Israel, China and the Arab Initiative

For how long will China continue its “business as usual” policy with Israel if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps squandering the Arab Peace Initiative?

al-monitor China's Premier Li Keqiang (R) toasts with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, May 8, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

Topics covered

saudi, qatar, livni, kerry, china, benjamin netanyahu, arab peace initiative, arab

May 16, 2013

According to unofficial reports, certain progress was made at the talks held earlier this month (May 8) in Rome between Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s representative Isaac Molho and US Secretary of State John Kerry, in which senior officials from Jordan and Qatar also took part. Nonetheless, diplomatic sources caution that the progress regarding negotiation guidelines (a return to the 1967 border and an exchange of territories) is, in fact, a “manipulation” designed to improve Israel’s international standing in order to prepare for a possible attack on Iran.

At the same time, there has been a considerable slowdown of construction in the settlements in the past few months. The Palestinians have set June 6 as the deadline for resumption of the diplomatic process. The Arab League has threatened that if an agreement is not reached until then on the resumption of negotiations over a permanent arrangement, the organization will withdraw its peace initiative and its member states will launch a struggle against Israel on the world stage.

President Barack Obama and Secretary Kerry are trying, so far without much luck, to convince the heads of the Arab League states, especially the Saudis, to grant Israel “an advance” on account of a future normalization of relations. “A small taste,” such as permission for Israeli airline El Al planes to shorten their flights to the Far East. The practical significance of such a move is that on the First Family’s next official (or should we say “royal”) visit to China, flying time will be several hours shorter (good news for the Israeli taxpayer, as well).

Netanyahu’s journey to China last week (May 6) reminded me of my first visit to Beijing, a bit over 20 years ago. I was sent there to accompany then-Foreign Minister David Levy on an historic visit to China marking the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and the giant superpower and the inauguration of an Israeli embassy in the Chinese capital. On the day following the festive ceremony in Beijing, we flew to Moscow to participate in the launch of the multinational track of Middle East talks in five working groups: economic cooperation, arms control, water, environment and refugees. China had been invited to the Madrid Peace Conference (1991) and had chosen to take part in the water issues group.

Those were the heydays of Israeli diplomacy. The foreign ministry had to request an emergency budget in order to establish new diplomatic missions in India and the Persian Gulf states. Relations with Japan and South Korea were upgraded and Israeli officials had started putting out feelers in Pakistan and Indonesia. The Arab boycott, which had kept giant firms away from Israel and hurt Israeli exports, was dissipating.

Among other things, this was the result of economic interests, internal changes in China, the aftermath of the Cold War and the victory of the US-led coalition in the first Gulf War. All of the above provided the necessary conditions for a turnaround in Israel’s foreign relations and international economic ties. Necessary, but by no means sufficient.

The establishment of diplomatic ties with China and India, just like the upgrading of Israel’s relations with other Asian countries and with Russia and the neighboring Persian Gulf states, all took place several months after the Middle East peace conference convened in Madrid in October 1991. According to the conference invitation, the talks were to be based on UN Resolution 242, that same historic decision of Nov. 22, 1967, which specifically referred to the June 4, 1967 borders.

The deputy foreign minister at the time, who was in charge of the Israeli delegation’s information team at the Madrid Conference, proudly announced to reporters the establishment of diplomatic relations with China. By the way, the name of that deputy minister was Benjamin Netanyahu. That’s the same Netanyahu who today, as prime minister, still refuses to resume negotiations with the Palestinians based on the 1967 borders and on land swaps and ignores the peace initiative behind which the Arab League has placed its full weight.

Yitzhak Shelef, who served as Israeli ambassador to China at the end of the 1990s, told Al-Monitor that he has no doubt that the 1991 Madrid Conference and the 1993 Oslo Accord had paved the way for a new era of thriving, open, official ties between the two countries. Until 1992, the modest defense, academic and scientific ties between the two were conducted quietly. Over the past 20 years, numerous bilateral agreements have been signed with China in various fields: The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, the Kameri and Gesher Theaters have all visited China several times; conductor Gil Shohat has become a familiar figure to millions of classical music lovers in China; Israeli literature is translated into Chinese and trade between the two countries has soared. On the eve of the Madrid Conference, Israeli trade with China amounted to less than $50 million (according to official trade ministry figures), while in 2012 China ranked fifth among Israel’s export markets, with an accumulated trade (exports and imports, as well as diamonds) of $8 billion. The figures are worth reiteration: $50 million in 1992 as opposed to $8 billion 20 years later.

When the prime minister announced during his visit in China that he is aiming for trade to reach $10 billion within three years, it’s a pity no one asked him whether it’s perhaps time to start cashing in the old check, the one signed in his presence at the Madrid Conference.

Who remembers now that until the convening of the conference, which led to the Oslo Accord, no Israeli prime minister or minister had stepped on Chinese soil?

And can China continue its “business as usual” policy with Israel if Netanyahu keeps using evasion tactics to squander the Arab initiative? In other words: Was the Netanyahu family’s photo-op on the Great Wall of China its last?

Akiva Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent.

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