Benjamin Netanyahu Is Preparing for His Trip to China with Realistic Expectations

July 27, 2023 | Eran Lerman
About the author: Eran Lerman is vice-president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and teaches Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Shalem College.

A month ago, the Israeli prime minister told a group of U.S. congressmen of his plans to make an official visit to Beijing, although a date is yet to be confirmed. Since Netanyahu’s previous visit in 2013 and 2017, tensions between the U.S. and China have increased considerably, and Jerusalem has shaken off its grander hopes of commercial and technological cooperation with the People’s Republic. What then can Israel hope to gain? Eran Lerman explains:

This is clearly no longer going to be a visit marked by high hopes for extensive Chinese investment in Israeli high-tech companies or in national infrastructure. . . . It [has] gradually dawned on the Israeli government that a Chinese-built and Chinese-controlled train corridor from Eilat to the Mediterranean, or a Chinese-operated port facility in Haifa, raises serious American concerns—and may be tinged, as Israel’s state comptroller report suggested in August 2020, by the willingness of Chinese companies to promote strategic interests (such as access to sensitive information) while offering infrastructure bids at non-economic prices.

Nor does Israel have an interest in active Chinese mediation with the Palestinian Authority, which surfaced in the media following the visit in Beijing of President Mahmoud Abbas; . . . the Chinese position is far too favorable to Palestinian demands to be of interest to Israel.

Xi Jinping’s China in 2023—an overt ally of Putin’s Russia and of Iran—is clearly going to prove a more challenging interlocutor than it was more than a decade earlier. . . . But Xi may still choose to listen to a coherent Israeli warning [about the dangers of a nuclear Iran]. This is reason enough for Netanyahu to try to reason with Beijing.

Yet there are other reasons to engage. Water management, innovative agriculture, green solutions, and above all medical innovations for a “graying” population are all within Israel’s ability to be of help, without running into the U.S. investment curbs targeted at national-security concerns. This is all the more important because Israel sells arms to many of China’s neighbors, including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and India. It remains important not to be perceived in Beijing as an enemy, which could motivate it to take increasingly hostile positions and lend support to those who threaten Israel’s security.

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