – a country he has visited three times in the past as prime minister – raised many eyebrows.
Instead of high diplomacy, Netanyahu’s focus, energy and time are consumed by the judicial overhaul plan and low politics. His cup runneth over with Yariv Levin, Simcha Rothman, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, Tally Gotliv, Palestinian terrorism, Jewish extremist vigilante action, and this week the testimony of his old friend Arnon Milchan. Who has time for diplomacy?
And then, when he does find time for diplomacy, when he does announce a trip to China, this is quickly interpreted as a poke in America’s eye, as a Saudi-style signal to the US that if it doesn’t start treating Israel better, there are other options.
Why is this seen as a Saudi-style signal? Because this is precisely what the Saudis did a few months ago, bypassing and blindsiding the US and allowing China to broker a rapprochement deal between Riyadh and Tehran.
This was widely interpreted as Saudi Arabia signaling the US that if Washington treads Riyadh shabbily – if the US harps on Saudi Arabia’s atrocious human rights record and refuses to sell it the arms it asks for and doesn’t give the royal family the respect it feels it is due – then the Saudis have other options.
In this thinking, Netanyahu took a page from the Saudi playbook. That narrative gained some elevation this week as relations between the Netanyahu government and the Biden administration continued along a bumpy path.
The US made public on several occasions this week its deep displeasure over Israel’s approval of some 4,700 new housing units in Judea and Samaria. In addition to issuing the regular statements of denouncement, Washington – as an apparent tangible sign of its displeasure – announced the reinstatement of a ban on using American taxpayer money to fund research and development programs beyond the Green Line.
Additionally, there have been reports that because of Israel’s settlement activity, Washington pushed for the postponement this week of a scheduled meeting in Morocco of the Negev Forum involving the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco. There were unconfirmed reports that a couple of other Arab countries were expected to join.
Washington, in addition, has been very vocal in its revulsion at Jewish extremist vigilante actions in the West Bank and made clear its expectation that Jerusalem do more to combat them.
Further highlighting differences between the two governments was the report this week that Netanyahu, during a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting, said that Israel needs to eliminate the Palestinian aspiration for statehood. On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, reiterated American support for that statehood.
“We continue to believe strongly that two states are the way forward,” he said, adding that “it’s hugely important to at least keep a horizon of hope for people who don’t have a lot.”
In this atmosphere, it is relatively easy to spin the idea that a trip to China now is an intentional swipe at Biden and his administration.
But that idea makes no sense.
The logic of Netanyahu's China visit
As miffed as Netanyahu might be that he has not yet been invited to the White House – though the importance of this apparent slight has been greatly exaggerated in the media – he understands better than anyone the critical importance of the US to Israel. Netanyahu realizes full well that for Israel, there is no substitute for the US: not China, Saudi Arabia, Europe – nobody.
No novice in world affairs, the prime minister is well aware of the Chinese-US rivalry and how the Chinese are trying to increase their influence – at America’s expense – worldwide.
He is also well aware that the perception of China as a US adversary is shared by Republicans and Democrats, with Republicans even more wary and concerned about potential threats from China than Democrats.
THEN WHY visit China?
For the same reason, the leaders of Spain, Singapore, Malaysia, the European Union, France, Brazil, the Philippines, Gabon, and even US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have gone there in recent weeks: because it is a dominant world power and economic behemoth, with which it is essential to engage.
For much of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, Israel had contact, to its detriment, with only one side: the US. During that period, Moscow took actions aimed at harming Israel.
If a new version of a Cold War is emerging between the US and China, it is in Israel’s interests, while making it clear whose side it is on, also to have amicable relations with China. This is especially true as it becomes apparent that China is becoming a more active player in the Middle East, as evidenced by its role in the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement.
China’s involvement in the Middle East will surely increase as Russian influence wanes because of its dismal showing in the war with Ukraine. Middle Eastern countries that looked to Russia for backing and support as US influence in the Middle East waned are now shifting their sights to Beijing.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in Beijing earlier this month and received assurances from Chinese President Xi Jinping that China supports a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. Xi also expressed interest in playing a role in mediating the conflict.
While Israel might not necessarily want to see a more prominent role for China in the region and would like to see the US influence return to what it was in the past, it has to deal with reality as it is and not as it might want it to be. And the reality is that China is a player, and it is essential for Israel’s interests to have a good relationship with it. Not in any way instead of a good relationship with the US or even coming close to its relationship with the US, but to keep channels open and friendly.
If Netanyahu’s visit to Beijing goes ahead as planned, Iran will surely be one of the top agenda items. China has strong ties with Iran and has been its trade lifeline, allowing Iran to survive sanctions, and this will provide an opportunity for Netanyahu to try to influence China’s Iran policy.
In addition, Israel also has significant economic interests with China, which is the country’s third-largest trading partner, after the EU and the US. This alone would merit a prime ministerial visit. Last year, commodity trade, excluding diamonds, reached nearly $17.6 billion, although the trade heavily favors China ($13.1b. vs $4.5b.). Netanyahu will also look for ways to increase Israel’s exports to China.
There is logic in Netanyahu’s visit to Beijing, for both strategic and economic reasons. Obviously, Israel’s relationship with the US far outweighs its ties with China, and if Israel were forced to pick between the US and China, it would side with the US without a second thought.
The trick is not having to do so. That is the art of diplomacy, and it is an art that Netanyahu largely neglected during his current government’s first six months in power, but one that he could reintroduce now with a trip to Beijing.