The announcement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted an invitation from President Xi Jinping to make a state visit to China has triggered some commotion among Israel’s political experts and journalists, most of it negative. Netanyahu wanted to “snub” US President Joe Biden or “annoy” him. He wanted to show that he was “giving up” on Biden because he had other options, exactly like Saudi Arabia. All this was just revenge because Biden hadn’t yet invited him to the White House. It would be a serious “strategic mistake,” some have warned, Israel risks paying a high price, this was a betrayal of the American alliance, no less, and so on and so forth. It was easy to foresee these lamentations, so Netanyahu insisted at the start of the controversy that Israel’s alliance with America was ironclad, stronger than ever and that America was irreplaceable.
Five months of the most profound political crisis in Israel’s history has narrowed the vision of many. Beyond the mass demonstrations, the growing rifts in Israeli society, and the threats and insults, the rest of the world had disappeared for many Israelis – except of course, for the shadow of Israel’s big, disapproving protector, America. During these months of turmoil, China entered the Middle East with swifter and larger political strides than any other foreign country had ever done in peacetime. China’s president traveled to Saudi Arabia to greet the 21 leaders of the Arab world and offer them support. Soon after, he hosted the Iranian president in Beijing and reassured him too of China’s solidarity. Then China announced it had brokered a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran after seven years of hostility, and finally, Beijing received the aging Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas like a king, repeated China’s unwavering support for the just claims of the Palestinians and proposed China as the most appropriate peace mediator with Israel. During these visits, Israel was rarely mentioned by name. It was mildly criticized but never threatened.
Israel’s media treated these events as a continuation of the foreign noise that often accompanies the country’s internal commotion. However, while Israel’s public showed little interest in China, the Chinese showed interest in Israel. An INSS research report found that the Chinese media continually reported on Israel’s internal strife. This was unusual. Generally, the Chinese media do not like to emphasize civil unrest and mass protests in foreign countries lest the Chinese people be exposed to “inappropriate” ideas. But it seems that Israel’s image in the eyes of the Chinese leadership was changing, and reporting on these troubles was a sign of that. Was Israel still the strong, united country that could rely on American assistance in all circumstances? Was Netanyahu still in the driver’s seat?
This is why Netanyahu must visit President Xi. He could mention an old Chinese proverb to his host: “Cross the river slowly by feeling the stones.” He could add that Israel is still one of these stones, and a very big one. River crossers are warned to be cautious lest they hurt themselves. While Arab and Muslim leaders are meeting Xi on an almost monthly basis, Netanyahu hasn’t met with him since 2017, nor has any other Israeli leader.
Six years is a long time in a fast-changing world. Particularly in this case: Xi has amassed powers like no Chinese president since Mao Zedong. He dictates China’s foreign policy. He decided many years ago, after listening to his many Arab visitors, that Palestine was the unsolved root problem of the Middle East. He has said so many times since. Not everyone in China agrees, but no one will contradict Xi. The space for dissent in China’s top echelons has become very limited. But Netanyahu could dissent, politely.
Xi is not hostile to Jews or Judaism. He once denounced the rise of antisemitism in Europe and praised the Jewish contribution to the civilizations of the world. Xi and Netanyahu could find some historical common ground. Xi often refers to China’s past “humiliation,” a pain that should resonate in Jewish ears. From there, it’s not a far leap to Iran’s nuclear threat, its hatred of Israel, and its denial of the Shoah.
Raising these issues with lower Chinese officials hits a brick wall. Has anybody raised them with Xi Jinping? It is unlikely that President Biden or Secretary Antony Blinken did so when they met with him. They cannot deny Netanyahu the right – no, the duty – to speak to Xi about existential fears and not only trade relations. Nobody accused the leaders of Germany, France, or other NATO countries of betraying America when they visited Beijing. Israel should not be suspected of doing so either.