TEL AVIV, Israel – It's no secret that Israeli-American relations are under strain. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Barack Obama's Oval Office last week may not have been as tense as last year's, but the two leaders' uneasy body language and discordant messaging have made it clear their relations remain, at best, professional.
But while Israel's relationship with its longtime squeeze may have turned chilly, the Jewish state has discovered an unlikely candidate with which to forge a new special relationship: China.
Netanyahu may have needed a few takes to nail down his Mandarin delivery, but there he was, in late January, wishing the Chinese people a happy Year of the Dragon. "We are two ancient peoples whose values and traditions have left an indelible mark on humanity," he gushed. "But we are also two peoples embracing modernity, two dynamic civilizations transforming the world."
The message was promptly mirrored on the other side. "As two ancient civilizations, we have a great deal in common. Both of us enjoy profound histories and splendid cultures," Gao Yanping, China's ambassador to Israel, told an Israeli newspaper a few days later.
Gao was even more poetic on the Chinese Embassy's website. "Our relations are shining with new luster in the new era," she wrote. "It is my firm belief that, through our joint efforts, Sino-Israeli relations will enjoy wider and greater prospects!"
As they mark 20 years of diplomatic relations, China and Israel are exchanging far more than florid praise. Bilateral trade stands at almost $10 billion, a 200-fold rise in two decades. China is Israel's third-largest export market, buying everything from telecommunications and information technology to agricultural hardware, solar energy equipment, and pharmaceuticals.
At least 1,000 Israeli firms now operate in China, home to a massive $10 billion kosher food industry that sends much of its output to Israel. Last September, the Israeli government announced Chinese participation in a rail project that would allow overland cargo transport through Israel's Negev desert, bypassing the Suez Canal. Two months later, the Chinese vice minister of commerce announced the two countries were mulling a free trade agreement.
China's links with the Jews stretch back at least a millennium. The central city of Kaifeng retains a tiny Jewish community, the remnant of merchants from Persia and India who passed through around the 10th century. In the 1930s and 1940s, China was a safe haven for nearly 20,000 Jews fleeing Europe from the Nazi menace -- a shared history Chinese and Israeli officials often cite with pride. China's Jewish population swelled to almost 40,000 by the end of World War II, though most left after the war for Israel or the West.