The U.S. Role in Delaying Sino-Israeli Relations: Two's Company, Three's a Crowd*
Shichor, Yitzhak, Jewish Political Studies Review
Although by the mid-twentieth century no outstanding problems had existed between Israel and China and although both were interested in formalizing their ties, over four decades passed before diplomatic relations were finally established. The inevitable conclusion is that while bilateral issues had not been an obstacle, the interference of third parties had been responsible for the delay, notably by the United States. This interference, whose origins go back to the emerging Cold War and the so-called "loss of China," acquired momentum following the Korean War and especially after China's armed intervention. Washington applied direct and indirect pressure on Israeli representatives, including the foreign minister, some of whom did not favor relations with China anyway. These constraints caused Israel to procrastinate until Beijing began to realize the potential harbored by Arab and Muslim countries as allies against the West. By 1955, Israel's last-minute attempt to form relations with China was rejected by Beijing.
Diplomatic relations between two countries are usually abilateral issue determined by direct mutual interests either general (positive or negative cultural -historical-linguisticassociations; religious-ideological-political divergence or convergence; agreement or disagreement on sovereignty) or particular (shared ethnic minorities, border conflicts). Given these and other determinants, bilateral relations are shaped by four possibilities: A wants but B doesn't; B wants but A doesn't; both don't want; both want - in which case diplomatic relations should presumably be established. Yet this is not always the case. Sometimes two governments are fundamentally interested in forming bilateral relations but a third factor, another government or organization, or several, intervene to block or delay this option. Evidently, this third factor is more important to either A or B (or for both) than their prospective bilateral relations. Only when this third factor becomes less important, irrelevant, or weaker can bilateral relations finally be formed. Sino-Israeli relations (or lack thereof) provide a fascinating example.
By the mid-twentieth century no outstanding problems had existed between the two. They had been established within sixteen months of each other, Israel in May 1948 and the People's Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949. The two have never experienced any territorial conflict nor any historical, cultural, or religious friction. Anti-Semitism was hardly evident in modem, let alone in premodern China where Jewish communities were marginal at best, and by the beginning of the twentieth century had practically disappeared.
Governed by a leftist coalition with undisguised socialist inclinations, in the early 1 950s Israel appeared to be ideologically closer to the PRC than many Western governments. Moreover, Beijing was evidently aware that Israel was an outcome of a national liberation movement that had been engaged in a protracted struggle against "British imperialism," ultimately gaining its independence. In these early stages of the Moscow-Beijing alliance, a cardinal incentive for Beijing to form relations with Israel had been the Soviet support for the formation of Israel and the establishment of Soviet-Israeli diplomatic relations. In addition, unlike numerous Western as well as non- Western governments, Israel had never recognized the Republic of China (ROC),1 although the ROC recognized Israel in March 1949, a few months before its defeat and relocation to Taiwan. For its part, Israel was aware that during World War II China (though under Japanese rule) had provided European Jewish refugees with a safe haven. Finally, Israel was far too small to threaten China and China too far to threaten Israel.
Why, then, did it take forty -two years (from 1950 or mid-century) for the two countries to establish diplomatic relations?! The answer has to do with the interference of third parties, including the Soviet Union, the Arab and Muslim countries, but notably the United States. The latter played a major role in blocking the establishment of Sino-Israeli relations in the first half of the 1950s, the most promising as well as the most critical period for Sino-Israeli relations, until the 1990s.
