Netanyahu confirms to US lawmakers that he is heading to China

After Times of Israel reveals plans for a trip bound to irk Biden, PM says he has kept DC updated about it: originally set for July, visit now said likely in October

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 21, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 21, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin confirmed on Tuesday that he will travel to China, and said that the US has been kept abreast of his plans.

The statement came after the planned trip was revealed Monday by Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, prompting speculation that the visit signals Netanyahu’s growing impatience with Washington.

Netanyahu made the remarks in a meeting with a delegation of US congressmen, according to a statement from his office.

“The upcoming visit will be Prime Minister Netanyahu’s fourth to China. The US administration was updated on it a month ago,” the statement said.

Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said Tuesday that they believed the trip, initially planned for July, would apparently take place in October, after the High Holidays.

Netanyahu also told the delegation that military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the US was at an all-time high and that the US would always be Israel’s principal ally.

China’s embassy in Israel did not respond to requests for comment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with a bipartisan Congressional delegation in his office, June 27, 2023 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Netanyahu has been seeking an invite to the White House but has been kept at arm’s length by US President Joe Biden, amid disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem over the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul push, policies in the West Bank and a potential interim nuclear deal between Iran and the US.

Tamir Hayman, director of the Institute for National Security Studies, said Tuesday that a visit to China would be a “serious mistake.” Hayman, a former IDF intelligence chief, wrote on Twitter that such a trip by Netanyahu is “terrible timing both tactically and strategically,” adding that “the special relationship with the US is in danger. This act could definitely cause damage.”

Former IDF military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, who is believed to be close with parts of the American defense establishment, said the move appeared to be aimed at imitating Saudi Arabia, after China brokered a rapprochement between the kingdom and Iran — an agreement seen as a signal by Riyadh that it has other diplomatic options as the US pivots away from the Middle East.

“This is a step that will harm Israeli interests and not advance them,” Yadlin wrote in a series of tweets. “If someone in the prime minister’s circle thinks it’s smart to act like [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed] bin Salman and travel to China to annoy Biden and show him that Israel has another strategic option, he’s making a serious mistake and doesn’t understand the importance of the competition between the geopolitical superpowers of the 21st century.״

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman smiles at the New Global Financial summit in Paris, June 22, 2023 (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)

Yadlin noted that unlike Israel, Saudi Arabia doesn’t receive billions annually in US military assistance, doesn’t depend on an American veto at the UN Security Council, is not reliant on US financial guarantees, and does not have the most advanced American weapons systems.

Yadlin also said in an interview with Army Radio Tuesday that he had spoken with “a very senior” Biden administration official who shrugged off Netanyahu’s planned trip.

“If the prime minister wants a serious diplomatic process with Chinese mediation, we’re in favor,” he quoted the official as saying, referring to Beijing’s offers to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

MK Danny Danon, one of Netanyahu’s most vocal critics in his ruling Likud party and a former ambassador to the United Nations, told Kol Barama Radio that he would advise the premier to hold off on meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Additionally, unnamed Israeli officials ripped Netanyahu’s proposed visit in remarks to Army Radio, calling it a “dangerous risk” and slamming the premier’s conduct as “crazy.”

“Israel is liable to become a pawn in the cold war between China and the US,” one of them said.

Planning for the trip came as ties between Jerusalem and Washington have suffered under the current government, with the Biden administration increasingly outspoken in its criticism of Israeli policies. Despite its displeasure, the US has taken little action against Israel besides the absence of an invite for Netanyahu.

While seemingly aimed at getting Biden’s attention, the visit could also potentially put Netanyahu at odds with Republicans who have taken a more hawkish stance toward China. Addressing the Knesset last month, US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy slammed China over its trade practices and human rights record, leading the Chinese embassy to accuse him of seeking “to sow discord” in Beijing’s relations with Jerusalem.

US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks at a special session of the Knesset plenum, May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Under successive administrations, Washington has expressed concern regarding Israel’s warming economic ties with China, with a US government official calling in December for Jerusalem to take greater action to defend the local tech industry from Chinese influence.

But despite 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 technologies that could have both civilian and military applications. 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 Jerusalem had to scrap the sale of advanced airborne radar systems to Beijing amid fierce US opposition.

Shalom Yerushalmi contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: