Netanyahu set to visit China next month, in trip seen likely to annoy Biden

Visit shows prime minister has other diplomatic options, Israeli source says, as US President Biden has made clear he won't invite Israel's premier in the near future

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and China's President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands ahead of their talks at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, on March 21, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Etienne Oliveau)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to visit China next month, signaling growing impatience with Washington, as Beijing increasingly throws its weight around in the region, Israeli sources said Monday.

While there, the premier is slated to meet with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders. Advanced contacts have been held in recent days between the two leaders’ offices to arrange the visit, the sources said.

No dates for the trip were given and no plans for a visit have been announced by Jerusalem or Beijing. The Prime Minister’s Office said it had “no comment at present” when contacted. The Chinese embassy in Tel Aviv did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.

The visit is intended, among other reasons, to signal to Washington that Netanyahu has other diplomatic opportunities to pursue, Israeli diplomatic sources told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site on Monday.

US President Joe Biden has publicly kept Netanyahu at arm’s length; in March, he said Netanyahu would not be invited in the near term, in the context of the swirling protests in Israel against the government’s plans to remake the judiciary.

“Netanyahu is not going to stand and wait for an invitation that is not forthcoming to visit the White House. He is also working in parallel channels,” one diplomatic source said.

“China has stepped up its involvement in the Middle East of late, and the prime minister needs to be there in order to represent Israel’s interests,” the source added.

China brokered the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March.

It is believed that Netanyahu will try to advance relations with Saudi Arabia with the help of China, a move that would be likely to cause displeasure in Washington, which has been urging normalization.

In recent weeks, US officials have pointed to actions by Netanyahu’s government, such as settlement approvals, that were pushing Riyadh away.

China has also stepped up its dealings with the Palestinian Authority. Hosting PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing last week on an official visit, it presented Abbas with a new Chinese plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Senior sources described Netanyahu’s imminent trip as “framework-breaking.” The US has long held major sway in the Middle East, with Israel as one of its most important allies in the region.

A pivot to China could shift that relationship, but prove a major boost for Beijing’s influence over the Middle East. By hosting Netanyahu, Xi will seemingly broadcast China’s seriousness about engaging in the region and its interest in a new relationship with Israel.

Ties between Jerusalem and Washington have suffered under the current government; the Biden administration has been increasingly outspoken in its criticism of Israel’s policies in the West Bank as well as the judicial overhaul that critics say will weaken democracy.

Despite the criticism, the US has taken little action against Israel, though the lack of a Netanyahu invite is seen as a sign of its displeasure.

The sources noted that President Isaac Herzog is set to visit the White House in three weeks’ time, which could somewhat balance the picture in terms of ties with the United States. Though a figurehead, Herzog has taken a more active role in foreign policy matters than many of his predecessors.

Related: Having given up on the US, Palestinians look to China to mediate peace with Israel

Netanyahu last visited China, at the head of a large trade delegation, in March 2017. Abbas visited four months later.

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