TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming trip to China has had a mixed reception in Israel.

As Netanyahu continues to await an invitation to the White House, reports emerged this week of advanced contacts for a visit to China in the coming months at the invitation of the government in Beijing. Netanyahu confirmed the news in a briefing to American lawmakers this week. 

Initial reactions to the news ran the gamut from speculation that this was Netanyahu’s revenge on the Biden administration for embarrassing him by failing to invite him to Washington to the take that Netanyahu is hinting Israel could manage without US patronage.

Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, former Military Intelligence chief and now head of the Institute for National Security Studies, tweeted June 27 that coordinating a visit to China before the prime minister visits Washington was a gross mistake. According to Hayman’s assessment, Netanyahu's visit to China will not prompt a change of heart in the White House. In fact, he warned, it could have the opposite effect.

“The Americans are particularly furious at the so-called ‘diversification discourse’ and hints that Israel should diversify its allies and not rely solely on Washington,” Hayman wrote. “In the midst of a fierce struggle between the US and China for global hegemony, it can cause strategic damage to the Israel-US alliance."

In an interview with Maariv, former Justice Minister Gideon Saar, currently a member of the Knesset opposition, also argued, "A visit to China at such a time, especially after Iran's political blitz in the Middle East, which is supported mainly by China, seems puzzling, even without getting into the American context of the issue." 

Criticism of the move was even harsher behind closed doors. "The Americans are by far our most important allies in the world. Israel can exist without all the other alliances but will have a very difficult time without the United States," a very senior former Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "The Americans are also good at taking revenge and holding a grudge, they hate subversion and hypocrisy, and an event like this in which Netanyahu pokes President Biden in the eye in the midst of an American-Chinese confrontation could prompt a dramatic American response.” 

The source recalled past clashes with Washington over China, such as when Israel contracted with Beijing in 2003 to upgrade Harpy assault drones it had sold the Chinese in the mid-1990s. Under US pressure, Israel ousted Defense Ministry Director Amos Yaron. “The Americans do not hesitate to take off the gloves in these cases and make us pay in full,” he said. The source also recalled the ouster of an Israeli air force colonel, Aviam Sela, who was found to have recruited US spy Jonathan Pollard in the 1980s. “Netanyahu is playing with fire," he said.

Former IDF Chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, now a member of the Knesset opposition, was also critical. "Our greatest asset in the struggle against Iran is the Iranians' knowledge that the alliance between Israel and the United States is unshakable," he told Al-Monitor, "If the Iranians believe that Israel is being left on its own, even when it comes to military action, this is a very significant loss of deterrence."

However, these grim assessments may be overblown, as the prime minister's office updated the White House on the invitation from Beijing as soon as it was received a few weeks ago. Netanyahu, asked about the matter in a closed-door session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week, replied, "China's entry into the region could be beneficial for Israel in terms of maintaining the American presence in the Middle East." 

According to the prime minister's logic, the growing rivalry between China and the United States could actually force the Americans to maintain their strong presence in the region so as not to abandon it to the growing Chinese influence with Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. It has even been suggested that Netanyahu might try to harness Chinese influence to advance the normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The Biden administration may not like Netanyahu's geopolitical analysis, but on Thursday it became clear that prospects have increased of a White House invitation this year against the backdrop of advanced US-orchestrated contacts for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. At least five Israelis who have recently visited Washington say senior American officials told them that significant progress is being made in back channel talks for historic normalization between Israel and the Saudis. 

"Biden wants this very much before the elections," a very senior former Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he said, "also very much wants everything that such normalization is supposed to give him, especially American weapons and civilian nuclear enrichment technology. There is a historic moment here of a convergence of interests that could lead to the long-awaited breakthrough, provided that the extremist Netanyahu government does not sabotage the deal.”

In a related development, Israeli President Isaac Herzog will soon visit Washington to address a joint session of Congress and meet with President Joe Biden. Herzog’s visit could also play a significant role in Washington regarding contacts with Saudi Arabia. While the Israeli president’s role is largely ceremonial, Herzog has proven a deft diplomat, for example in advancing a thaw in Israel’s relations with Turkey.

The question now is whether the interests of the three leaders are strong enough to overcome the extremism of the current Netanyahu government, its policy in the territories and its treatment of the Palestinians. 

"There is no doubt that Netanyahu will do everything he can to square this circle," a senior source close to the prime minister told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. Netanyahu is the only one who might be able to convince extremists such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to pay the high price the Saudis are demanding for normalization with Israel, the official predicted.

“He wants Saudi Arabia as his legacy; he wants the Nobel Prize. He will do anything to make that happen," the official added.

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