Zev Sufott, Israel’s First Ambassador to China, Dies Aged 86

British-born Sufott was wounded in battle during Israel's War of Independence, and joined the Foreign Ministry in 1950.

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Zev Suffot.
Zev Suffot.Credit: GPO

Zev Sufott, a British-born diplomat who served as Israel’s first ambassador to China, died April 18 in Tel Aviv following a battle with cancer. He was 86.

“He was a pioneer,” said Reuven Merhav, who, as Israel’s former director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recruited Sufott for his first China post as a “Special Advisor” in 1991.

When Israel established full diplomatic relations with China in 1992, Sufett was appointed Ambassador. “Forty years after first learning Chinese he saw this as the closing of an historic circle,” said Merhav, who served as Israel’s consul general in Hong Kong.

A native of Liverpool, Sufott was wounded in battle during Israel’s War of Independence. “My father was a Zionist and the son of Zionists,” Sufott’s son, Michael, told Haaretz.

In 1950, Sufott joined Israel’s Foreign Ministry, where he served in various posts in a career that spanned more than 40 years. His assignments included tours in Washington, DC (First Secretary and Counselor); London (Consul General); and the Netherlands (Ambassador). Sufott also served in the Foreign Ministry as Deputy Director for Europe.

In 1990, after concluding his tenure in the Netherlands and nearing retirement, Sufott, then 63, was informed by Merhav that Israel was set to open a Liaison Office of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Beijing. It would be a non-political step toward the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

“We clicked instantly,” recalled Prof. Joseph Shalhevet, an agricultural scientist who, as the Liaison Office’s first Director, supervised Sufott, then later advised him following the ambassadorial appointment. “He was a professional diplomat, but he was also a friend. I loved him.”

Sufott is the author of “A China Diary: Towards the Establishment of China-Israel Diplomatic Relations” (1997: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd).

“In the four decades before diplomatic relations, and even after their establishment in 1992, China has never been a priority on Israel’s foreign policy agenda,” Sufott wrote in the scholarly publication, “Israel Affairs,” in 2000. “On the contrary, Israel’s foreign policy vis-à-vis China has been influenced, and at times dictated, by policy priorities and interests in other regions.”

A graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he majored in Oriental Studies, Sufott later enrolled in the Chinese Studies Program at Yale University. While stationed in Washington in the 1960’s Sufott took African Studies courses at Howard University and earned a Ph.D in political science from Georgetown University.

Sufott is survived by his widow, Mary, to whom he was married 53 years; two daughters, Tamar and Sarah; a son, Michael; and five grandchildren.

Funeral services were held Sunday at Kiryat Shaul cemetery in Tel Aviv.