Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed on 27 June that he had been invited by the Chinese government to pay an official state visit to Beijing. The visit is likely to take place in August and will come after months of Chinese diplomatic victories in the region. As Washington’s main partner in the region, what has caused Israel to engage in dialogue with Beijing at a time of rising tensions between the US and China? What are the potential implications of improved Sino-Israeli relations for the future of the Middle East?
Netanyahu vs. Biden
The main motive behind Netanyahu’s visit to Beijing is likely to be an effort to show the White House that Israel has other options for strategic partners besides the US. Although Israel has long been one of the US’s closest allies, Biden and Netanyahu have a strained relationship. The US president has publicly criticised the Israeli prime minister for trying to undermine the independence of the Israeli judiciary, and Washington is also concerned about the far-right nature of Israel’s governing coalition. Israel’s attitude to the war in Ukraine and Netanyahu’s policy on the Palestinian issue are also a problem for the US. This is one of the reasons why Biden has not invited Netanyahu to visit the White House since he became Prime Minister. The Israeli prime minister may thus be highly motivated by the US to show that Israel has other alternatives when choosing its strategic partners. He may be inspired in this respect by the recent moves of Saudi Arabia, which has also chosen to pursue a much more multilateral policy in recent years, with the normalisation of its relations with Iran brokered by Beijing.
Impact on relations with the US
But what do these developments mean for the Israeli-US alliance? The fact that the prime minister of the most important U.S. ally in the Middle East intends to visit a major geopolitical rival of the United States may act as a harbinger of further dramatic change in the region. China certainly cannot be an equal alternative to an military alliance with the US. The Jewish state receives several billion dollars worth of military aid from the US every year and also relies on Washington’s economic and diplomatic assurances. While the United States has long supported Israel at the United Nations with its veto, Beijing regularly votes against Israel at the United Nations. Moreover, China has long cooperated with Iran, Tel Aviv’s arch-enemy, and supports the Palestinian Authority.
Thus, while the decline of the US hegemonic position in the Middle East region is inevitably reflected in the increased willingness of local countries to forge and deepen relations with other global players such as China and Russia, Israel is in a very specific position. The importance of US security, intelligence, economic and diplomatic support is still so crucial to Israel that Tel Aviv cannot replace it at the moment. Thus, any effort by Netanyahu to put pressure on the US by hinting at a possible deepening of Israel’s relations with Beijing is doomed to failure. Washington’s most likely response to the Israeli prime minister’s visit to Beijing will thus be a further intensification of its existing criticism. US-Israeli relations are thus likely to face a turbulent period, but the collapse of the long-standing alliance is not currently imminent, thanks in particular to Washington’s still indispensable role in Israel’s security.
China’s growing influence in the Middle East
China has been a major trading partner of Middle Eastern countries for decades, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. Beijing sees an opportunity to expand trade relations, maximize influence, and eventually take over the U.S. role as the chief arbiter in the Middle East after Washington decided to shift its attention elsewhere, precisely in part as a result of China’s rising power. China is in an excellent position to play this role. Despite its hegemonic position in the Middle East, the US has never been able to play the role of neutral mediator because it had clear allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and clear enemies (Iran, Hezbollah and Libya) in the region. Unlike Washington, China is willing to work with all states in the Middle East. China is a long-standing trading partner of Iran and Saudi Arabia, traditional regional rivals, and it is because of its warm relations with both states that it was able to negotiate the recent restoration of their diplomatic relations. Following this fresh success, China is moving on to resolve another conflict: the Israeli-Palestinian one.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has flared up again after a long hiatus, mainly because of the aggressive settlement policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government. For political reasons, Netanyahu needs to expand settlements in the West Bank, but at the same time he wants to achieve recognition of Israel’s sovereignty by Saudi Arabia. However, Saudi Arabia is unwilling to recognise Israel until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. The US has long tried to mediate a solution, but without success. One of the complications is also that Washington is not seen as an impartial actor, mainly because of its long-standing support and cooperation with Tel Aviv. In this respect, China is in a slightly better position. China is a long-standing trade and military partner of Israel. At the same time, however, it maintains friendly relations with the Palestinian government. China has a “strategic partnership” with Palestine, and Palestinian President Abbas last visited Beijing in June 2023. During Abbas’s visit, Xi Jingping presented China’s plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the world, and so it is possible that Netanyahu’s visit to Beijing is intended to serve as part of this first phase of negotiations. If China were able to make even minimal progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would be a huge diplomatic victory over the US. A conflict that the U.S. has been unable to adequately resolve for decades would be seemingly solved by its chief geopolitical rival. With this move, China would be able to achieve an extremely influential and lucrative position as the chief negotiator in the Middle East. However, the chances of achieving a diplomatic breakthrough in a conflict that has been going on since the mid-20th century are slim.
Photo credit: flickr.com/Prime Minister of Israel
This brief is supported by
NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division