The area of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount is perhaps the most explosive place in the Middle East. Presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers who visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority tend to entirely avoid the tension-laden site in an attempt to avoid falling into a diplomatic debacle.
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Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz was therefore surprised when the Foreign Ministry requested he organize a tour of the Kotel for China's Foreign Secretary Wang Yi, who was visiting in Jerusalem and Ramallah this week. The unorthodox visit was to be part of the Chinese dignitary's formal itinerary.
Yi arrived at the holy site accompanied by Shin Bet security service personnal, a few of his advisors and Israel's ambassador to China, Matan Vilani. He was given a tour of the grounds, wore a kippa and received a short briefing from Rabinowitz. At a certain point the Chinese foreign minister asked if he could hold on to the kippa as a memento. Rabinowitz approved the request, and quipped that seeing as it had been made in China, the kippa would be returning to its home.
Did the Israeli embassy in Beijing or the Prime Minister's Office suggest tacking the visit on to the formal itinerary? The reasons for Yi's unusual visit to the Kotel are unknown, but in any case, the move didn't sweeten the sleep of any Palestinian Authority heads.
Only a week ago, the chief of the Palestinian negotiating team Saib Erekat issued a harshly worded statement condemning the Guatemalan president for visiting Jerusalem's Old City while accompanied by Israeli representatives. A few weeks prior to that, Palestinians expressed their fury at the Czech president after he called to move his nation's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In recent months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been throwing his weight behind the strengthening of ties between Israel and China. Netanyahu, who visited in Beijing in May, sees the boosting of the nations' trade relations as a strategic target, and is attempting to introduce China into several large-scale infrastructure projects in Israel. Among them is the construction of a rail route connecting Eilat and Ashdod – a venture aimed at creating a route for the transfer of goods between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean independent of the Suez Canal.
As part of his efforts, Netanyahu has caved in to pressures exerted by the Chinese government in relation to the "Bank of China affair."
A lawsuit put forth against the bank by a Jewish-American family who lost its son to a Tel Aviv suicide bombing was originally supported by Netanyahu. The bank is accused of taking part in the transfer of funds to Hamas. The prime minister lent his support to the effort, and agreed to let a former Israeli intelligence officer provide testimony in a U.S. court.
But later Netanyahu reversed course, after the Chinese made it clear that if Israel continues to aid the prosecution, Netanyahu's visit to China would be canceled.