China Defends Stance in First Talk With Israel After War Starts

China made its first public contact with Israel since last weekend’s attack by Hamas, hours after the Israeli ambassador called on Beijing to engage in talks around the conflict.

(Bloomberg) — China made its first public contact with Israel since last weekend’s attack by Hamas, hours after the Israeli ambassador called on Beijing to engage in talks around the conflict. 

Zhai Jun, China’s special envoy on Middle East issues, said the country condemns actions that lead to the death of civilians, according a Foreign Ministry statement on his call with an Israeli foreign ministry official. China is also willing to work with the international community toward peace talks, it said.

“China has no selfish interests on the Palestinian issue and has always stood on the side of peace, fairness and justice,” the statement said. 

The statement also cited the Israeli foreign affairs official as saying that Israel will step up efforts to protect Chinese citizens in Israel. Three Chinese nationals had been killed and two went missing in the attacks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing on Thursday. Several other Chinese nationals were injured.

Israel’s ambassador to China called on Beijing earlier Thursday to leverage its close relationship with Iran to rein in Hamas, saying the government needed to be engaged in talks around the conflict.

“We really hope China can be much more involved in talking to its close partners in the Middle East and particularly Iran,” Irit Ben-Abba told Bloomberg TV in an interview Thursday. “Iran is definitely very much involved in what has happened.” 

Ben-Abba’s remarks come as China’s willingness to entangle itself in some of the region’s most intractable conflicts has come under scrutiny. A US senator confronted President Xi Jinping this week about his government’s failure to condemn the surprise Oct. 7 strike by Hamas on Israel that killed hundreds of civilians. 

While China’s Foreign Ministry later said it was “saddened” by the casualties, Beijing hasn’t criticized Hamas in its statements, only saying that the Asian country is a “friend to both” sides of the conflict. 

China until recently didn’t have a record of negotiating peace deals. That changed when in March it helped broker a tentative detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, after years of diplomatic deadlock between the historic rivals. The deal marked a departure from Beijing’s long-stated reluctance to involve itself in foreign disputes.

The Chinese official on Wednesday pushed for a cease-fire in a phone call with a foreign affairs official from the Palestinian Authority, according to a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

That meeting followed a call between Zhai and an Egyptian counterpart on Tuesday, during which he called for humanitarian support for the Palestinian people.

China’s complex history with the Israel-Palestine conflict dates back decades. During Communist Party founder Mao Zedong’s rule, China recognized the Israeli state, but was more sympathetic toward the Palestinians as Mao saw them as victims of imperialism.

Beiing’s relations with Israel remained tense through the Cold War, as the latter emerged as a key US ally. That began to change, though, as China opened up and showed economic interests in Israel’s developments in technology and defense. Now bilateral trade with Israel totals some $22.1 billion, according to 2022 statistics from the International Monetary Fund.

More than half of Israel’s exports to China are electric components including microchips, according to a June paper by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

That trade with Israel is crucial as the US urges its partners to implement curbs on Beijing’s access to cutting-edge technology. Intel Corp. abandoned a $5.4 billion deal in August to acquire Israel’s Tower Semiconductor Ltd. after failing to win Chinese regulatory approval in time as rising geopolitical tensions slow down that process.

Ben-Abba said Israel and China have a “good” relationship, adding that they enjoy a “special partnership” on innovation. The diplomat said she didn’t see any direct impact on bilateral trade from the unfolding situation.

“Of course, we have to see what is going to happen in the Middle East as a whole,” she said. “We are in a state of war at the moment.”

(Updates with Chinese envoy’s phone call with Israeli official in first to fourth paragraphs, tweaks throughout.)

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