Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed in Beijing Sunday afternoon for a three-day trip meant to boost bilateral tries and celebrate 25 years since Israel and China established diplomatic relations.
Netanyahu took several ministers to the Chinese capital, where he is scheduled to meet with the country’s three most senior officials: President Xi Jinping — who will host the Israeli leader for an official dinner — Prime Minister Li Keqiang, and the head of the country’s parliament, Zhang Dejiang. He will also meet with Deputy Prime Minister Liu Yandong.
But the prime minister has made clear that the focus of the trip will be boosting trade ties, evidenced by him bringing the largest-ever business delegation to the Chinese capital with him and talking up a long-sought free-trade pact.
“Israel is a country in high demand, as you can see from my past visits to Washington, Moscow and other countries and now China,” Netanyahu said from the tarmac at Ben-Gurion International Airport before taking off for Beijing early Sunday morning.
Before leaving, the prime minister addressed a simmering crisis with coalition partner Kulanu over his decision to halt the establishment of a new state-run broadcasting cooperation, which sparked talk of new elections Saturday night.
He defended his decision to put the kibosh on the new broadcaster, saying coalition agreements put communications decisions in the hands of his Likud party.
“There can’t be a situation where Likud, with 30 Knesset seats, respects every part of the coalition agreements of the small parties, including things we don’t agree with … but when it comes to our parts of the agreement, which are important to Likud and to me, that’s not respected. That’s not acceptable to me,” he said.
When asked about snap elections, he ignored the questions and boarded the plane with his wife Sara.
Netanyahu’s last visit to China was in May 2013, when he similarly met with political leaders and focused on bolstering trade, which at that point stood at $8 billion annually.
Today, China is Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia and third largest in the world, with bilateral trade volume surpassing $11 billion. That number could easily skyrocket if a long-sought free-trade agreement comes to fruition. A fresh round of talks is scheduled for July.
Netanyahu said free trade negotiations would also take place during his visit.
“We are continuing to develop new markets and to open new markets for the Israeli economy,” he said last week.
‘The biggest corporations in the world’
On Monday, the prime minister will lay a wreath at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and meet with several businessman.
Previewing the trip Thursday, Netanyahu talked up the size of the businesses run by the industrialists he will meet.
“When we say the biggest corporations in China, we sometimes say the biggest corporations in the world, or which are quickly becoming the biggest in the world,” Netanyahu said during the weekly cabinet meeting.
Each of the Chinese businessmen Netanyahu is set to meet represents companies “with turnovers of tens of billions of dollars,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Among them is the leadership of Baidu, one of the largest web services companies in the world, which is headquartered in Beijing.
Some 90 Israeli businessmen from various industries will accompany Netanyahu’s delegation, making it the largest-ever business group to join a prime minister on a foreign trip.
They will attend a business forum chaired by Netanyahu with over 500 invited guests on Tuesday.
“Like many other countries in the world — in the West, the East and even in our region — the Chinese are looking for Israeli ingenuity to help them with their security concerns, to feed their populations and to grow their economy,” said Eli Groner, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office.
“It’s been the prime minister’s policy to open up markets for Israeli companies in the East. This trip is a large step toward enabling Israeli manufacturers and service providers generate more commercial opportunities,” Groner told The Times of Israel last week. “This will not only benefit the Chinese but also help significantly grow Israel’s economy.”
Netanyahu, who doubles as foreign minister, will be accompanied by Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Economy Minister Eli Cohen, Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel was originally set to fly to Beijing as well, but the dairy agreement he was expected to sign was not finalized in time for the trip.
The Israeli ministers on Monday will sign a series of cooperation agreements with their Chinese counterparts in various fields such as aviation, education, science, health and environmental protection.
Distracted by Korea
Cohen is a member of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which is staunchly opposed to Netanyahu’s plan to scrap the establishment of the state-run broadcasting cooperation.
The trip was planned months before there was any hint of coalition trouble, but Beijing’s attention may also be elsewhere, with Netanyahu landing just as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is slated to return to the US after a weekend trip to China freighted with tensions over North Korea.
On Friday, Tillerson signaled a tougher strategy toward North Korea that leaves open the possibility of preemptive military action.
“Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended,” he said after visiting the heavily militarized border between the rival Koreas. “We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.”
During the trip, Tillerson met with Chinese officials over the possibility of US President Donald Trump meeting with Xi and discussed increasing tensions over North Korea.
When the prime minister’s delegation returns to Israel on Wednesday, Groner, who co-chairs the China-Israel joint economic task force, will travel to Guangzhou to represent Israel at the BOAO Forum for Asia, one of the continent’s most important economic conferences.
“In terms of magnitude, it’s like Davos,” Groner said, referring to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Switzerland.
“People are familiar with Davos because the eyes of the word have been directed westward,” he added. “But once people will start looking eastward they’ll recognize it’s one of the most important business forums in the world.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.