In Search of Patrons, Israel Looks to Rising Power

Israel can’t replace its alliance with the United States, but China could be an important partner.

Premier Li Keqiang of China welcomes his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Bejing, May 8, 2013
Premier Li Keqiang of China welcomes his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Bejing, May 8, 2013 (GPO/Avi Ohayon)

For Israel to exist, so the early Zionists argued, it needs support from a powerful patron. They first looked to the Ottoman Empire. That didn’t work out. Then the British came. The results were… mixed. Now, Israel is allied to America.

Quite what would have happened if the Zionists had aligned themselves with the Palestinian population against whatever imperial hegemon happened to be dominating the region we will never know.

That isn’t as far fetched as it may sound. After Israel’s foundation, left-wing Zionists proposed to arm the Palestinians in the West Bank to strike at the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan.

Jewish and Arab fighters against the common enemy: British imperialism and its Hashemite stooges. If there’s one thing Zionists and Arab nationalists can agree on it’s probably a distrust of perfidious Albion.

Alternative history aside, Israel now has a special relationship with the United States that is extremely beneficial to it.

But that could change.

Much has been written about the rise of China and America’s gradual withdrawal from the Middle East. What follows doesn’t seek to replicate that geriatric formula.

The point is not that China will step into America’s role any time soon.

For a start, it seems unlikely that China will be able to match the United States in terms of military prowess and international support.

And there is considerable debate as to whether China’s leaders actually aspire to a global projection of power.

Whether China’s ambitions can and will match the senior superpower is not the point — for China’s economic clout alone makes it powerful. Quite how this power is going unfold in the next decade or so is uncertain.

So Israel (along with Britain) has been cultivating close links with China.

There is a new joint Sino-Israeli robotics initiative which is part of China’s crucial shift away from being the world’s workshop to a consumer economy with modern industries and services. CreditEase China, a microfinance company, has raised $30 million to invest in Israeli technology companies. And Chinese businesses are helping out with a light rail project in Tel Aviv.

As previously noted, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has had some success in forcing Western companies to abandon their investments in Israel. Chinese companies face no such domestic opposition. Shareholder and bosses in China’s infrastructure sector can comfortably cheer on the Western activists.

China is investing in Israeli companies too. The Tnuva Group, a food and dairy cooperative, has been bought by a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

And on the human level, Israel expects some 20,000 Chinese construction workers to enter the country. Given that there are currently only 6,000 foreign construction workers (around half of whom are Chinese), this would be a significant influx.

Despite this, China remains quite hostile to Israel diplomatically. Matan Vilnai, Israel’s ambassador to China, told Intermountain Jewish News earlier this year that this has something to do with its dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

The Chinese must be aware of energy sources, especially the importance of supplies from the Arab nations [some 60 percent of China’s energy comes from Arab countries]. It is because of the energy that they remain on the other side and traditionally support the Arabs.

As economic ties in other industries grow, though, China’s diplomatic hostility could change. But the ways in which Israel has been able to safeguard its relationship with the United States aren’t easy to replicate in China. Lobbyists in America can rely on an activist Zionist base, support from Christian Zionists and sympathetic media outlets.

Influencing China may be more similar to the early Zionist movement’s attempts to woo the British. A more subtle business to be sure but if successful it could win Israel two big brothers on the international scene.

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