Like old partners on a journey of a thousand miles that began with a single step, all former Israeli ambassadors to China met recently with their Chinese counterparts who had served in Israel. They did so through a conference call between Beijing and Jerusalem, launching celebrations in both countries to mark 20 years of diplomatic relations. It was a nostalgia show, steeped in emotions, one participant later said. "We were as excited as children," another said. They recalled the rare vision of Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, who already in the 1930s saw China as a future superpower. They talked about the empathy the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen had felt for the Zionist movement. They remembered fondly the schemes, the maneuvers and the secret visits by Reuven Merhav on the Israeli side and Yang Fuchang on the Chinese side that led to the establishment of diplomatic ties.
They praised Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's historic visit to China in 1993, and President Jiang Zemin's visit to Israel in 2000 - a dream come true. After 20 years of ties the Chinese giant - the world's second biggest economy - and the Israeli dwarf, whose entire population is that of a medium-sized neighborhood in Shanghai, can look back and smile: Bilateral trade, which in 1992 was worth $60 million, is now worth about $8.5 billion a year. There are more than 1,000 Israeli companies operating in China, in a variety of fields. In the past two years several important agreements have been signed for cooperation in industrial R&D, water, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. A consulate was opened in the southern city of Guangzhou, and another is planned for Chengdu, in the western province of Sichuan. The Chinese have demonstrated their power in Israel, too, where they built the Carmel tunnels and a Chinese company, ChemChina, acquired a controlling stake in Makhteshim Agan Industries, in a mega-deal. Chinese chemical companies have opened R&D facilities here, and other companies are interested in building the railway line to Eilat.
Both countries speak of a close partnership between "two peoples with ancient cultures and traumatic and heroic histories." But not everything is coming up roses in this partnership: China consistently supports Iran's nuclear program and attempts to thwart international sanctions against Tehran. China is Iran's biggest trading partner, and is also responsible for missiles it has supplied to Iran, Syria, Sudan and Yemen finding their way to Hezbollah and Hamas, who have used them to kill Israelis. "The Chinese believe the Holocaust has clouded Israelis' thinking with regard to Iran and has made them paranoid," one senior observer has said.
China was one of the first states to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization and to establish full diplomatic ties with the Palestinians. In most United Nations resolutions China votes against Israel, and it supported the Palestinian bid to be recognized as a state by the UN.
Prof. Yitzhak Shichor, a Sinologist, says the Chinese-Israeli connection was initially based largely on Chinese admiration for "Jewish genius," coupled with the belief that Israel and its "Jewish extension" in Washington could promote Beijing's strategic interests; and the somewhat arrogant Israeli belief in the conquest of the infinite Chinese market and a change in the balance of international support for Israel.
But the second decade of relations saw the beginning of mutual "demystification." Israel let go of the illusion that it could change Chinese foreign policy, while China realized that the United States controls Israel, not the other way around. This sober realization was especially painful with regard to the Phalcon reconnaissance aircraft affair, which in 2000 caused what has been called the most serious crisis ever in Israel-U.S. relations: For business reasons, Washington forced Jerusalem to cancel a huge deal to sell spy planes to China. In response, the Chinese cut off all contact with the Israeli ambassador in Beijing, who has become a de facto persona non grata. The repercussions of the incident continue until today: China and Israel have made no military deals since. Israel learned an expensive lesson about the limits of its power and independence, and its complete reliance on the United States. Today, when the Netanyahu/Lieberman duo wants to get closer to China and India at the expense of "irrelevant" Europe and Obama, it is a lesson that should be memorized.
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