BEIJING - The immediate response of many Israelis to the news that their prime minister is visiting China is "what is he looking for there?" The cynics among them point to the circumstances and the timing and perceive Ehud Olmert's visit to Beijing as a convenient escape from the oppressive problems facing him at home: the investigation into suspicions of corruption, the Winograd Committee's investigation of the war in Lebanon, the investigation of his aides in relation to the Tax Authority affair.
These reactions testify above all to Israeli provinciality and to the disturbing disconnect between Israeli foreign policy and what is happening in the world. It is enough to leaf through any American or European magazine to understand that China's economic growth is the main international story of the past decade. All the indices show it will continue to lead the world economy in the coming years as well. Half of all the cement produced in the world is being sent to China, and the huge demand in China for raw materials has caused their prices to soar and has created, even in Israel, an entire industry based on stealing metal. Africa, which was once the center of economic activity for Israeli companies, is gradually falling under the Chinese sphere of influence.
Israel has watched all these developments from a distance. Immersed in itself and in the conflict with the Palestinians, the Israeli leadership is interested only in what is thought and said about it in Washington, and to a lesser but increasing degree, in Europe as well.
Relations with China made headlines in Israel only when the United States was infuriated about the sale of Israeli weapons to China. During the past nine years, not a single Israeli prime minister has visited Beijing; the city that hosted Olmert this week is different from the city that welcomed his predecessors Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu. The Chinese leadership has changed, their capital today radiates more power than ever, and China is planning to turn the Olympic Games next year into a demonstration of strength and openness to the world.
"China is an enigma to us," some in Olmert's entourage are saying. The familiar foundations of Israeli foreign policy are not relevant here: There is no Jewish community and shared history, the Bible is not part of the culture, the Holocaust took place on another continent. The economic interest in connections with the Arab world and Iran is important to this oil-hungry developing country. The Chinese speak of their admiration for the Jewish genius and Israeli technology, but it is hard to turn these sentiments into something substantial.
The result is that there is no real dialogue between the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. Like all the great powers, China has appointed an "emissary to the peace process" - who is not really playing any role - only to demonstrate its presence. The Israeli embassy in Beijing is absurdly small: It is equivalent in size to the embassies in Sweden and Holland. Its few employees have no information about contacts between China and Iran, for example, beyond what the Chinese report to them.
The order of priorities must change, and China must become a more important place on the map of Israeli interests. Olmert's escorts are hoping that his visit and his meeting today with Chinese President Hu Jintao will open doors to further contacts.
The problem is that Olmert has also come here as a scandal-ridden leader, rather than as an initiator and a trailblazer. His aides were afraid to send a delegation of businessmen and industrialists with him, for fear that they would be called upon to explain to the state comptroller why they had invited this one rather than that one. "I prefer to betray my job and not undergo an investigation when we return," said one aide. It is better not to take responsibility and not to get into trouble, said another. Clearly it is hard to run a country this way. Perhaps on this matter, too, we have something to learn from the Chinese, whose leader this week began to head a national campaign to wipe out corruption.
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