Shalom, Beijing

Israel and China just celebrated 20 years of friendship. But will this new special relationship come to the breaking point over Tehran?

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.

Israel and China are almost the same age: The Jewish state was born in 1948, the People's Republic a year later. But though Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Mao Zedong's communist regime, it would take more than four decades for the favor to be returned. That lag stemmed not from any ideological opposition to Israel (both Mao and his nationalist predecessor, Sun Yat-sen, were favorably disposed to Zionism), but the calculation that China had more to gain from friendly ties with Arab and Islamic states than with an embattled and economically feeble Jewish enclave.

Relations started to warm in the late 1970s, however, when -- following China's rupture with the Soviet Union and its establishment of ties with the United States -- Beijing started cultivating secret links with the Israeli military. Israel had routed the Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War and suddenly found itself with enormous stockpiles of Soviet weaponry seized from its enemies. China's weapons were also Soviet-made, and Israeli technicians quietly helped Beijing modernize thousands of its rusting tanks.

The secret partnership grew throughout the 1980s -- extending beyond military ties into agriculture and high technology. The 1991 Madrid peace conference launched the peace process between Israel and its neighbors and provided the push for China's establishment of official relations with Israel a year later.

Since then, Hebrew-language and Jewish studies centers have sprung up in universities nationwide. Indeed, one of the more curious elements in the Israel-China alliance is the latter's widespread fascination with Jews. Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud are iconic figures in the country, and in the 1950s the Chinese communist government issued a postage stamp bearing the visage of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. 

Many Chinese believe Jews to be highly intelligent and possessing an uncanny business sense. The bookshops of Beijing and Shanghai are stacked with titles like Jewish Business Sense and The Ancient and Great Jewish Writings for Getting Rich. Even the Talmud, the ancient text of Rabbinic law and commentary, is widely believed to be a sort of divine business manual. Travelers to Taiwan can stay in the Talmud Business Hotel, where rooms are "named after world famous successful individuals such as [Conrad] Hilton, [John D.] Rockefeller, [Alan] Greenspan, [George] Soros, [Warren] Buffett and Bill Gates" (only Greenspan and Soros are actually Jewish). Each room boasts a copy of the Talmud-Business Success Bible -- "for anyone who would like to experience the Talmud way of becoming successful."

In China, myths of Jewish wealth and influence have rarely engendered envy or malice. Instead, in a country hurtling toward a market economy, they have forged a uniquely Chinese form of philo-Semitism. The same legends may partly explain China's initial eagerness to court the Jewish state -- a ticket, it believed, to winning over America's supposedly all-powerful "Jewish lobby."

Those illusions began to dissolve in 2000, when U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration put the kibosh on Israel's planned $1 billion sale to Beijing of its Phalcon airborne warning and control system. Washington feared China's acquisition of cutting-edge radar equipment could destabilize the entire Pacific region, and it threatened to downsize its annual aid to Israel if the sale went through. Five years later, George W. Bush's administration pressured Israel to cancel the sale of drone aircraft and surface-to-air missiles to China, prompting furious denunciations from Beijing over American "carping."

Since then, Israel has barred its companies from selling China any kind of high-tech military equipment that might aggravate relations with Washington. Nevertheless, despite the ban, intergovernmental ties and intelligence-sharing have flourished. Ehud Barak visited China in June 2011 -- the first Israeli defense minister to do so in a decade. Gen. Chen Bingde, head of the People's Liberation Army's General Staff, landed in Israel two months later in the first-ever visit of a Chinese military chief to Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv. The exact purpose of Chen's visit remains unclear; the Chinese Defense Ministry said only that he had arrived to "deepen understanding, enhance friendships, expand consensus and promote cooperation."

As Chinese-Israeli cooperation deepens and expands, one issue is becoming harder to avoid: Iran. China is Iran's largest destination for exports -- it buys 80 percent of Iran's oil -- and its second-largest source of imports (barely edged out by the trade hub of Dubai). Chinese trade with Iran is valued at over $30 billion -- at least three times larger than Chinese trade with Israel -- and is projected to reach $50 billion by 2015. And with sanctions edging Western companies out of Iran, China has rushed in to fill the void: At least 100 state-run companies now operate in the Islamic Republic, many heavily invested in its fuel and infrastructure industries.

The Chinese officially support a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, but have dragged their feet in condemning Tehran's move toward weapons-grade uranium enrichment. They grudgingly voted in favor of all U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Iran, but each time expressed reservations over the imposition of sanctions and urged more time be given for negotiations.

"China only agreed to sanctions that don't apply real pressure on Iran -- namely, those that don't touch its financial or energy sectors," says Yoram Evron of the University of Haifa and the Institute for National Security Studies. "China's participation might have given the sanctions legitimacy, but it has effectively weakened international pressure."

"The Chinese want to irk the Americans," adds Yitzhak Shichor, also of the University of Haifa. "If, for example, the U.S. says it wants to sell arms to Taiwan, the Chinese can do nothing but weep and wail -- instead they react on the Iranian front."

