Not many working meetings between governments begin with a literary critique, but when the No. 2 person in the second biggest economy in the world avows that one of his favorite books is, coincidentally or not, also one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s favorite reads, the show is on.
Netanyahu has mentioned his appreciation of “The Lessons of History,” a book by Will and Ariel Durant, any number of times in interviews and speeches, in English and Hebrew, from the dais at Bar-Ilan University to the pages of The Economist. He quotes the Durants and, in a sort of metaphor of historical relativity, he seems to have somehow always just “recently” read it. He also repeats a joke about the book’s “good news” and “bad news”: Israel may be a small country, but it is mighty in spirit.
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On Tuesday, Netanyahu was enthusiastically waving about his dog-eared copy of the book before Wang Qishan, the incumbent vice president of the People’s Republic of China, ahead of the meeting of professional teams at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. The two spent quite some time exchanging impressions and quotes, but there was one sentence in their beloved book that neither mentioned.
Acerbically paraphrasing a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, the authors wrote: “You can’t fool all the people all the time, but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country.”
The Jewish myth and the art of shackling discourse
A common motif in the long-term diplomatic flirtation between Israel and Asia, which Netanyahu has turned into a key element in his foreign policy, is stressing the shared respect for ancient tradition alongside an aspiration for “innovation” – a magic word at these events, and the soft power that Israel hawks to the world. “We are like a tree that has deep roots in our ancient soil, our ancient tradition, and yet we throw up leaves to the heavens. We keep searching, keep inquiring, keep looking for new ways,” Netanyahu said for instance during his visit to India, while stressing the mutual benefit that could ensue from relations between countries such as India that excel in manufacturing and Israel, with its flourishing entrepreneurship.
As many Israelis who visited China know, this thesis can sometimes have a more simplistic, stereotyped side. More than a few people in Asia would explain, crassly enough, that the Jews are “smart and rich.” It’s practically reverse anti-Semitism. Books about the secret of Jewish smarts sell like bao buns. The jarring note aside, the intent is positive. In contrast to the Christian-ascetic dogma that took root in the West, in the East, money has no moralistic smell, nor the cloud of historic persecution. In other words, it’s a compliment. In any case, the Israeli foreign service, which is apparently aware that there are other types of Jews as well, is good at exploiting that Asian cliché about the extraordinary qualities of Jews to leverage the local industry even more.
Stressing economics and technology also helps avoid areas of greater complexity that may make it harder to advance the relationship. A lot has been said this week about the trade war between the U.S. and China and its possible implications for Israel, but the discourse has been carefully limited to high-tech, agriculture and infrastructure, for fear that it might slip into touchy areas of security. Both sides seem to have laid down the boundaries ahead of time and tiptoed carefully between the land mines. The show itself was the purpose, anyway. The high-level visit was meant to send a message to the little man in the Chinese street that business and tourism relations with Israel are a good thing that is encouraged by the governments.
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There is no agreement on the Palestinian front either. China consistently supports the Palestinians in international institutions. Wang also visited Ramallah this week, where he signed a free-trade agreement memorandum of understanding between his country and the PA. Israel would like to be a signatory on such an MoU, as well.
Netanyahu has declared it a supreme goal to achieve a free-trade agreement with China in 2019, but Ramallah got the candy treat first. In the leaders’ conversations, Wang raised his reservations about the deteriorating conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, employing phraseology coordinated with Europe’s language on the matter. But in contrast with Europe’s leaders, the Chinese did not share publicly their opinion about the demolition of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank. In that sense, the relationship is very comfortable for Netanyahu: High-tech, innovation and economics at the forefront, the rest is behind the scenes, in dribs and drabs and quietly. The only public hint at the conflict emerged when the two were attending the launch of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, where a hologram of the deceased Israeli president, no less, read to the audience his spiritual legacy to combine innovation and peace. But even digitally raising Peres from the dead couldn’t leverage the issue in their discussions.
