By Amanda Chen
As the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Iron Swords continues in the Gaza Strip, a month after Hamas’ surprise terror attack on southern Israel on October 7, this edition of the ChinaMed Observer delves into the Israeli media’s response to China’s stance on the ongoing conflict.
Beginning with an examination of how Israeli commentators reacted to the news of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned visit to Beijing, we then shift to the Israeli media perspective on China’s relations with Hamas and Iran, its possible role as a mediator, and, finally, the foreseeable trends in Sino-Israeli relations.
Before the Attack
In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted the President of the State of Palestine and the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in Beijing. Subsequently, in an attempt to maintain balance, Xi invited Benjamin Netanyahu to visit China as well, an invitation which the Israeli PM accepted. Chinese experts and others interpreted these developments as indications that China was positioning itself to play a more central role in the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially after former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang expressed Beijing’s interest in facilitating peace talks back on April 17.
According to a report by Israel Hayom, Netanyahu was initially scheduled to visit Beijing from October 28 to November 2, prior to it being canceled due to Hamas’ surprise attack. This trip was heavily criticized by the Israeli press in the months leading up to the war, with Shlomo Shamir from Maariv describing it as both untimely and unnecessary, as well as bearing detrimental “implications for our relations with the White House.”
While Washington’s unflinching support to Israel in the wake of Hamas’ attack has shown that concerns over the strength of the Israel-US relationship were unfounded, analysts, in hindsight, still agree that the Netanyahu government’s attempt to forge closer ties to Russia and China were tactical mistakes that “did not prove themselves in the moment of truth”.
China’s Position on the Conflict
In a phone conversation with his Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen on October 23 to discuss the conflict, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that: “All countries have the right to defend themselves, but they must comply with international humanitarian law and protect the safety of civilians.”
However, Israeli commentators were hardly satisfied by this position. In their eyes, the official statements from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressing concern over the violence in Israel and Gaza and urging de-escalation without mentioning nor openly condemning “the terrorist organization despite its atrocities”, show that despite:
“Netanyahu’s attempts to get closer to Beijing, in the moment of truth China stuck to its traditional stance in favor of the Palestinians, and the appearance of Chinese objectivity in the Middle East faded.”
Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies’ Diane & Guilford Glazer Foundation Israel-China Policy Center, characterized China’s de facto position as “pro-Palestinian neutrality”. Regarding China’s response to Hamas’ attack, Gering argued that “You can’t be neutral on an issue like this – silence is like tacit consent”. According to him, “Our biggest problem, in my opinion, is that instead of fulfilling the role of the great and responsible power that it claims to be, China is exploiting the conflict for geopolitical benefits.”
Dr. Ori Sela, a senior faculty member at Tel Aviv University’s Department of East Asian Studies and a visiting senior researcher at the Glazer Israel-China Policy Center, shared a similar opinion in an article for Globes positing that China’s moves, such as its rhetorical support for Palestine and calls for a ceasefire and the establishment of a two-state solution, are “supposed to make the Arab and Muslim world feel that China is on its side.” China “attacks the United States directly – presenting it as a colonialist and hegemonic power that intervenes in conflicts that are not its own,” and “positions itself as a part or leader of the so-called ‘Global South’.”
According to Sela, as far as Beijing is concerned, neither the State of Israel nor the Palestinians are significant factors in its system of interests. Instead, China is more concerned for its position in the region vis-à-vis the US and the risks the conflict poses to its energy supply chains if it escalates into a regional war. Interestingly, Israeli and Iranian commentators’ opinions on this issue are very similar.
Indeed, China’s economic interests in the region primarily revolve around energy supplies from the Gulf states and Iran, where Chinese companies are involved in developing oil fields. Given that “one out of every three barrels of crude oil [China] consumes comes from the Middle East,” Iranian involvement in the war, destabilizing the Gulf, would significantly harm Beijing’s interests. Thus, Israeli experts ended up agreeing that the Chinese are currently benefiting from US involvement, despite Beijing’s anti-American rhetoric.
Neither with Us, nor with Hamas
Even though China’s apparent neutrality and pro-Palestinian tendency have been perceived by most Israelis as a betrayal, all experts emphasize that Beijing’s position in no way translates into support for Hamas. Instead, many went to great lengths to explain that “China’s shameful position” on the conflict was dictated by geostrategic interests like weakening the US’ grip on the global agenda, rather than identification or real shared interests with the Palestinian side in Gaza.
Eran Nitzan, former Israeli Economic Attaché in Washington, bluntly stated in a piece for The Marker that “although it has not condemned Hamas, and although it always works against the US position, China does not support Hamas.”