For years, Israeli officials have attempted to convince Beijing to change course on Tehran. In February 2010, a high-level Israeli delegation again traveled to China, ostensibly to reiterate the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. This time they tried a different tack: explaining the consequences of an Israeli strike on that program -- a prospect they described as inevitable should sanctions fail. "They really sat up in their chairs when we described what a preemptive attack would do to the region and on oil supplies they have come to depend on," an Israeli official said at the time.

The campaign appears to have paid off, and by mid-2010, China's tone had perceptibly changed. In June of that year, when the Security Council slapped Iran with a fourth round of sanctions, Beijing abandoned its initial opposition and ultimately backed the resolution, saying it supported a "two-way method" of continued talks alongside harder sanctions. This January, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued an unusually blunt warning that his government "adamantly opposes" Iran's nuclear-weapons drive.

China's apparent shift has not gone unnoticed in Tehran. In 2010 Ali Akbar Salehi, then head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, cautioned that "Beijing might gradually lose its respectable status in the Islamic world and wake up when it is already too late."

These days, China's diplomatic waltz -- keeping one foot in Tehran and the other in Tel Aviv -- is beginning to look increasingly awkward. As the People's Republic discovers the Jews, it should remember an old Yiddish proverb: You can't dance at two weddings at once.

Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images


No Refuge

Syrians fleeing the massacre back home battle boredom, callous foreign governments, and growing religious rifts.

BOHSIN, Turkey — The dull thud of the Syrian military shells woke me in the Bohsin refuge camp at about three in the morning.

Across the tent, Wasim Sabbagh, a Syrian Christian from the province of Homs, did not stir. But across the Orontes River, which separates Turkey and Syria, people were dying as we slept, in numbers impossible to verify because the Syrian government denies independent observers access to the country. The United Nations says that "well over" 7,500 people have lost their lives during the yearlong uprising.

Life in the refugee camp -- a life spent hoping President Bashar al-Assad will soon fall -- has become routine. Sabbagh's friends compare the different brands of tuna provided to them by Turkish aid workers, watch the pigeons one man keeps in a homemade cage, and, of course, follow the latest horrible news from inside Syria.

For many months, Syrian refugees who work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were allowed to go and come as they pleased. But according to refugees and activists, in the past several days -- as Syrian tanks and military vehicles appeared on the border -- Turkish officials have begun more aggressively controlling the refugees. The activists say that they have been warned that those without prior approval to send humanitarian aid across the border would be detained and sent to a camp for troublesome refugees.

"We are afraid," says a refugee from the northern city of Jisr al-Shughour. Initially, he had been relieved when he arrived in Turkey nine months ago, but now he feels trapped and unsure what to do next. "We don't look at [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan as the whole government. I am not defending Erdogan, but this is the reality. We confirm there is a secret relation between the Turkish security forces and the Syrian security forces."

Like so many of their kin in Syria, the approximately 11,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey are struggling to survive a conflict that has turned increasingly bloody and defined by sectarian loyalties. The refugees' numbers appear likely to grow as Assad's security forces escalate their crackdown. Following the regime's assault on the restive city of Homs, U.N. officials warned that as many as 2,000 Syrians were preparing to flee to Lebanon. And with Syria's northern governorate of Idlib looking like the next arena for a confrontation between Assad and the opposition, Turkey could be in store for another influx of refugees.

The smuggling routes to Turkey are also coming under increased pressure as Assad clamps down on Syria's north. Local smugglers, who bring supplies into Syria and the wounded out, are charging between $500 and $1,000 per person to get journalists into the country. When the Syrian military reinforced the border area, some smugglers disappeared. A local FSA commander says he does not need more journalists -- he needs guns.

Sabbagh, like many caught up in this war, wants to know why the world hasn't done more to end Syrians' suffering.

"Why is the international community silent? Do the Syrian people have tails?" Sabbagh says. One day, he bent over and suddenly vomited on the side of the road. The cause, most likely, is a mixture of stress and cold.

Sabbagh's camp of 1,700 people is all Sunni except for himself, he says. The refugees know the international community is wary of regional sectarian conflict, but incorporating Syria's minority groups into the revolution is easier said than done.

"The regime is using the Alawite people to kill the other people; it's a normal reaction toward this," Sabbagh says of Sunni-Alawi sectarian violence. "They are killing just because they are Alawites. We have the right to say the Alawites are killing the other people."

Born in the town of Kattinah, Sabbagh fled Syria after intense persecution by the security forces in 2000. He was first persecuted, he says, when he refused to become a junior member of the Baath Party in high school. Later, he was again arrested and accused of starting a religious movement after teaching children English in a church. The persecution continued, he says, after he was conscripted into the military. After a number of years abroad in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, he applied for political asylum in the United States.

The Syrian uprising began as Sabbagh's asylum case was under consideration. He flew to Turkey with an aim to travel overland back to Kattinah to be with his family -- but was advised, when he arrived at the border, that he had little chance of arriving in his hometown alive. "I went to Turkey because I don't trust the Lebanese ... and also the Syrian security forces have a long arm in Lebanon," he says.

