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For Olmert, Visit to China is Rich in Diplomatic and Personal Meaning

For Ehud Olmert, it’s a state visit rich in both diplomatic potential and personal significance.

The Israeli prime minister left Monday night for Beijing for a three-day trip aimed officially at bolstering already burgeoning 15-year-old ties and, more discreetly, at lobbying for a stronger Chinese stand against Iran’s nuclear program.

Despite annual Israeli-Chinese trade that has risen to $3 billion, Olmert will have a tough time persuading President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to abandon their circumspect tack vis-a-vis Tehran, given the Asian superpower’s bottomless thirst for Iranian oil.

For Olmert, the best approach might be a personal appeal on behalf of a Jewish state that finds itself under almost daily threats from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Since they first hosted Jewish traders in the ninth century, the Chinese have displayed an intense interest, bordering on philo-Semitism, in a people they consider their “Western counterparts” in terms of enterprise and cultural depth.

The Israeli prime minister knows this firsthand: His parents, Mordechai and Bella, were among thousands of Jews who fled persecution in Russia in the early 20th century, settling in the northern Chinese city of Harbin before moving on to the nascent Zionist state.

The Harbin Jews, as well as coreligionists who fled Nazi Europe and settled in other Chinese areas such as Shanghai and Kaifeng, experienced almost unprecedented levels of prosperity and security. Olmert’s parents received professional training in China, even speaking some Mandarin at home.

“Chinese culture became a part of our family’s tradition. It is my first memory from my childhood in Israel,” Olmert told China’s Xinhua news agency. “We maintain a profound love for the Chinese people and are grateful for the warmth and friendship offered to the Jewish people in the early years of the 20th century and Second World War from the people of Shanghai and Harbin.”

Despite its ties to the Jewish Diaspora, China was late in recognizing the State of Israel. It normalized relations only in 1992, after interim peace talks were well under way between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Beijing long had courted.

While it has consistently argued for peaceful conflict resolution in the Middle East, China has been out of step with the United States and European Union.

“Chinese people believe that peace, development and cooperation is the irreversible trend of our times,” Chen Yonglong, China’s ambassador to Israel, said last year, seemingly ignoring some of the more radical strains of Islamism.

One major blunder by Beijing, as far as Israel and other Western powers are concerned, was to host Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar after his radical Hamas faction took power last March. Critics say invitations to Hamas like the one from China give the terrorist group much-needed legitimacy.

China used the visit to urge Hamas to soften its stand against the Jewish state but, as expected, was rebuffed.

Like Russia, China has also been a bit of a wild card at the U.N. Security Council, which has been debating sanctions designed to curb Iran’s atomic ambitions.

The council unanimously passed a resolution last month limiting Iran’s trade in sensitive nuclear materials that could be used for bomb making, but China appears more willing than Western powers to believe Tehran’s claims that its plans are peaceful and is ever ready to return to negotiations with the Islamic republic.

Israel, meanwhile, sees Iran as an existential threat, given its presumed drive for nuclear weapons and its repeated calls for Israel’s destruction.

Israel and China enjoy robust cooperation in commerce and scientific areas such as agriculture and high-tech. Their relationship also had a major defense component until the United States, fearing for the safety of its ally, Taiwan, and for the survival of its arms firms in the face of stiff Israeli competition, stepped in.

Under U.S. pressure, Israel in 2000 canceled a $1 billion sale of advanced radar systems to China. It has since faced further Pentagon ire after providing maintenance service for a fleet of Israeli-made drones that it sold to China in the 1990s.

According to Israeli defense sources, the scale of military-related trade with China since 2000 has been minimal — $16 million in all.

Yet other trade is flourishing, and high-level Chinese delegations have visited Israel in the past 18 months, driven largely by interest in civilian technologies, Ha’aretz reported. Chinese officials say they want to double the quantity in coming years.

During his visit, Olmert is scheduled to pay a visit to a model farm set up by Israelis near Beijing, and will visit the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in Beijing. He also will announce that Israel plans to open a consulate in the province of Guangzhou, which is home to high-tech parks, Ha’aretz reported.

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