Article published by Ynetnews.com, 29 June 2023. © Richard Kemp
We don’t know what the White House thinks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned visit to Beijing, but despite the horror expressed by so many commentators in Israel I wouldn’t be surprised if Jerusalem and Washington discussed the invitation before it was accepted. Whether or not that happened, to use Menachem Begin’s words in 1982 to then-Sen. Joe Biden, the Israeli prime minister should not in any case be ‘a Jew with trembling knees’. He should take account of his greatest ally’s perspective, and then follow his own perception of Israel’s sovereign national interests.
Those who have attacked the planned visit as poking a stick in Biden’s eye after he failed to extend an invitation to the White House, or even suggested Netanyahu is looking for an alternative partnership to the US, are clearly mistaken. The former thought underestimates Netanyahu’s political savvy – whatever anyone thinks of his policies and character – and the latter is simply laughable.
Netanyahu is never going to lead his country closer to the Chinese dictatorship at the expense of the fundamental relationship with America, just as the first Israeli prime minister, David Ben Gurion, was never going to opt for Soviet patronage in defiance of America despite immense pressure from Stalin to do so. The US is and will remain Israel’s closest and most important strategic and military ally and the two countries share common cultural, liberal and democratic values. China’s repressive communist autocracy, on the other hand, is anathema to Israelis, including the current government.
The reasons Netanyahu needs to go to Beijing are obvious. China is Israel’s third largest global trading partner, although a trend of growth between the two countries has slowed mainly as a result of Israel’s own national security considerations and accommodation of US concerns, especially regarding key national infrastructure. Balancing such enormous economic interests with security issues and the US position is critical and has potentially far-reaching consequences. In an interview at the end of last year Netanyahu emphasized the difference between Israel’s deep relationships with other democracies, especially the US, which are based on shared values, and relations with other countries. He stressed the ‘limit to how much we can open ourselves up to being dependent on non-like-minded states’.
An equally pressing need for the prime minister’s visit is the recent evolution of Chinese involvement in the Middle East. China’s traditional engagement in the neighborhood has been economic: it has become a top trading partner for most regional countries, and the leading partner for many of the major powers including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Iran. That is changing rapidly, with Beijing also beginning to actively involve itself in geo-strategic matters. This year, to great fanfare, China brokered the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Beijing, which signed a 25-year strategic partnership with Iran in 2021, was also a party to the P5+1 nuclear deal and remains involved in ongoing nuclear negotiations.
Worryingly, Saudi Arabia is looking to China to provide nuclear technology and know-how. That is because Saudi efforts to gain assistance from the US for its nuclear energy program have so far foundered on Riyadh’s rejection of US conditions, the so-called ‘123 Agreement’. 123 is intended to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation, and would restrict Saudi Arabia beyond its safeguarding undertakings with the IAEA. The Saudi government has made no secret of its intention to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does. Despite its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, last December the Saudi foreign minister announced: ‘if Iran gets an operational nuclear weapon, all bets are off’.
On top of all this, Beijing also seems ready to intervene in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Last December at the China-Arab States Summit in Saudi Arabia – another new development – President Xi Jinping offered to mediate a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has recently been in Beijing discussing just that, as well as agreeing to a China-PA strategic partnership including participation in the Belt and Road project and a range of Chinese global initiatives, plus plans to increase trade.
Netanyahu cannot afford to be left out of any of these moves that China is making in the region, all of which have a direct bearing on Israel’s critical national interests. It is not good enough for him to stand on the sidelines and watch as events unfold, especially in the Middle Eastern hothouse where major strategic issues tend to develop in unexpected directions at high speed. It is crucial that Xi Jinping understands Israel’s position directly from the prime minister, and that Netanyahu brings as much influence as possible to bear on Chinese decision making.
If all of these are sufficient reason for the prime minister to travel to Beijing, what about the much-discussed fears of angering Washington? Welcoming the China-brokered normalization between Iran and Saudi, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken commented: ‘I think it’s valuable that countries, where they can, take action, take responsibility for advancing security, for advancing peaceful relations.’
It’s hardly reasonable to criticize an ally for doing these very things with an economic partner he himself visited only last week. Blinken travelled to Beijing to try to stabilize US-China relationships which are at an all-time low due, among other things, to Beijing’s support for Russia in its war on Ukraine and Chinese provocations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
During his trip to Beijing, Blinken emphasized the need for diplomacy and keeping ‘open channels of communication’. Diplomacy and communication between Xi and one of America’s staunchest allies can only benefit Washington’s relations with the second-most powerful nation on the planet. Netanyahu is not French President Emmanuel Macron, who publicly challenged the US over European strategic autonomy as well as its Taiwan policy during his visit to Beijing in April, playing straight into the hands of Xi. The Israeli prime minister is an experienced political leader who will not allow himself or his country to be exploited by the Chinese Communist Party and will have in mind American interests as well as Israel’s.