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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, visit the Great Wall of China near Beijing, March 22, 2017. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, visit the Great Wall of China near Beijing, March 22, 2017. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.
featureU.S.-Israel Relations

Netanyahu caught between Washington and Beijing

Democrats and Republicans alike agree China is enemy No. 1.

During his visit to Israel two months ago, Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, spoke from the Knesset plenum. It was only the second time that a U.S. speaker addressed the full Knesset.

McCarthy’s speech was dedicated to the strong ties between Israel and the U.S. and the threats faced by both nations.

He also sent a message to the Israeli government and the assembled MKs. “While the Chinese Communist Party may disguise itself as promoters of innovation, in truth, they act like thieves. We must not allow them to steal our technology. I strongly encourage Israel to further strengthen its oversight of Chinese investment,” he said.

An Israeli official once told me that in every conversation with U.S. officials, they mention China. “Even if they talk with me about lettuce exports, China is a topic in the conversation,” he said.

This is likely why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that he had received an invitation from Chinese President Xi Jinping, accepted it and is discussing possible dates, surprised many in Israel and Washington.

“If Netanyahu wants to infuriate pro-Israel China hawks in both the Republican and Democratic parties, then this is a good way to do it,” Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS.

Speaking of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as “MBS,” Dubowitz said, “If Netanyahu thinks he can run the MBS playbook” of attempting to play the U.S. and China off each other, “he better hope that Israel becomes a major oil producer, returns the $38 billion in U.S. military aid and no longer requires American support at the U.N.

“Then he can play the game of pitting the two superpowers against each other for Israeli leverage,” Dubowitz said.

No. 1 enemy

At the moment, China is perhaps the only issue on which Republicans and Democrats agree: It’s the U.S.’s No. 1 enemy.

Len Khodorkovsky, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, told JNS, “There’s a bipartisan consensus in Washington that China poses the most serious threat to U.S. national security. The only issue that can seriously harm U.S.-Israel relations is Israel’s closer ties to China.”

Because the China issue is so delicate, Netanyahu updated U.S. officials the moment he received the invitation from Xi.

The U.S. National Security Council told JNS, “Obviously, he’s the elected leader, the prime minister of Israel. He gets to speak for his travel habits and where he goes and whom he wants to talk to. And that’ll be up for [Netanyahu and Xi] to talk about.”

It appears that the U.S. will hold Netanyahu solely responsible for the results of his China visit.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that more than six months after he returned to the Prime Minister Office, Netanyahu has not been invited to visit the White House.

U.S. President Joe Biden ducked a question on the issue in a CNN interview on Friday, saying, “The prime minister is trying to work through how he can work through his existing problems in terms of his coalition.”

“The problem is a visit while relations between Netanyahu and the White House are so problematic,” Dubowitz said. “Israel doesn’t need another source of tension with the administration, especially when the optics of this visit [to China] are not likely to endear Netanyahu to the members of Congress who provide him with a critical base of support.”

Beijing has increased its involvement in the Middle East in recent years, including brokering a diplomatic agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which had been at odds since 2016.

Following Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas’s recent visit to Beijing, China may be eyeing another diplomatic achievement.

China’s ideas

Victor Gao, a lawyer and academic who has worked with the Chinese government and its leaders, told JNS, “I think the Saudi-Iran agreement is only the first step. There will be more initiatives from Beijing’s side.

“I think that China brings new ideas and is committed to the region,” he said. “The agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia caused many shocks in the Middle East—and I say: If we managed to achieve an agreement between these two rivals, why not between Israel and the

JNS: “What do you think can be done that hasn’t been done before?”

Gao: “The time has come to propose a new initiative, a new way of thinking which will guarantee peace that will last a long time. This will bring many benefits to the area. China is willing to be involved as a mediator, as a guarantor, as good actors.”

JNS: “Would you say the U.S. failed in achieving this goal?”

Gao: “I always say, you must not put all your eggs in one basket. And, may I add, when it is not certain how much this basket contributes to regional peace. The Americans have been in the region for several decades and have not really succeeded in bringing peace, so we also must look at China, which is an economic and political power.”

Netanyahu knows the U.S. position on China and has heard the warnings from Biden administration officials regarding cooperation with Beijing and allowing the People’s Republic to invest in Israel.

Israeli officials always say, “The U.S. is our No. 1 ally,” but Netanyahu also sees the U.S. drifting away from the region. At the same time, China is increasingly anxious to do business with Israel. In the end, Netanyahu appears to be caught between a rock and a hard place.

Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

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