Jerusalem: Recognition of a Fact, Not Fiction
On 9 January 1950, Israel became the first government in the Middle East - and the seventh in the noncommunist world - to recognize the recently inaugurated PRC. By that time the Cold War had already been launched and the United States had long identified with and supported the anticommunist policy of the ROC, ruled by China's Nationalist Party (Guomindang). Still, available documentary evidence, U.S. or Israeli, does not reveal that Tel Aviv had consulted with Washington before recognizing the PRC. It appears that Israel's representatives in the United States had not been consulted either. Eliahu Elath, Israel's ambassador to Washington, heard on the radio that Israel was about to recognize China. His opinion was that such hasty recognition would have unfavorable repercussions in friendly circles in the United States, whose aid was essential for Israel on the issues of the status of Jerusalem and arms supply.2 Earlier, Esther Herlitz, director of the United States Department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, had opposed recognizing the PRC while misinterpreting Washington's China policy as well as the global trends:
It seems to me that no one expects that the State of Israel would take the initiative on the China issue and would jump ahead with a hasty recognition of the new [PRC] government. ... it is better for the relations with the West, and particularly the United States, to wait [until] after the recognition [of the PRC] by bigger and more experienced states than us, including the United States, that is also about to take steps of de facto recognition of the new [PRC] government3 (emphasis added)
Elath's warning not to recognize the PRC came too late, on the day of recognition. In his reply, Israeli Foreign Ministry director-general Walter Eytan justified the decision stating that the recognition was supported unanimously, based on legal and objective criteria. He added that it was more convenient politically to recognize the PRC before the United States, saying that "we convinced [the] U.S.A. [that] recognition [was] only [a] matter of time and bound [to] come soon." He also mentioned that Israeli representatives in Shanghai who dealt with the transfer of Jewish property and Jewish emigration had urged Israel to recognize the PRC soon.4 Moreover, Foreign Ministry officials - who could by no means be blamed for not foreseeing the outbreak of the war in Korea and the PRCs intervention in it - believed "that China, as a permanent member of the [UN] Security Council and one of the five great powers (and it is clear that People's China is destined to inherit Nationalist China's seat also in the Security Council and it is but a question of time) deserves that we cultivate official relations with it."5
It is quite possible that the United States had been informed about Israel's general intention to recognize China, but probably not about the timing. Although this seems odd in retrospect, at that time it was understandable. Despite the growing friction between the Chinese communists and Washington, bilateral diplomatic relations were not yet ruled out. Mao Zedong was indeed in Mosco wbut the Sino-Sovi et alliance was not yet signed and, while the gap between the United States and the PRC was growing wider, a terminal break was not yet acknowledged. At that time, Israel was not as dependent on the United States as it became years later. Undoubtedly and naturally, Israeli Foreign Ministry officials in the United States were much more sensitive not only to the mutual Sino-U.S. hostility but also to the anti communist and anti -Chinese orientation of the U.S. Jewish community, than government officials at home. Unable to prevent the recognition, the sensitivity of the Israeli representatives in the United States had probably played a key role - among other factors - in delaying the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the PRC, at least until June 1950.
By that time the situation had changed completely, following the outbreak of the war in Korea. On 25 June 1950, the day the war was to begin, the Israeli Foreign Ministry recommended to the government to give an affirmative reply to the Chinese embassy in Moscow with regard to diplomatic relations. Four days earlier the Chinese chargé d'affaires in Moscow - who had probably known about the scheduled North Korean offensive against South Korea - had inquired whether Israel intended to set up a mission in Beijing.
