Terrorism lawsuit clouds Chinese Israel visit

Foreign minister meets Netanyahu amid allegations Beijing pressured Tel Aviv to block testimony

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 December, 2013, 4:06am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 December, 2013, 4:06am


Foreign Minister Wang Yi has paid a rare visit to Israel, reflecting the burgeoning trade ties between the two countries.

But the trip - the first by a Chinese foreign minister since 2009 - was clouded by fresh accusations that Israel's prime minister had compromised the global "war on terrorism" under Chinese pressure.

Wang's visit came as the family of a Jewish-American teenager killed in a suicide bombing accused Israel of caving in to Chinese pressure by blocking the testimony of a key witness in a terrorism case against the Bank of China. In an awkward welcome for the Chinese official, details of the case splashed across the front pages of Israeli newspapers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made relations with China a priority. In May, he led a large delegation to China, meeting top political and business officials and agreeing with his counterparts to establish a "task force" to improve trade ties.

In broad terms, Israel is a tiny trade partner for China. Bilateral trade is expected to be about US$8 billion this year, compared to US$6.7 billion in 2010, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

But China is interested in many technologies where Israel is considered a world leader, such as water recycling, desalination, agriculture and health and medicine, providing great potential for Israeli companies.

"Our two economies are highly complementary, and the mutually beneficial co-operation between us enjoys a very bright future," Wang added.

Neither man mentioned the BOC case, which has emerged as a sticky issue in relations. The bank denies any wrongdoing and is fighting the case.

The families of some two dozen people killed in Palestinian suicide bombings are suing the state-owned Chinese bank in a US federal court, saying it facilitated the transfers of millions of dollars by Palestinian militant groups to fund deadly attacks. They claim these transactions took place even after Israeli officials asked China to halt the transfers. The family of one 16-year-old American boy killed said that Israel encouraged them to file the lawsuit, promising the assistance of a former counterterrorism official.

Last month, Israel said the official who participated in meetings with the Chinese would not be allowed to testify, citing unspecified security concerns.

The case could embarrass Netanyahu, who has long portrayed himself as a leading voice in the global war on terrorism.

Yitzhak Shichor, a China specialist at the University of Haifa, said the apparent about-face highlighted the importance that Israel placed on ties with China.

"China is no regular country," he said. "Netanyahu is no different from anyone else - no one wants to annoy the Chinese."