Frustrations run high. The refugees openly acknowledged the failure of the opposition to unite, and they laugh at Col. Riad al-Asaad, the defector who claims to head the FSA from another Turkish refugee camp because he is controlled by the Turkish government and unable to actually lead fighters.

"They are just sitting and doing nothing," a refugee says of Asaad and the other defected officers in Turkey who claim to lead the FSA. "They can't do anything because they are not allowed."

The disparity between the fractious opposition-in-exile and the reality on the ground also provokes resentment in the refugee camps. As members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is intended to be a political umbrella group for Syria's opposition, hold conferences at luxury hotels in Istanbul, one FSA commander I know goes to great lengths to sneak a single box of bullets across the border under fire.

The same refugee who criticized the FSA blames the Syrian regime for sowing the seeds of division plaguing Syria's sundry opposition groups. "You are in prison all your life; you can't eat until you have permission to do it. One day you come out and find yourself the one controlling the people inside the prison," he said. "[H]ow can these people be real leaders for such a critical situation?"

The influx of refugees is also putting a strain on Turkey's resources. However, a Turkish diplomatic source based in Turkey's border province of Hatay denied that concerns over handling an increased flow of refugees was preventing Turkey from taking more aggressive action against Assad's regime. "Turkey is ready to admit all the Syrians, to admit all who are in danger, there is no limitation," he says. "We are in the preparation process for a huge camp to host 10,000 refugees."

That's a relief to only some of the Syrian refugees, despite their dismal conditions. The Syrians will soon move to a larger camp about 125 miles away from the border, where their canvas tents -- currently accumulating black mold -- will be replaced by two-room living containers complete with a bathroom and kitchen. The move is forcing the refugees who are working with the FSA to choose between returning to Syria and potentially losing their access to vital supplies gathered in Turkey, and settling in the new camp far from the border -- where they risk losing the ability to cross into Syria.

While the improvements in living conditions will no doubt be appreciated by the Syrians, the Turkish government still refuses to grant them legal status as refugees. Instead, the Syrians are "guests," a loophole that requires less legal responsibility. Offers of assistance from international humanitarian organizations have been rejected by the Turks, even when one camp was flooded and many of the refugees fell ill.

The lukewarm attitude is perhaps due both to a desire to control opposition forces and fears that the sectarianism that has fractured Syrian society will also come to Turkey. Houses in Turkey belonging to Alevis, a minority group similar to the Alawites, were recently marked with crosses by unknown perpetrators. The act of intimidation echoed the 1978 Maras Massacre, during which 105 Alevis were killed by Sunni ultra-nationalists, after their houses were marked in a similar way.

Turkey's interior minister, Idris Naim Sahin, considered both a religious Sunni and nationalist, described the event as "child's play." Meanwhile, Alawites in Antakya, the capital of Hatay Province, held multiple pro-Assad demonstrations and voiced fears for their relatives inside Syria, who they feared would suffer reprisal attacks by anti-Assad groups. They also voiced hostility toward Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has emerged as one of the Assad regime's primary international antagonists.

Dogan Bermek, president of the Federation of Alevi Foundations, says there was more religious freedom in Assad's Syria than in Turkey, and that "some people" were trying to create a religious war in both countries.

"Those who are trying to use [the] 'Arab Spring' as a tool for creating an inter-religious clash in Syria, may be attempting to widen their areas of acitvity [sic]," further warned a statement sent out by Bermek's federation.

Not everyone agrees. Louise Abdul-Kareem, 35, is an Alawite actress from the Syrian coastal city of Latakia who says that she has supported the opposition from the beginning. She fled Syria in December after constant harassment by security forces, and now lives in Cairo.

Abdul-Kareem estimates that one-third of Alawites support Assad "because they are using the regime," one-third support it "because they believe the story of armed gangs," and the remaining one-third don't believe the Syrian regime's narrative but have been cowed into silence.

More Alawites are being targeted than is being reported due to the media blackout, Abdul-Kareem claims. "The regime doesn't protect the minorities; it's another lie," she says.

Sabbagh agrees. Kattinah, his hometown, has been closely guarded by the Syrian military for months to ensure the Christians there do not show support for the opposition.

"It's a little bit complicated because of Christians themselves," Sabbagh says. "There will be no civil war, but [post-Assad Syria] will not be so easy and stable."

Sabbagh expects there to be some sectarian violence against Christians following Assad's fall -- including, he says, church bombings. It's a fear shared by many Christian religious leaders, who have thrown their weight behind Assad. Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, for example, recently warned that the Arab Spring was turning into a winter of "violence, war, destruction and killing," and that Assad's Syria represented "the closest thing to democracy [in the Arab world]."

But despite all these fears, Sabbagh is optimistic that Syrians can hold fast to their history of coexistence. And in this no-man's land, he's a reminder that many continue to confound the religious battle lines that have emerged in Syria.

"We surprised the world with our revolution," he says. "Maybe we will surprise the world with the short time Syria will stay unstable."