By the end of the month the Israeli cabinet decided in principle to form official relations with the PRC but to postpone the implementation until the situation in the Far East cleared up,6 although China had not yet intervened in the war. Israel's leaning to the U.S. and UN side on the Korean conflict - and indirectly, on the China issue - prompted criticism in the Knesset, to which Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion responded: "The Government of Israel... dared to oppose the United States, dared to oppose the view of the Soviet Union, dared to oppose the view of the majority in the UN - when it perceived that the view of America, Russia or the UN is not right. . . . We voted against the Soviet Union - and we shall; we voted against America - and we shall, if our consciousness will dictate it."7
Indeed, a memorandum to Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, dated two days later, rejected the U.S. attempt to implicate the PRC in the Korean War as a mistake, and advised to "hint" in one way or another to Washington "that the events in Korea by no means change our attitude toward China,"8 namely, the earlier decision to establish diplomatic relations. Accordingly, Israel decided to support the admission of the PRC to the United Nations, recognizing it as the legal representative of China.9 On 19 September 1950, Israel did vote for the PRC (and, consequently, against the United States). At a reception he held later that evening, U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson saw Sharett. Expressing his satisfaction with the outcome, the proposal to admit the PRC having been rejected, he said that Israel had a different attitude but added: "I mustn't pry into your reasons." Articulating Israel's policy at the time, Sharett said the reasons were simple: "we have voted for a fact, not for fiction."10
Korea: The Obstacle of China's Intervention
China's intervention in Korea in mid-October seemed to have undermined this policy. Asked by a journalist in New York what would be Israel's position if the United Nations declared China an aggressor, Sharett replied that Israel, of course, would then side with the majority. He was fiercely criticized by leftist Members of Knesset.11
Initially, it appeared that in late 1950 and early 1951 the Chinese intervention in the war had indeed begun, inevitably, to affect the Israeli position toward the PRC. Diplomatic messages from Washington underlined that Israel was becoming more dependent on the United States - including its Jewish community - most of which was extremely pro-Western both economically and politically. Under these circumstances Israel could not continue presenting the United States with demands without providing something in return. Consequently, Israel's votes on 1 February 1951, in favor of the U. S. -initiated proposal to condemn China as an aggressor in Korea, were considered Israeli "awards" to Washington.12 However, still interested in relations with China, Israel was ready to send a delegation there provided the State Department would not object.13
Thus, the United States had become a factor that the Israeli foreign policymakers could no longer ignore. A memorandum sent from the Israeli mission to the United Nations to Foreign Minister Sharett mapped the differences, inconsistencies, and contradictions between Israel's UN attitudes and U.S. policy. China was one. Israel had supported the PRC representation in the United Nations, against the United States. On Korea the Israeli initiative that a ceasefire should precede comprehensive negotiations did win Chinese support but ran contrary to the American intention of imposing immediate sanctions on Beijing. Israel failed to vote for sanctions.14 Israel could by no means plead ignorance since on 4 January 195 1 it received a secret memorandum from the U.S. mission to the United Nations precisely on these topics. 15 Whether for this reason or for others, Washington was not yet sure about Israel's international outlook. A CIA document dated 24 September 1951 said: "Israel's ultimate orientation is uncertain, despite its economic dependence on the US and its stated awareness of the Soviet threat."16
Yet in November 1951 Israel again voted against the postponement of the debate on the China issue (which the United States favored), that is, for the replacement of the Republic of China by the PRC. In his own words, Abba Eban, Israel's ambassador in Washington, "was somewhat taken aback" by this vote, "in direct rejection [of] Acheson's plea." He mentioned a letter hostile to Israel in the Washington Star and plans by the Scripps-Howard media concern to publish an "article on [the] disparity between our vote and our large demands [for] U.S.A. aid." He also warned that Senator Joseph McCarthy was reportedly planning a speech against Israel. As long as American blood was still being spilled in Korea, Israel should not promote relations with China, he told Sharett - who rejected all his arguments and justified the vote.17
