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Zoabi had voted against key government-backed legislation

In first for Arab woman, Meretz MK appointed Israeli Consul General in Shanghai

‘It is a great privilege to be the first Arab woman to serve in such a senior diplomatic role,’ says Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi; move seen as also shoring up coalition stability

MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi attends a Knesset committee meeting in Jerusalem on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi attends a Knesset committee meeting in Jerusalem on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lawmaker Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, of the dovish Meretz party, was appointed Israel’s Consul General in Shanghai, China, on Tuesday, the first Arab woman to head an Israeli diplomatic mission.

While the move was hailed as an important step in advancing members of Israel’s Arab minority, it was largely seen as an effort to get Zoabi out of the Knesset, where she has undermined the stability of the coalition on several occasions.

“MK Rinawie Zoabi comes with rich managerial experience and a diverse and impressive economic and public service background,” Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement announcing the appointment.

“I wish her success, and I’m sure that she will lead Israel’s Consulate General in Shanghai to new and important achievements,” he added, noting “the importance of China in general and of Shanghai in particular to the global economy.”

“Our economic ties with China are an important growth engine for the Israeli economy and must continue to be promoted,” he said.

Thanking Lapid, Zoabi said it was a “great privilege to be the first Arab woman to serve in such a senior diplomatic role.”

She said she was “pleased to be able to contribute to the important task of strengthening our economic, commercial, and cultural cooperation with one of Israel’s most significant economic partners.”

While Lapid and Zoabi both highlighted the importance of China to Israel’s economy, sources said the move was more about internal politics.

New Knesset member Rinawie Zoabi seen at the Knesset , ahead of the opening Knesset session of the new government, on April 05, 2021. Photo by (Olivier Fitousi/Flash90)

Zoabi has been a thorn in the side of the coalition, which rules by a razor-thin majority, withholding her vote on several occasions to torpedo key legislation, including a recent bill on conscripting the ultra-Orthodox.

With Zoabi heading to China, she will be replaced in the Knesset by Kati Piasecki, currently a member of the Bat Yam City Council.

“Lapid took action to improve the chances of making it to the rotation and reduce the risks along the way,” a source involved in the decision told the Haaretz website, referring to Lapid becoming prime minister under a coalition rotation agreement with Naftali Bennett.

“This move was a win-win for Lapid,” another source said told Haaretz. “He promoted an Arab woman to a senior diplomatic post, and he also got a worthy new MK in the Knesset, Kati Piasecki, who will strengthen the coalition instead of undermining it.”

Zoabi has also voiced strong opposition to military operations carried out by Israel.

Last year, following an exchange of fire between the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon, and the Israel Defense Forces, she said “[Prime Minister Naftali Bennett] knows that if the government goes to a military confrontation, the coalition will fall because Meretz and Ra’am will not agree to such a thing.”

She added: “My position is very clear. I support peace and I strive for peace, and for me, peace is not just a slogan.”

Nevertheless, Zoabi is expected to face unique challenges in her role, as China’s growing economy is forcing Israel to reposition itself politically and economically with the rising superpower.

Data published by Israel’s National Bureau of Statistics in January indicated that in 2021 China became Israel’s largest source of imports, surpassing even the United States.

A cargo ship at Ningbo-Zhoushan Port in Zhoushan, in the Zhejiang Province of China, January 19, 2022. (Yao Feng/VCG via Getty Images/JTA)

Israel imported $10.7 billion in goods from China throughout 2021, compared with $7.7 billion the previous year, a nearly 40-percent increase.

Recently, Israel and China held a joint committee on innovation cooperation, led by Lapid and China’s Vice President Wang Qishan. The committee agreed to a three-year plan to regulate cooperation and government-to-government dialogue between the countries through 2024.

While gradually strengthening ties with Beijing, the Israeli government has also notified the Biden administration that it will keep the White House in the loop regarding significant deals it strikes with China and is prepared to reexamine such agreements if the US, Israel’s closest ally, raises opposition.

Zoabi, 49, is a prominent activist for Arab Israeli rights and businesswoman who served as executive director of the Injaz Center for Professional Arab Local Governance. She was named in 2018 as one of the 50 most influential women in Israel by Forbes. Zoabi made headlines ahead of entering the Knesset when she told the Kul al-Arab network that she’d abstain in a vote banning gay conversion therapy “out of respect” for the Arab public from which she came. Later that day, the party released a video of a somber Zoabi assuring voters that she would in fact support such legislation and back every effort in support of LGBT equality.

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