“A walk in Israel, the land of milk and honey” is the title of a documentary series produced by the Chinese state TV channel CCTV, in collaboration with the Israeli government. Twelve episodes that amount to a declaration of love and admiration by Peking, setting the seal on a glowing situation in Sino-Israeli relations that goes far beyond normal diplomatic relations…which, incidentally, only began in 1992. When the new series was officially launched by CCTV at the end of July, Israel’s embassy in Peking warmly welcomed the state TV’s initiative as offering the Chinese people a tool for learning about “the wonders of the State of Israel and the contribution that Jewish civilisation has made to humanity.”
The making of this documentary-plug is just the latest episode in the controversial history of relations between the two countries. Despite the fact that official diplomatic relations were only initiated in 1992, it’s worth emphasising that between the late 1940s and early 1950s Israel was the first and only Middle East nation to recognise the sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China, while the Arab League nations were against admitting it to the United Nations, recognising Taiwan as the only legitimate representative of the Chinese people. Although China later sponsored the Palestinian cause in the 1980s, under-the-table relations between Tel Aviv and Peking were never broken off. Following its own lucid political vision, with the aim of contrasting the Soviet Union’s influence in the Middle East, Israel has not hesitated to supply China with sophisticated weapons: according to a 1997 report in the New York Post, in 1979 the Israeli premier Menachem Begin authorised Shaul Eisenberg – an extremely rich businessman who was also a Mossad agent – to conclude agreements with Peking for modernising the Chinese military apparatus: agreements worth ten billion dollars, aimed also at counterbalancing Soviet military might which, it should not be forgotten, was in action in Afghanistan at the time. Military collaboration between the two countries continued for over twenty years, until the United States raised its voice against Tel Aviv, which was obliged to cancel the sale of a highly advanced radar system: Israel invited China to consider this as “a family squabble” and not a crisis between the two nations. For many years Israel was one of China’s most important arms suppliers, and in exchange China not only contributed generously to Israeli prosperity but also committed itself not to sell arms to Israel’s enemies.
Over the years, commercial relations between the two nations have assumed notable dimensions: China has become Israel’s second largest trading partner after the United States, and export figures have grown exponentially in the last decade, now forecasted to top ten billion dollars in 2010. China thirsts for water as much as for petrol, and Israel is the unchallenged leader in water desalinisation and purification processes as well as in irrigation techniques, which are crucial to Chinese agriculture. It is no coincidence that the Israeli giant Netafim has decided to set up its agriculture technology industrial operations in China, betting on that huge market’s development potential. To grasp just how much influence Israel wields with China, it’s worth remembering the New York Time’s account of behind-the-scenes events leading up to the voting on UN resolution 1929 on the 9th of June 2010, concerning tougher new sanctions against Iran: contrary to previsions (indicating abstention or a contrary vote), China voted in favour. This is attributed to several Israeli missions to Peking in which “the land of milk and honey” made it clear that failure to approve the resolution would inevitably lead to a preventive attack, with heavy consequences on Iran’s petrol exports to China.
The twelve episodes of the CCTV documentary now open the door to a big boost for Israel’s tourist industry: it’s easy to foresee the boom in Chinese group bookings, all impatient to take a walk in the land of milk and honey.