In March 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described his country’s bilateral relationship with a superpower as one of nuptial bliss.
At the time, former US President Donald Trump occupied the White House. The United States was months away from formally recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, criticism of illegal settlement building in the West Bank had all but vanished, and Washington was pursuing an aggressive policy against Israel’s archrival Iran.
“I believe this is a marriage made in heaven,” Netanyahu was quoted saying at the time.
But he wasn’t talking about Washington and arguably one of the most pro-Israeli US administrations in history. He was speaking about China.
Over the last two decades, China and Israel have built a close relationship based on investments and economic ties. In doing so, they have managed to look beyond serious regional differences and priorities.
The US is Israel’s most powerful and steadfast supporter, and China is Washington’s biggest rival. Beijing also has ties to Iran and styles itself as a staunch supporter of Palestine, with which Israel has been embroiled in a decades-long conflict.
But the rewards of turning a blind eye to geopolitical differences have proved handsome. The value of trade between the two countries grew from roughly $1bn at the turn of the century, to a little over $11.2bn in 2019. China currently stands as Israel’s second-largest trading partner behind the US.
Those mutual interests, say experts, help explain why Israel has looked past China’s vocal support for Palestine, and why leaders in Beijing are cautious to go beyond rhetoric when addressing Israel’s disproportionate use of force against Palestinians – including the recent 11-day bombardment of Gaza that killed at least 254 people including 66 children.
Experts say China is cautious to go beyond rhetoric when addressing Israel’s disproportionate use of force against Palestinians – including the recent 11-day bombardment of Gaza that killed at least 254 people including 66 children [File: John Minchillo/AP]
Closer ties, changing attitudes
Israel, like many countries, is eager for access to China’s massive market and to benefit from Beijing’s penchant for splashing around big money on infrastructure projects.
China, meanwhile, sees Israel as another lynchpin in its Belt and Road Initiative to project and deepen its economic and political power. Strategically located on the Mediterranean, Israel is a high-income country with innovation economy – an aspect prized by Beijing.
“China’s principal interest in Israel is advanced technology,” Chuchu Zhang, deputy director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Fudan University, told Al Jazeera.
A study by the RAND Corporation of 92 business deals in Israel by Chinese state-owned firms between 2011 and 2018 found that the lion’s share of investment – some $5.7bn – went to Israel’s technology sector.
Shira Efron, an Israel specialist with the RAND Corporation, told Al Jazeera that largesse has bolstered China’s image in Israel.
“In Israeli eyes, China is a country of new opportunity,” she said.
A 2019 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that the overwhelming majority of Israelis – some 66 percent – view China favourably. Positive sentiment was even higher among young people under 30, with more than three-quarters saying they held a favourable view of Beijing.
While it has invested large sums of money in Israel, China has sought to maintain its historic image as a strong supporter of Palestine by taking symbolic stances on certain issues.
In 2017, China banned its nationals from taking part in illegal settlement building in the occupied West Bank, even as Chinese contractors were busy working on infrastructure projects in Israel.
Last month saw more symbolic manoeuvering in response to the Gaza war.
In Israeli eyes, China is a country of new opportunity.
China, which held the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council in May, worked to issue a resolution condemning the violence and demanding a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas – efforts that were blocked by the US.
And shortly before a ceasefire to the conflict was brokered by Egypt and Qatar, Beijing offered to host Israeli and Palestinian delegates for peace talks and floated a four-point peace plan calling for a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.
But some experts viewed China’s efforts as purely self-serving.
Lucille Greer, a scholar at the Wilson Center, described Beijing’s rhetoric as “boilerplate.”
“They didn’t even bother coming out with a new [peace plan] proposal,” she told Al Jazeera, noting that the blueprint was originally released in 2013 and matched the one put forward by Arab states.
“They get the benefits of proposing mediation, without the parties recognising it as serious,” she added.
Zhang said that in reality, China has little to gain from taking a harder stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, preferring instead to leverage it to cast Washington in a poor light.
“The aim is to earn points in the global stage by revealing and criticising the US’s double standards in the Middle East,” Zhang said.
Chinese diplomats at the UN were eager to call out the US for blocking their ceasefire proposal, with one reportedly using it to portray US support for Muslims as hollow.
Washington has pushed back aggressively on China’s human rights record, and the administration of US President Joe Biden has labelled Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims a “genocide”.
They get the benefits of proposing mediation, without the parties recognising it as serious.
Turning a blind eye
Israeli leaders have not paid much attention to China’s response to the Gaza war, which Efron said is viewed more as “lip service” in Tel Aviv than a true commitment.
But that doesn’t mean the relationship is not without risks. Efron says Israel could be sacrificing its own security as well as Washington’s unwavering support by pursuing closer relations with Beijing.
This year Chinese company Shanghai International Port Group will take over management of a portion of Haifa Port on Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
The decision to award the contract to a Chinese firm elicited howls of protests from the US, which raised concerns about espionage at a port where the US Sixth Fleet docks.
China’s other projects in Israel have also raised eyebrows for giving Beijing greater access to infrastructure and technology with the US’s closest Middle East ally.
The China Communications Construction Company, a state-owned firm that has been accused of building spy stations in South America and dredging islands in the South China Sea, is the company leading construction of Israel’s Ashdod Port.
Another China state-owned company, China Railway and Tunnel Group, won a concession for construction of segments of Tel Aviv’s light rail. The company also conducts business in Iran.
“Israel underestimates the risks to its own internal security,” Efron said. “It’s just not a priority,”
She believes the risks from cyber espionage, surveillance and intellectual property theft are being overlooked by government officials who focus more on proximate threats to the country and the desire to attract foreign investment.
Israel underestimates the risks to its own internal security.
Perhaps most surprisingly, China’s decision to sign a 25-year strategic agreement with Iran elicited little protest from Israel. And Chinese firms with business activities in Iran continue to operate in Israel.
One example of how China’s “zero enemies” policy in the Middle East complicates things for Israel and its tech sector is ZTE.
In 2015, the telecommunications company invested in an Israeli tech company, Rainbow Medical. The deal went through even though the US said in 2012 that ZTE was violating sanctions by selling surveillance equipment to Iran.
Al Jazeera asked Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about concerns over ZTE’s business activities in Iran and those of other Chinese firms.
Spokesman Lior Haiat said that Israel examines the activities of foreign companies when it is needed, adding that “Israel is working to strengthen its economic and global ties and diversify its inward foreign investment.”
Greer said that Israel is unlikely to let China’s rhetoric on Palestine or its ties with Iran derail the economic relationship for now. But one day Beijing may have to scrap its “zero enemies” policy, and be forced to choose between Iran or Israel.
The same could go for Israel if circumstances force it to choose between Beijing and Washington.
“Short term it is sustainable. Gaza was a test for that,” Greer said, “but will it work in 10 to 15 years?”