JERUSALEM, April 5 (JTA) Chinese President Jiang Zemin is making a weeklong state visit to Israel, the first by a Chinese president.
The April 12-18 visit reflects the deepening relations between Israel and China since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992.
Jiang’s visit comes after Israel decided to sell China advanced airborne radar systems a move strongly opposed by Israel’s closest ally, the United States.
Israel has already signed one contract estimated at $250 million to equip for China one Russian-built aircraft with the Israeli-made radar system.
China has an option to order more early-warning aircraft, whose technology is similar to the U.S. airborne command centers known as AWACS, in a deal estimated at $1 billion.
Israeli government sources were quoted by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz as saying Israel has a “vital interest” in close ties with China because of Beijing’s role as a superpower and its links with Iran and the Persian Gulf states.
At the same time, the paper cited observers as saying Barak is less sensitive to American pressures because of the current stalemate in the Israeli- Syrian peace talks.
Had there been progress in that track, the paper said, there would have been concern that Congress might press Israel to cancel the deal with China as a precondition for approving an aid package linked to a peace deal with Syria.
Cooperation between Israel and China is not limited to the military sphere.
The two countries are also interested in cultivating political, economic, agricultural and scientific ties. In 1997, Israel and China formed joint committees dealing with agriculture, telecommunications, health and electronics.
China’s second most powerful figure, Li Peng, visited Israel last November.
Jiang is being accompanied to Israel by a large delegation that will include several government ministers, according to an official with Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
“It’s the highest-level visit of a Chinese official ever, and we are looking forward to a productive visit,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
China is billing Jiang’s visit as a chance for him to discuss the Middle East peace process. Diplomats were quoted as saying, however, that it is unlikely he will be bringing any proposals to advance peacemaking.
During the visit, Jiang is due to meet with Israeli President Ezer Weizman, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister David Levy.
He will also visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, the Knesset, a number of agricultural sites and some high-tech business.
He will not visit Israel Aircraft Industries, where the early-warning aircraft is being built.
During the visit, Jiang is also scheduled to make a one-day visit to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where he is expected to meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
China was among the first nations to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, and to recognize Palestinian independence in 1988.
Jiang is also scheduled to spend one day in Egypt, where he will confer with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
But, with the remainder of his week spent in Israel, Jiang is clearly making the Jewish state the focus of his attention.
At the end of his visit on April 18, Jiang will travel to Turkey, and then to Greece and South Africa.