On the same day Sharett, then in Paris, met Acheson and said - "in the strictest confidence" - that U.S. official sources had suggested "that it would be helpful if Israel were to set up a legation in Peiping." Sharett added that "he felt that it might be of much help to the Western cause, of which Israel feels itself an organic part."18 The secretary made no comment on this suggestion during the meeting, but two days later, on 21 November, Acting Secretary of State James E. Webb cabled this message to the U.S. embassy in Paris to be forwarded to Sharett:
Since [it] appears [that] Sharett intended [to] invite our comment by informing [the] Secretary in confidence re possible establishment [of] Israel Legation [in] Peiping and particularly since Sharett implies some US official encouragement [for] this proposed step, we believe it [is] important [that the] Secretary inform him that, far from encouraging such move, we for our part believe it would be most inappropriate at [this] time when [the] Chinese Communists [are] engaged [in] active hostilities against [the] UN for any UN member to recognize Communist China or, if recognition [was] already extended, to proceed [to] establish Legation and exchange representatives. Furthermore, such action might run counter to [the] spirit [of the UN] General Assembly Resolution [of] February 1  finding Communist China an aggressor and calling all states and authorities to refrain from giving any assistance to [the] aggressor in Korea. Establishing [a] Legation in Peiping by Israel [at] this time might be considered as moral support for [the] Communist regime and as such could be construed as assistance.19 (emphasis added)
The cable added that the State Department could not identify any "sources" mentioned by Sharett "and doubts any US official encouraged Sharett as intimated." It is possible that the "sources" vaguely mentioned by Sharett were associated with the CIA: on 18 November 1951, Reuven Shiloah, the head and founder of the Central Institute for the Concentration and Coordination of Intelligence and Security Activities (later known as the Mossad), who had good relations with the CIA, wrote to the director-general of the Foreign Ministry: "I have an impression that the issue of establishing a legation in People's China is beginning to fall asleep. As far as I am concerned, it is very desirable to accelerate action."20 Evidently, there were different, conflicting, and contradictory views about Israel's relations with China, not only in Jerusalem but also in Washington, yet there was no misunderstanding about the dominant American view
Webb's above-quoted message was forwarded to Sharett in a meeting with Edwin Plitt, adviser to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, that was held in Paris on 29 November 1951. In his memorandum of the meeting, Sharett repeated all the arguments in Webb's message as presented by Plitt. He said he did not want to argue with the State Department but wished to clarify the issue with the "government source" from which the information had been obtained. He added that "perhaps it is to be regretted that we had not established diplomatic relations with China immediately after we recognized it."21
Evidently, it was in November 1951 that Sharett finally realized that relations with the PRC would not be established, certainly not before an armistice would be reached in Korea, and probably not even afterward. In a message sent to the Israeli delegation to the United Nations on 6 July 1952, Eytan told Sharett that the likelihood of an armistice in Korea revived the issue of a legation in Beijing: "If we [are] thinking seriously of this it would be better tactically to broach [the] question with the C[hinese] P[eople's] R[epublic] before [the] armistice rather than after."22 Sharett replied that the issue was not so simple. Washington was a key factor and cautious explorations he had carried out earlier indicated that Israel should wait until after the U.S. election.23 Two months later Sharett summed up Israel's China policy, while stressing the utmost importance of the United States for Israel:
The development of our relations with China was disrupted by international turbulence and complications on a world scale but mainly by the Korean War. Our initiative was always aimed at rapprochement and cooperation. In all [General] Assembly sessions we supported the admission of Communist China to the UN and did not share in leaving Formosa to represent China. We did not fear to clash on this issue with the United States policy and often irritated wide circles in America and caused distress among United States Jews. We made daring attempts to reach direct relations with Communist China and if we failed so far due to crucial considerations linked to the most essential interests of the state, we did not yet despair and time will tell. Still, the fact that we risked not little by adopting a consistent positive attitude toward China, despite being Communist and furiously condemned by the United States, testifies to the crucial importance we accorded to our relationship with this enormous Asian country.24
