“Israel can be a partner, a junior partner, but a perfect partner for China in the development of a variety of technologies that change the way we live, how long we live, how healthy we live − in every area.”
So spoke Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to China in March 2017. He then went on to lay a wreath at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square and studiously avoided any mention about the mass killing of students there in 1989.
In 2020, when President Trump is confronting Xi Jinping on every level, it is highly unlikely that Mr Netanyahu would use the same words today.
While successive Israeli administrations have always had to carefully manoeuvre between China and the US, particularly within the realm of transfer of technology and joint projects, there is a growing scepticism in working with Chinese firms. This is not solely due to US pressure as some of this reticence has come from the intelligence services within Israel itself.
In January 2019, at a closed lecture at Tel Aviv University, Nadav Argaman, the head of the Shin Bet, warned that Chinese investment might harm Israel’s security.
Nir Ben-Moshe, the head of security in the Ministry of Defence, opposed the bid of a Hong Kong based company to build Soreq-2, a huge water desalination plant. It was to be sited near the Soreq Nuclear Research Centre and the Palmachim Air Base.
The same company owned 49% of the shares in operating Soreq-1. A few weeks ago, it was announced that an Israeli consortium would build Soreq-2.
When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, visited Israel in mid-May, he asked the Israelis to reconsider allowing the Shanghai International Port Group to operate in Haifa. It has a contract to operate the port for 25 years, starting next year.
The Americans were worried because the 6th Fleet often docked at Haifa Port, there might now be possible Chinese access to US classified information. Conversely Israel never had plans to involve Huawei in constructing its 5G infrastructure — at present it has a 4% share in Israel’s cellular phone market.
In 2016, it was estimated that China’s exports to Israel amounted to $8 billion and in the opposite direction some $3 billion. Yet trade was not the only rationale for good relations with China. Iran sells a third of its oil to China and there is ongoing concern that Beijing would sell sophisticated arms to Teheran.
Seventy years ago in January 1950, Israel was the first country in the Middle East to recognise Communist China.
It was however the last country in the Middle East to establish diplomatic relations in 1992. In the long years in between, there was an unremitting hostility from Mao Zedong’s China as it attempted to lead the developing world and in particular the Arab world and the emerging Palestinian national movement.
In March 1965, the leader of the newly established PLO, Ahmed Shukairy, was invited to Beijing. Chou en-Lai told him that the enemies of the Arabs were “the unholy trinity of US imperialism, West German militarism and Zionism”.
Yet it was the same Chou en-Li who had sent Israel’s first foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, a congratulatory telegramme, following Israel’s recognition of the new China. In its desire to lead the non-aligned nations, Chou en-Lai then prevented Israel from attending the founding conference of the movement in Bandung in 1955.
In the post-Mao era, China flip-flopped again and welcomed an Israeli delegation which secretly visited Beijing in early 1979, ready to sell it arms and military technology.
The Hebrew University’s China scholar, Yitzhak Shichor, attributes this long term hostility to an article, written by Mao in July 1919 — before the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party: “The desire of the Jews to restore their nation in Palestine will not succeed because it is of no great concern to the Allied Powers”.
Nationalist China gave refuge to 20,000 Jews, fleeing from Tsarist persecution, then Nazism, including the parents of former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Most left before the onward advance of Mao’s forces in 1949.
However there was a handful of Jewish Communists who went to build the new China — they worked mainly in translating documentation into English, but were incarcerated as imperialist spies during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
In 1961, Ben-Gurion assured the Dalai Lama that Israel would support ‘any reasonable request’ on behalf of Tibet. With the advent of right-wing governments after 1977, the question of human rights in China has barely concerned Israel. For successive Israeli governments, national interests were more important than universal values.
The Diaspora took a different view. Shortly after Israel’s establishment of diplomatic relations, an American Jewish Committee delegation visited Beijing and raised the question of human rights and Tibet in particular.
This led to a closeness between American Jewish organisations and the Dalai Lama who had an interest in preserving Tibetan culture in exile. In 1997 Tibetan educators visited New York Jewish schools and an award was given to the Dalai Lama as a ‘rodef shalom’ — a pursuer of peace.
Prior to the Olympic Games in China in 2008, Elie Wiesel organised another 25 Nobel Laureates to protest against the regime’s crackdown in Tibet. Steven Spielberg refused to act as an artistic adviser to the Games because of China’s complicity in assisting the Sudanese government’s killings of Africans in Darfur.
While Beijing’s deep pockets impressed Tel Aviv, it also impressed Ramallah. China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ invested in many developing countries which could then be counted upon to endorse China’s recent ‘security law’ to suppress any expression of democracy in Hong Kong.
53 countries sent a letter to the president of the UN Human Rights Council just two weeks ago which commended “China’s remarkable achievement in the field of human rights”.
Those supporting China included Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. This followed Yasser Arafat’s realpolitik approach in 1989 when he cabled the Chinese authorities expressing his “extreme gratification that you were able to restore normal order after the recent incidents” — the Tiananmen Square massacre.
As with Netanyahu, national interests came first, but it made a mockery of the efforts of activists, both Israeli and Palestinian, to draw attention to human rights violations.
In addition, the UN Human Rights Council buried its head in the sand when it came to human rights violations in China, but indulged in a frenzy of breast-beating when Israel and the Palestinians were considered.
It is also remarkable that both the Arab and Muslim worlds have lost their voices when it comes to the Uighurs. The Organisation of Islamic States has been deathly silent. In 2011 Malaysia and Pakistan deported ethnic Uighurs to China to meet an unknown fate and Egypt did the same in 2017. China, it is reported, will invest $20 billion in the new Egyptian capital, now being constructed.
Millions died in the 1960s as a result of Mao Zedong’s incompetence — failed schemes such as the Great Leap Forward and the ensuing famine.
His successors promoted instead entrepreneurship and economic betterment, but this has led to a Chinese crony capitalism and the enrichment of party factions.
Mao never abandoned Stalin as did the USSR. His heir, Xi Jinping, has ushered in a neo-Stalinism to cope with this endemic corruption.
The meting out of violence to the Uighurs is a reflection of this.
Ironically it has been Trump who has forced the falling of the blinkers which have blinded millions — albeit for other reasons.
The treatment of the Uighurs in their ‘correction centres’ cannot but create a sense of disbelief, then anger, that this can happen in 2020.
The lessons of Jewish history teach British Jews not be bystanders.
If we are only for ourselves, then who are we?
If not now, then when?