3rd May, 2013
If Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to deeply disappoint his Chinese hosts for a third time in a row by calling off his visit, he had a very good alibi this time — Israeli foreign ministry is on a labour strike with diplomats fighting for more pay and better working conditions and protesting their department’s ‘downgrading’ by being divested recently of key roles that have been handed to other government institutions. (Such strikes can happen in Israel.)
But the labor union refused to oblige ‘Bibi’, saying in a statement, “Out of consideration for Israel’s diplomatic standing, the historic importance of the trip, and the long-term damage that would be caused by canceling it, it has been decided to allow the visit [to China] to go ahead as planned.”
So, ‘Bibi’ is packing bags to hit the road for a five-day (May 6-10) China visit, finally, with halts of two days each in Shanghai and Beijing. The China Daily report, here
, duly noted that this is Netanyahu’s first visit abroad since he took office for a third term in late March.”
His spokesman Mark Regev told Xinhua in Tel Aviv, “The fact that he has chosen China as his first destination demonstrates clearly the importance that the israeli government attaches to our relations with China.”
Both Chinese and Israeli reports harped on the strong economic content of Netanyahu’s mission to China. But an intriguing detail is that China is also hosting the head of the Palestine Authority Mahmoud Abbas nest week.
Regev vaguely alluded that the Chinese hosts could be setting up something important
when he pointedly singled out the israeli-Palestinian peace process as a topic that Netanyahu will discuss with the Chinese leadership.
Regev commented on China’s role — “There is no substitute for direct, face to face negotiations [between Netanyahu and Abbas]. We [Israel] hope that all countries will encourage the expeditious return to direct talks.”
Of late, Netanyahu has been speaking about holding a referendum in Israel on a Palestine settlement. The United States Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Israel thrice already in the past two-month period. Israeli cabinet minister and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni (who is also Israel’s chief peace negotiator), said on Thursday
after meeting Kerry that the latter is “completely involved, determined” to restart negotiations and that she herself felt it is “good news” that the Arab peace initiative is negotiable.
Of course, China has repeatedly signaled of late that the Middle East is one area where Beijing and Washington can and should work together as stakeholders in regional security and stability.
However, politics is meaningless for both Netanyahu and his Chinese hosts without the alluring prospect of a big breakthrough in the Chinese-Israeli economic relationship. Trade is steadily increasing and touches $10 billion currently.
But a big-ticket item that can transform the panorama phenomenally will be the proposed construction project on a railway line to Eilat connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean as a partial substitute for the Suez Canal.
The project was formally approved by the Israeli cabinet last month just in time for Netanyahu’s China visit. No doubt, it is an ambitious project with 173 kilometre long new track laying and involving 63 bridges and five tunnels (totalling ten kilometers).
The rail link will cut travel time within Israel dramatically and also develop a new transit route connecting Europe and Asia. Unsurprisingly, Chinese companies have shown keen interest in the project. Now, Netanyahu can be expected to probe how much money Beijing can put on the table to meet the estimated $30 billion cost of the project.
Netanyahu must be feeling encouraged that Beijing will be willing to invest in the project, since this is also a communication link of great strategic importance to China, which meshes well with its control over Gwadar Port in Pakistan and its plans to build a naval base Aden on the eastern approach to the Red Sea.
A big business delegation is accompanying Netanyahu to China. Clearly, the two countries are set to work to develop renewable energy technology and in fields such as IT. And of course, energy cooperation looms large on the radar once israel begins export of LNG from its massive Leviathan gas fields (whose revised estimates
of reserves stand at a whopping 18.9 trillion cubic feet.)
But having said that, Netanyahu is sure to factor in that Chinese diplomacy in the Middle East is shifting gear and Israel must position itself in anticipation of the appearance of a historically new big power on the horizon.
The Middle Eastern geopolitical chessboard will never be the same again once China engages the region politically and strategically. A backgrounder by the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv University says it all rather explicitly (here