Similarly, Dr. Anat Hochberg-Marom, an expert in geopolitics, global terrorism, and international crises, emphasized in an article for Maariv that:
Notwithstanding Hamas’ responsibility in the deaths of four Chinese citizens and the wounding of many more, Hochberg-Marom argued that Beijing’s refusal to openly denounce the group must be contextualized in the wider context of its position in international fora and the United Nations, where China prioritizes the Palestinian question in discussions at the Security Council. Its support for and promotion of the Palestinian issue has earned China much credit among both Middle Eastern countries and left-wing regimes in the Global South, where according to Yoav Karni, voices in support of Israel are getting weaker and weaker.
Can China Be a Mediator?
According to Dr. Anat Hochberg-Marom, Beijing, “being the ‘friend’ of both Israel and the Palestinians,” can play a crucial role, akin to that of the US, in limiting the war and preventing further escalation. For Eran Nitzan, Beijing can achieve this due to its leverage on Iran. He argued that Tel Aviv should still take advantage of this leverage for its national interest and that of the region, despite it being difficult to forgive China’s conduct. In particular, Nitzan wrote that:
Furthermore, according to Nitzan, if China were to successfully exert its considerable weight behind the scenes to restrain Tehran and prevent it from intervening in the war, there is potential for a positive shift in the current trend of deteriorating public perception of China in Israel. This could provide a solid motivation for Tel Aviv to continue developing its relations with Beijing.
Yael Einav, a commentator for The Marker based in Shanghai, similarly emphasized the importance of bringing “the Chinese to the forefront of diplomacy and giving them a place of honor, if only because China has capabilities” and shared interests with the Americans in calming Iran and preventing the whole region from going up in flames. As she wrote:
“We should give the Chinese what they want, emphasize how important they are and how much we need them. We want the abductees back; we want Iran restrained.”
That said, China’s preference for avoiding an escalation does not necessarily guarantee its ability to prevent one. In an article for Globes, Professor Galia Peres Bar-Nathan from Hebrew University’s Department of International Relations emphasized the limits of Beijing’s room for mediation. She pointed out that although China has absolutely no desire to enter a regional war, attributed in part to its investments in Israel, one cannot ignore the fact that Iranian-backed groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas “can also have a certain independence” and, thus, may “not necessarily always do what the Iranians say”.
As the recently updated figures from ChinaMed Data show, Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in stock in Israel amounted to USD 3.4 billion in 2022, which is also the same value of Chinese FDI in Iran in the same year. Notably, although Chinese FDI in Israel did not increase from 2021 to 2022, the value remains higher than all other Gulf countries with the exception of the United Arab Emirates, where it reached USD 11.9 billion last year. Our data display the extension and penetration of Beijing’s economic interests in the Middle East, encompassing all main regional powers.
A Public Opinion Crisis
While debating China’s role in the conflict, Israeli media expressed deep concern with regard to rising antisemitic content and comments on the Chinese internet. The SIGNAL Institute reported that Chinese media rarely covered Hamas’ violent deeds, instead often highlighting and showing the Israeli bombings in Gaza without providing any context.
Additionally, observers were shocked and perplexed at Chinese netizens’ reports over the alleged disappearance of Israel’s name from the online maps of internet giants Baidu and Alibaba, especially in light of the importance Beijing attaches to its own territorial matters and borders. This brought tech reporter Ofir Dor to speculate that “under the auspices of the government, severe anti-Israel propaganda is being spread on social networks in China.”
Against this pessimistic background, it is interesting to mention the comments of Yossi Fatal, the CEO of the Bureau of Inbound Tourism Organizers, in an article that appeared on Ynet. Fatal imagined how tourism can be a means for improving bilateral relations for the two countries after the war. Despite the current public opinion crisis between the two countries, in Yossi’s view:
“Always, and especially in the period that will come after the hostilities, Israel will have to encourage tourist visits from all over the world and certainly from a country like China, whose importance is dramatic in the world. Tourists who return from Israel to their country become our most loyal and best ambassadors. Inbound tourism is the most effective means of mobilizing support for Israel and improving its image. All tourists, and the ones from China especially, are desirable and we must invest in encouraging those from China who are interested in visiting Israel.”
As our analysis reveals, Beijing’s official position on Israel’s actions against Hamas in Gaza and its pro-Palestine statements in the United Nations has led to a significant public opinion crisis in Israeli society, as reflected in the country’s media reports. Notwithstanding the shared sense of indignation and outrage, it appears Israeli experts and commentators have also felt it necessary to explain China’s stance within the framework of its geostrategic competition with the United States in the Middle East. They clarify at length that Beijing’s lack of support for Israel should not be regarded as sympathy for Hamas.
Finally, much in line with our previous analyses, the prevailing sentiment among Israeli observers is a call for Beijing to leverage its influence on Tehran to prevent an escalation of the war. This can be seen as a continuation of the region-wide debate sparked by the March 10 ‘Beijing Agreement’, which strengthened the perception of China as an emerging key player and mediator in the Middle East.
Amanda Chen is a research fellow at the ChinaMed Project.