Israeli Head of Military Intel Discussed Syria, Iran in Secret Beijing Visit

PM Netanyahu to depart just 10 days after head of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi's secret visit to China, centered on two major diplomatic-security issues, in which China had a key role: the Iranian nuclear program and the civil war in Syria.

The head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, met his Chinese counterpart recently during a secret visit to Beijing where the two discussed developments in Iran and Syria.

The visit came about 10 days before Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled departure for China Sunday night, with the prime minister expected to raise concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and about Syrian arms falling into the hands of Hezbollah.

Kochavi’s host was his Chinese counterpart Major General Chen Youyi, 59, an expert on Russian, East Europe and South East Asia affairs. He and other senior Chinese officials met Kochavi in the State Security Ministry, the equivalent of the Israeli Mossad.

A senior Israeli official who wished to remain anonymous said Kochavi’s secret visit to China centered on two major diplomatic-security issues, in which China had a key role − the Iranian nuclear program and the civil war in Syria.

Kochavi showed his Chinese colleagues the latest intelligence reports and presented Israel’s evaluations regarding the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chances of hanging onto power. He also told them of Israel’s fear that chemical and advanced weapons in Syria, some of them made in China, would fall into Hezbollah’s hands.

Kochavi’s visit to China was yet another sign that the security ties between the two states are warming up after years of frosty relations.

The cancellation of the Falcon spy plane sale to Beijing in 2000 and the drones deal in 2005 created tension and suspicion between China and Israel. In both cases Israel cancelled security contracts with China under American pressure, compounding the offense from Beijing’s viewpoint.

However, in the last two years something has changed. In June 2011 Defense Minister Ehud Barak came to China in the first visit by an Israeli defense minister to that country in about a decade. Two months later, in August 2011, the Chinese chief of staff visited Israel and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In May 2012 Chief of Staff Benny Gantz reciprocated by visiting Beijing. Two months before, in March 2012 then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman went on an official visit to China that lasted more than a week.

Sunday evening Netanyahu is due to leave on a visit to China, at a time when Beijing’s relations with Washington are tense. The Americans intend to increase their military presence in South East Asia, are troubled by China’s growing economic influence and hold the Chinese responsible for a series of cyber attacks against American ministries and companies. Netanyahu’s aides have held coordination meetings with senior American officials in recent weeks to prevent hitches and to make sure the prime minister’s visit doesn’t strike any raw American nerve.

The main security issue Netanyahu will raise in China is the Iranian nuclear program. Officially the Chinese say they are not interested in Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons, but together with Russia they lead the relatively compromising line toward Tehran. The Chinese, who need the Iranian oil, object to expanding the sanctions on Iran and are even more afraid of an Israeli military attack on the nuclear facilities, which will undermine the region’s stability.

Netanyahu is expected to stress at his meeting with China’s president that only increasing pressure on Iran significantly combined with a credible military threat against it could halt the country’s nuclearization and avert a crisis. Netanyahu will also suggest learning a lesson from the North Korean example when dealing with Iran. He will say a nuclear Iran will pose a much greater threat to world peace than North Korea.

Netanyahu is also expected to discuss the civil war in Syria. On this issue, the Chinese again side with Russia in opposing Western efforts to increase pressure on Assad’s regime. China has blocked resolutions against Syria in the UN Security Council several times and objected vehemently to any military intervention in Syria.
Arriving in China a few days after Israel’s air strike in Syria, Netanyahu will tell the Chinese of Israel’s fear that Hezbollah could obtain chemical and advanced weapons, some of them made in China.

Despite the desire to advance Israel’s relations with China, senior Jerusalem officials have no illusions about the ability to generate a dramatic change in Beijing’s positions. The Chinese may be interested in improving relations with Israel, but their interests in the Middle East are almost the opposite of Israel’s, the officials say. It seems that this time too we will have to make do with the jaded diplomatic cliche − the importance of the visit was in the very fact that it took place.

Ofer Vaknin