The cabinet on Sunday ratified an agreement with China relating to the employment of Chinese construction workers in Israel. The agreement was made possible after Israel agreed to a condition demanded by the Chinese government that in practice provides that Chinese construction workers in Israel will not be employed in settlements in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.
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Israel and China engaged in negotiations for several years over an agreement on Chinese citizens coming to work in Israel. In 2015, the talks faltered over China's demand that Chinese laborers in Israel not be employed in the settlements. The official reason given by the Chinese was concern for the workers' personal safety, but officials at the Israeli Foreign Ministry expressed the view that the real reason was political, relating to the fact that China and the rest of the international community view the settlements as illegal and their locations as occupied territory.
Over the past two years, the Foreign Ministry worked to find a solution to the Chinese demand. A senior Israeli official noted that the Israeli government was eager to recruit laborers from China who are needed for the most part in the construction sector as part of the government's efforts to lower housing prices by boosting supply. On the other hand, the government did not want to sign an agreement that provides its explicit consent to a settlement boycott.
Following lengthy contacts, Israel agreed to the Chinese demand but found a convoluted formula that would enable it to avoid an explicit agreement to a boycott of the settlements. The agreement itself does not relate directly to the subject, stating only that the parties agree that Chinese workers recruited through the agreement would work in areas designated and agreed upon by the two sides from time to time. The provision also explains that the reason for this is the desire to protect the safety of the Chinese workers.
But an annex to the official agreement provides part of the resolution to the issue of workers being employed in the settlements. In the formula that the two countries agreed to, instead of stating that the laborers will not be employed in the settlements, the document specifically lists the communities in which the Chinese laborers will be employed. The current list that the two countries have consented to does not include any location beyond Israel's pre-1967 borders. The list will be periodically updated, a senior Israeli official noted, based on locations where there is a need for Chinese laborers.
In the course of Sunday's cabinet meeting, Zeev Elkin, the environmental protection and Jerusalem affairs minister, sought clarifications on the agreement as it relates to the absence of Chinese workers in the settlements. Finance Ministry housing chief Avigdor Yitzhaki and Hagai Shagrir, who heads the Foreign Ministry's China department, responded that the provision in the agreement on the location of the workers' employment is security-related and not political.
The agreement does not make a distinction between West Bank settlements and locations elsewhere, the two told the cabinet, and only states that the locations of the workers' employment will be coordinated with the Chinese in advance based on the security situation prevailing at the time. A minister present at the meeting said that following the clarification, the cabinet ministers voted to ratify the agreement.
In a daily news briefing to reporters on January 5, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman made reference to the agreement a day after the signing of a statement of principles on the pact. The spokesman said that the laborers would not be employed in the settlements. "China's position on the Palestine-Israel issue is consistent, clear and unchanged. We oppose building Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories including East Jerusalem and West Bank," he said. "[UN Security Council] Resolution 2334 recently adopted at the Security Council also has clear stipulations on this."
Speaking on behalf of the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements, Oded Revivi, the head of the Efrat local council, roundly condemned the agreement, saying that West Bank settlements have also suffered housing shortages. Contrasting West Bank settlements and Tel Aviv suburbs within the 1967 borders, he added: "Unfortunately the trade agreement with the Chinese government makes a distinction between Efrat and Holon, between Shiloh and Bat Yam. This distinction harms Israeli citizens with equal rights," he stated. "It will cause additional delays in legal construction in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] which has been repeatedly delayed in any case due to security incidents."