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In effort to placate China, Israel refrains from signing UN statement on Uighurs

Foreign Ministry says it has expressed human rights concerns regarding Xinjiang in past; Israeli diplomatic official says Jerusalem needs to balance various interests

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Zhang Jun, permanent representative of China to the United Nations, speaks during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, Pool)
Zhang Jun, permanent representative of China to the United Nations, speaks during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, Pool)

In an effort to placate China, Israel refrained from signing on to a joint statement at the United Nations last week that expressed concern over Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority, an Israeli diplomatic official told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

Forty-three countries signed on to the French-led statement, which called on China to “ensure full respect for the rule of law” in the Xinjiang region where “credible” reports “indicate the existence of a large network of ‘political reeducation’ camps [with] over a million people [who] have been arbitrarily detained.”

Among the signatories were Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Poland, Turkey, the UK and the US.

The Israeli mission received a draft of the statement beforehand, but decided against supporting the initiative, a European diplomat confirmed.

Asked for comment on the matter, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “Israel expresses its concerns about the Uighurs in various diplomatic tracks. One example of this was our signing onto the Canadian statement [on the Uighurs] in June at the Human Rights Council. Our position on the issue has not changed.”

Elaborating on the decision-making process on condition of anonymity, an Israeli diplomatic official said that Jerusalem has “other interests that it has to balance” in addition to its concern over human rights in Xinjiang.

In this September 20, 2018, file photo, an Uighur child plays alone in the courtyard of a home at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China’s Xinjiang region. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, FILE)

According to a Western diplomat, China is increasing pressure every year to dissuade UN members from signing such declarations, with moves like threatening not to renew a peace mission in a given country or preventing others from building a new embassy in China.

China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun denounced last Thursday’s joint statement as “lies” and “a plot to hurt China.”

A spokesperson for the Chinese Mission to the UN did not respond to a query as to whether it had been in touch with Israeli counterparts regarding the joint statement.

Israel signed onto a nearly identical declaration against China in June following “encouragement” from the Biden administration, an Israeli official said, while clarifying that Jerusalem supported the measure regardless.

But the government has also pushed back on some US efforts to lure it away from expanding economic ties with China, which has also been among Israel’s fiercest critics at the UN over its treatment of the Palestinians.

A senior diplomatic official briefing reporters after Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s visit to Washington earlier this month said that: “China’s importance to the Israeli economy is very significant, and we need to find a way to talk about this issue in a way that does not harm Israel’s interests.”

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 21, 2017. (Xinhua/Rao Ainmin/ via JTA)

Ahead of Lapid’s visit, a senior US State Department official told reporters that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would hold a “candid” conversation with his Israeli counterpart “over risks to our shared national security interests that come with close cooperation with China.”

Earlier this month, an Israeli official told ToI that Jerusalem is willing to modify its relationship with China, and has not shied away from criticizing Beijing’s human rights record in international forums. However, Israel, along with other allies, has been put off by US requests to reject tenders from certain Chinese companies when those same firms are operating on American soil.

Amid a US-China trade war that has ebbed and flowed in recent years under both the Trump and Biden administrations, Israel and China have seen warming relations and more interest in Israeli innovations, especially in medical tech, robotics, food tech, and artificial intelligence.

Washington’s main concerns lie in potential dual-usage technologies, where various technologies would have both civilian and military applications. At the same time, Israel has regulations in place to prevent the sale of sensitive military-related technology to China (and other countries), following a 1990s deal in which Israel had to scrap the sale of advanced airborne radar systems to China amid fierce US opposition.

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