Tips for Netanyahu while he’s in China

Israel’s relationship with Beijing is unlike a relationship with any other country in the world, just as China is unlike any other country in the world.

Great Wall of China_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Great Wall of China_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
A tale is told that before former US president Richard Nixon made his groundbreaking visit to China in February 1972, secretary of state Henry Kissinger told him that Chou En-Lai, then the Chinese prime minister, was an ardent student of, and expert on, the French Revolution.
Nixon, who pocketed that piece of information, landed in China and – in an effort to break the ice with Chou – asked him what he thought the French revolution’s impact on western civilization was. To which Chou replied: “It’s too early to tell.”
What is instructive in that tale for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, before he begins meetings Monday morning in China, is the necessity for carefully boning up on the nuances and understanding well the new personalities in charge.
Netanyahu has arrived in a China that is going through a once-in-a-decade leadership change, and will be meeting Chinese leaders – President Zi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang – who are just getting their footing and beginning to formulate policy.
It is clear that Netanyahu was carefully briefed about who the personalities are, and how he should approach them. Here are some additional tips: Don’t lecture. China is not the US. It’s not even Europe, and Israel’s relationship with Beijing is unlike a relationship with any other country in the world, just as China is unlike any other country in the world.
When Netanyahu talks about Iran with China’s leadership, he would do well – according to officials well acquainted with Chinese political culture – to refrain from saying “you should.”
Rather, he should suffice with peppering his remarks with “we think.”
The Chinese, with their massive population and the world’s largest economy, will not be lectured to by Israel, one official said.
Rather than coming to Beijing and telling them to step up sanctions on Iran, it will be more productive for Netanyahu to simply explain Israel’s perspective to the Chinese.
Rather than calling on China to draw red lines vis-à-vis China, Netanyahu would do better just to explain Israel’s red lines, and why they are there.
While the Chinese clearly do not want a nuclear Iran, they have not quite yet figured out how to keep it as a valuable buffer for them against American hegemony in the Middle East, while at the same time stopping Iran from gaining nuclear arms.
Netanyahu will want to do what he can to make the Chinese leadership look good, important, a key regional player. He will not want to surprise or embarrass them.
When expressing his views, he should make it clear that these are Israel’s positions on the issues, not Israel’s demands on China.
Highlight Israel’s close ties with the US. China’s relationship with the US is the single most important international relationship for China, and here Israel can play a role. Israel cannot – or at least not now – provide the Chinese with any oil or energy needed for its super-charged economy, but the Jewish state is of value to Beijing because of its close relationship with Washington.
Beijing, according to Israeli sources very familiar with the relationship, appreciates that Israel could serve as a bridge with the US. The thinking among some in China’s leadership cadre is that Israel could be a useful interlocutor.
Netanyahu would do well to let the Chinese understand – subtly, of course – that if China wants good relations with the US, good ties with Israel do not hurt. The relationship with Israel could also be a beneficial PR tool for China in the US. China is justifiably concerned about its image abroad, frustrated that its contribution to the world’s economy is not sufficiently appreciated. Good ties with Israel could help its image in the US.
Carice Witte, the executive director of SIGNAL, the Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership, an institute promoting Israel-Chinese academic cooperation, said that colleagues in China say there is a sense that “cultivating better communication and understanding with Israel could contribute to a more stable US-China relationship.”
Don’t overstate the relationship with the US. Here Netanyahu is walking a tight-rope. While it is good for China to understand the close Israel-US ties, and how that can benefit them, it is not in Jerusalem’s interest for Beijing to view Israel as a US stooge.
China’s hostile relationship to Israel, from the latter’s independence in 1948 to the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992, was due largely to China’s impression that Israel was a a tool of Washington.
According to Witte, “China tends to assume that in many ways, Israel is a satellite of the US. It is important that China hear from the prime minister that in fact some of Israel’s views on the Middle East are not in parallel with those of the US, and in fact are more in line with China’s.”
One example of this would be the revolution in Egypt, where China – like Israel – was not swept up in “Arab Spring” euphoria, and where Jerusalem and Beijing were much less enthusiastic than Washington at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall.
Realize that in China things are often not what they appear to be. Some academics working in China say that they have recently perceived a more pro-Palestinian position coming from some Chinese scholars.
While at first blush the reflexive Israeli reaction to this phenomenon may be to scream “gevalt,” and worry about a cold shoulder toward Israel from Beijing, a more nuanced understanding of Chinese reality is necessary.
China, one official said, is the land of what is known in Hebrew as hafuh al hafuh, (“the opposite of the opposite”). The public embracing of the Palestinians – indeed Beijing’s invitation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to come to China precisely when Netanyahu is there – may actually be because the government wants to move closer to Israel. As the official said, if China is taking a public stance against a particular issue in one area, they are often doing the exact opposite somewhere else.
For example, in the wake of Operation Pillar of Defense last November, various Chinese delegations to Israel were canceled, and the Chinese created the appearance it was stepping back from its ties with Israel. Three weeks later, however, the visits were rescheduled.
A price for an increase in cooperation, the type of increase in cooperation that Netanyahu wants to see emerge from his visit, may be certain gestures toward the Palestinians, gestures that Israel would do well not to make too much of, because these gestures could very well reflect something else entirely.