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Is China a Friend? Time for Israel to Decide.

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Is China a Friend? Time for Israel to Decide.

While it remains to be seen how the Israel-Hamas war unfolds, it has already shown the nature of the Sino-Israeli relationship and where China’s interests lie.

Is China a Friend? Time for Israel to Decide.
Credit: Depositphotos

The recent tensions between Israel and China over the Israel-Hamas conflict could further deteriorate. China quickly sided with the Palestinians, refused to condemn Hamas’ terrorist actions, and did not express support for Israeli suffering. Israeli government officials have been openly critical of China’s response. At the same time, the Biden administration provided Israel with sympathy and practical support and sent aircraft carriers to the region to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from intervening in the war. 

In light of China’s pro-Iranian policy, a re-evaluation is needed of the Sino-Israeli relationship. Perhaps it is time to send a clear message to Beijing that there is a price for this negative attitude toward Israel. While it remains to be seen how the war unfolds, it has already shown directly who Israel’s real friend is, the nature of the Sino-Israeli relationship, and where its interests lie. 

China has a long history of friendly relations with Palestine. China has recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization since its founding in 1964 and was among the first countries in the world to recognize the State of Palestine in 1988. Beijing has supported the Palestinian cause in international forums, consistently advocating for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the two-state solution. In 2023, China signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Palestinian Authority, underscoring its commitment to strengthening its ties with Palestine.

China has never been Israel’s friend. Its voting patterns at the United Nations and international institutions are hostile and display unqualified support for the Palestinian side. For instance, China voted in favor of a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly calling on the International Court of Justice in The Hague to provide an advisory opinion on the legal consequences of the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories. China’s policy toward Israel is the inverse of its policy toward the Palestinians, separating the political issues from its economic activity in Israel. This allows Beijing to take political action against Israel and concentrate on exploiting the economic opportunity only. 

Thus, China’s response to the current Israel-Hamas conflict was not surprising; its statements fit within a pattern of Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond, in which Beijing expresses solidarity with Palestine to win friends in the Muslim and Arab world. With this context, China’s hesitancy to criticize Hamas and its effort to convey pro-Palestinian neutrality is only in keeping with the trend line.

China, which avoided condemnation of Hamas, found itself associated with the group of countries that support Hamas, such as Russia, Iran, and Syria. China (along with Russia) vetoed the U.S. proposal in the U.N. Security Council and initiatives in the U.N. General Assembly that called for the condemnation of Hamas. In the past, Israel has avoided publicly confronting China’s policy in the Middle East, instead calling attention to areas of cooperation while addressing differences behind the scenes. Thus, it is important to note that Israel does not expect Beijing to resolve the conflict. 

Still, it would like China to demonstrate support and sympathy, and Israel hopes Beijing could use its power to weigh and influence some Middle Eastern allies as well. Israeli Ambassador Irit Ben-Abba called on China to leverage its close relationship with Iran to rein in Hamas by engaging in talks around the conflict. “We really hope China can be much more involved in talking to its close partners in the Middle East and particularly Iran,” she said.

Even before the current conflict, in recent years, Israeli public views and perceptions of China have gotten worse. In 2019, China notched its lowest unfavorable rating in Israel, at 25 percent. Negative perceptions of China rose to 46 percent in 2022. A recently published poll from 2023 found that the Israeli public, which is split evenly, still sees China more favorably than citizens of most Western states. Nearly half (48 percent) of Israelis feel that China does not consider their country at all, and another 33 percent say it does not account for Israel’s interests much. Over three-quarters (77 percent) of Israelis said China does not contribute to global peace and stability. Israelis are split as to whether China interferes in other countries’ affairs, with 50 percent saying yes to varying degrees. 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration rightly expects Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East, to align with its strategic interests and positions in rivalry with China. The special relationship between Israel and the United States is rooted in shared values and deep and practical cooperation in every field, from military and security to diplomacy and commerce. Washington has not hesitated to pressure the Israeli government to cool the relationship with China since the U.S. perceives certain aspects of Israel’s cooperation with China (especially in technological innovation and infrastructure projects) as damaging national security.  

Nevertheless, Israel has chosen wisely for years to pursue a hedging strategy within certain limitations. Jerusalem was aware of increasing American concerns about China and did not want to get caught in a conflict between the two great powers. Despite doubts about U.S. commitment to its security, Israel recognizes that there is no substitute for a U.S. military and diplomatic alliance to block Iranian aggression in the region (as was demonstrated in Operation Iron Swords). As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote in his last book

Like most Western leaders, I walked a fine line with China. On the one hand, I wanted to open the enormous Chinese market to Israeli and also lure Chinese investments to Israel, particularly in physical infrastructure. On the other, I was totally frank about setting clear limitations on what types of technologies we would share with China, stopping when it came to military and intelligence fields. This was our solemn commitment to our great ally the United States, with whom we shared much of this technology, as well as our cherished values as democratic societies.

Now, Israel should choose wisely again.

A global power transition creates a high-risk, high-uncertainty environment. A hedging strategy is used by states that strive to manage uncertainty in the face of a prospective power transition. By hedging, states expect to benefit from two international orders simultaneously while avoiding confrontation or exclusion from either of them. Although hedging can offer substantive payoffs in a high-uncertainty environment, not every state is willing or capable of pursuing hedging. The great power rivalry intensifying between the United States and China created a highly precarious situation for future Sino-Israeli ties. It complicates Israel’s efforts to maintain hedging behavior within certain limitations and forces it to choose between keeping the security partnership with the United States or strengthening its economic and technological collaboration with China.

An open split with Beijing would have economic, diplomatic, and even strategic costs. Since normalizing diplomatic relations, the two countries have seen a dramatic expansion of commerce ties. China is one of Israel’s third-largest trading partners (trade between the countries rose to $21 billion in 2022) and a source of foreign investment (from 2005 to 2022, China’s investments reached $14.7 billion). It also focuses on adding Israel’s critical infrastructure to its Belt and Road Initiative. This includes the Haifa port, the port of Ashdod, underground tunnels and control systems in the northern Carmel mountains, and Tel Aviv’s subway system. The strategic importance of this infrastructure to Israel is evident; some of it runs alongside vital military installations, major businesses, food suppliers, and other essential Israeli military and civilian services. Thus, it will be excruciating, but Israel must reassess its ties with China. 

Israel has no choice but to make a wise decision about its ties with China and, by extension, to side unequivocally with Washington in the global rivalry. Such a shift must be reflected in bureaucratic policy and actions (although not by unnecessary laws or regulations or by issuing public declarations that will infuriate China). Bureaucratic steps can be efficient in quietly limiting Chinese ties. For example, the free trade agreement (FTA), which has been under discussion for several years, will probably not end. Bureaucratically, this FTA agreement would significantly reduce Israel’s tariff revenues. During periods of economic uncertainty, it is hard to envisage that Israel would rush to give up the significant revenues resulting from the increasing imports from China. 

As Israel decouples from China, there will be even greater opportunities for cooperation with the United States. With Beijing backing Israel’s most dangerous enemies, the Israeli government sees now that it must support its best friend and keep a distance from its best friend’s biggest rival.