It should be stressed that Sharett's sudden enthusiasm about China and readiness to defy the United States had much to do with an attempt to appease the Soviet Union so as to ensure better treatment of its Jewish communities and allowing them to emigrate. In fact, some Foreign Ministry officials failed to comprehend Washington's deep hostility toward China, as well as Israel's weakness. As the Korean War drew to an end, Gershon Avner, Israel's ambassador to Bulgaria, wrote a long letter to Aryeh Levavi, Foreign Ministry deputy director-general, in which he urged "establishing a mission in Peking after the Korean armistice is signed and returning to the policy of voting in favor of China in the United Nations, even though this runs counter to the U.S. position." Levavi agreed that Israel should consider a diplomatic representation in China but with a qualification: "clearly we cannot get there before leading Western countries that already have a foothold there." Hence, "one should not exaggerate the advantage that would accrue to us visà-vis the Soviets from such a step."25
Washington: Resuscitation Attempts and Responses
Yet, on 30 July 1953, three days after the Korean armistice had been signed, Sharett cabled Eban saying that, in view of the forthcoming UN General Assembly session, "I assume that we adhere to our policy in favor of recognizing People's China and, should the question arise, to support its admission to the UN." He reminded Eban of the earlier U.S. disapproval of relations with Beijing "as long as it is an aggressor" and added that the new Eisenhower administration was less lenient on this issue.26 As the General Assembly session approached, Sharett proposed to Director-General Eytan to send David Hacohen, the envoy to Burma, on a goodwill mission to Beijing to lay the ground for normal diplomatic relations. Eytan disagreed with this proposal. In his view such a visit should take place at the invitation of the PRC government and based on a decision by the Israeli government and not "from the personal desire of Mr. Hacohen" who had undoubtedly initiated this idea.27
The opening of the 8th UN General Assembly on 1 5 September 1953 forced the Israeli delegation to make up its mind on the China issue. Eban informed Eytan that whereas Israel had been committed to voting for the PRCs admission to the United Nations, there was no point in supporting an issue foredoomed to failure. He underlined that even countries that had recognized China were not prepared to take action on its behalf in the United Nations.28 Still, Eytan instructed the delegation to oppose the U. S. -initiated procedural motion to defer the issue of China's representation to the next session, implicitly supporting the Soviet proChinese draft resolution, "unless this would cause serious complications with the United States." Unfortunately - or, from Washington's standpoint, fortunately - Eytan's instruction arrived too late and Israel abstained in all the votes on the China issue. Ultimately, the U.S. motion passed and the Soviet resolution was never put to a vote.29
Following the vote and the armistice in Korea, the Chinese began cautiously to explore the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations. For example, on 9 November 1953 the Chinese charge d'affaires in Finland said he was prepared to relay to Beijing a proposal for an exchange of representatives should such a proposal be initiated by the Israeli government. Deputy Director-General Levavi agreed that this exploration had been deliberate and that "China was undoubtedly seeking to expand its international ties." Both Sharett and Eytan approved of the ideato revive the issue of Sino-Israeli diplomatic relations, on condition that Eban would be consulted first to ascertain the American attitude.30
This was done a month later.31 Eban's response was clear-cut: "The establishment of diplomatic relations with China at this time appears to me as a daring and very dangerous political step." He then elaborated: Western hostility toward China had now increased, as a result of the Chinese aggression in Korea and Indochina. No nation was in a process, however limited, of establishing relations with China. Under these circumstances, he added, Israel would be the path-breaker and assume responsibility for reviving an issue that had been in stagnation for three years.
Therefore, it is more appropriate that the Arabs precede us than we precede them and I cannot understand why it is so important that we attract the first and foremost anger. The situation would have been different if we could undertake this along with the establishment of relations with Burma and Japan and thereby blur the special nature of the China initiative but the opportunity has been missed.32
As will emerge below, by that time Beijing, disillusioned by the prospects of relations with Israel, had already decided to cultivate the Arabs, as Eban expected.