Einat Lev, Israel’s economic attache in Shanghai, has been tracking the warming ties in government and private business for three years. “The Chinese government is eager to develop independent technological abilities and an ecosystem that encourages entrepreneurship innovation,” she says, hence the choice of the brand “Startup Nation” as a focus for the relationship. “When the central government decides to ascribe us a status like that, it filters through to every level – Chinese local government, companies and investors. The visit is effectively Wang’s call to do business with Israel.”
She notes Israel’s prominent status in the list of Chinese targets for investment in 2016, which is quite an achievement for a country whose population is about the size of a third-tier Chinese city. Israel has also been investing resources in the relationship: The Economy and Trade Ministry has opened additional representations around China and encourages Israeli companies to come. During the first nine months of 2018, Israeli exports to China increased by 60 percent compared with the same period the year before. Alexander Pevzner, founder of the Chinese Media Center at the School of Media Studies of Israel’s College of Management Academic Studies, agrees that Sino-Israeli relations have been strengthening fast and prominently. The turning points were, in his view, the replacement of the Chinese leadership – the generation that experienced the cancelation of the Phalcon and Harpy deals left the stage; the Chinese five-year plan for 2011-2015, which stressed innovation and upgrading the manufacturing-oriented economic model; and identifying the opportunity to bring U.S. ally Israel closer, based on the difficulties at the time with the Obama administration.
Netanyahu’s visit to China in 2013, among other things, marked that turning point. Another reason for the warming relations, Pevzner says, is the Netanyahu government’s decision to dissociate Israel’s ties with China, from China’s ties with Iran – “to do business without trying to persuade [the Chinese] to press Iran.”
Since then, the improvement in economic relations has been marked. There is a clear uptrend in investments, tourism, Chinese students coming to Israel, and more. The flagship visit this week by Wang, who is considered to be the closest person to President Xi Jinping and his man for special missions, was preceded by visits by at least six politburo members. This is unprecedented, he says, not to mention the visits by Chinese ministers and return visits by Israelis in China.
Adi Weitzhandler, a lawyer and expert on the Chinese economy, has accompanied this process from the private business side, advising companies that operate in China, and Chinese companies that operate here. “In a country where the market forces are subjugated to the national interest, these visits are important and it filters down,” she says of Wang’s visit. “China set itself a target of becoming a technology superpower by 2025 and we’re already seeing it happening. So they come to places like Israel, a fertile ground for creativity and innovation, to see what makes us like that.”
All three experts proclaim China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative to be a significant incentive for the improved relations. The plan, which aims to revive the ancient Silk Roads, is a picturesque soubriquet for investing vast amounts in creating a continuum of infrastructure and trade through dozens of countries from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The economic purpose is also to create a new world order. Despite critique in recent months that caution is due before involving China in national infrastructure in Israel, Netanyahu badly wants to be part of the One.
According to Einat Lev, “Israel’s inclusion would give us a significant advantage in the world.” Pevzner however notes that there are risks involved, and what he means is the relationship with the U.S.
The Foreign Ministry punctiliously deflects claims about American anger. As long as the discourse with the Chinese stays off exports and investments in advanced technologies that could have both civilian and military application, over which the U.S. has supervision, the Trump administration isn’t about to meddle, they believe. If and when American pressure rises, Israel will try to sustain the delicate balance, but the U.S. will, at the end of the day, call the shots.
Weitzhandler personally has not felt that the trade war is chilling private business so far, she says. In any case, weapons and technology with dual use is supervised by the government, she adds.
For now, Netanyahu and Qishan and his entourage are playing by the American rules. Eight agreements have been signed, all touching on innovation, science, health and agriculture. At joint events and ceremonies, the prime minister talked about his favorite subjects in recent years – which are highly reminiscent of Peres in his last years: smart transport, water technology and digital healthcare. While everybody talks about the risks from American displeasure and in the weapons business, they don’t discuss the significance of the technological collaborations based on the medical big data of a country like China. Or, as Durant, the historians so esteemed by the two, wrote: “The first condition of freedom is its limitation.”