Eban asked the Foreign Ministry to bear in mind the costs of establishing diplomatic relations with China in view of the consolidation of Israel's international position and "the current behavior of the Soviet Union." He asked what to do: "When talking with [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles and [former CIA director and Under Secretary of State Walter Bedell] Smith, should I tell them about our final and resolute intention [about relations with China] or give them the impression of readiness to be influenced by their response and advice?"33
In late January 1954, Sharett instructed Eban to find an early opportunity for informing the State Department that Israel was seriously considering establishing ties with China.34 On 11 February, he reiterated that relations with China were "under consideration." He added that Israel had decided to send a "onetime" commercial delegation to China and asked Eban to sound out Washington on this move. "Of course," he said, "we shall take the [U.S.] reactions into consideration," as it would take months before an actual step was taken. Eban promised to act accordingly, adding that the fact that only one visit was planned was a great relief.35
Another response came from Reuven Shiloah, who had been appointed minister to the Israeli embassy in Washington in September 1953. On 15 February 1954, he cabled a personal message to Sharett rejecting any positive move toward China in unequivocal terms:
We are sitting and discussing [the China issue] a great deal and our doubts increase daily. The deterioration of the Indochina War created an almost hysterical climate in the US with regard to China and it is necessary to act with maximum caution. ... I do not express an opinion on the political aspect but I consider it my duty to let you know that the consolidation campaign assigned to me [i.e., forming relationships with Washington's leadership and integrating Israel's foreign policy with that of the United States] would be hit hard by any act of diplomatic approach to People's China that would be publicized here. The news that an Israeli minister accompanied by economists visited Peking even once would raise a torrent of attacks against us; leaders of the consolidation campaign would face serious difficulties and it is possible that some [Jewish] communities would stop the negotiations with the banks to raise loans. You cannot imagine how great is the sensitivity among non- Jewish and Jewish Americans on the China issue and especially against the states that expand trade relations with it in these days. [I] highly recommend that any act, including the visit of David [Hacohen, Israel envoy to Burma] be postponed for the time being.36 (emphasis added)
Rangoon: Proponents of Relations
Arriving in Burma in December 1953, David Hacohen became one of the enthusiastic proponents of diplomatic relations with China. On 16 January 1953, PRC ambassador Yao Zhongming, with whom he made friends, informedhim that the Chinese government wanted to establish commercial relations with Israel, mainly import and, more specifically - fertilizers (he did not mention anything about diplomatic relations).37 This was probably a Chinese attempt to circumvent the U.S.-imposed embargo.38 The Israeli ambassador underlined Israel's commitment (of July 1952) to the U.S. embargo on the delivery of strategic goods and materials to Eastern-bloc countries and said Israel would not act in contradiction of American warnings or against the wishes of its officials.
In his report on the conversation, Hacohen repeated what he told Yao in a second meeting:
At the same time, we shall struggle with America on its foolish attitude as we have done so far and, moreover, [we] shall cooperate with the states that aimed at breaching the embargo and shall use all our influence in the United States as well as in other states. I emphasized that our decision to send a delegation [to China] implies a demonstration in this direction, (emphasis added)
He admitted that he was still concerned about "our relations with America" but was convinced "that America conducts a pointless policy in this part of the world [China]." Nevertheless, he advised caution so as not to expand the gap between Israel and the United States.39
In his autobiography My Way, Hacohen blames the Israeli embassy in Washington for obstructing the steps toward the establishment of diplomatic relations with China:
Their reservations originated, in my view, in exaggerated sensitivity to the U.S. reactions - particularly in the State Department - to our steps. I also did not underestimate the existing sensitivity in the United States to anything concerning China and I had been aware of the risks in case this sensitivity was offended. But between this and a total submission to the U.S. State Department's real or imagined dictates and sacrificing the global needs of the state of Israel as well, there is a distinction both in principle and in substance.
I have become more and more convinced that my colleagues in Washington are afflicted with blindness, lack objective political sense and exaggerate in giving such high priority to the United States' mood while giving up our essential needs.... I was firm in my view that we have to ignore America's heated animosity toward China and act in accordance with our needs. I rejected entirely the opinions that also reached me about the risk of the cracks that could be formed between us and the American Jews when we act toward China not according to the views acceptable to the American administration, the American public and the Jews in general. I was convinced that the Jews would consider their attitude toward Israel's measures according to the position of its government and would not turn their back on it on the basis of the State Department mood.40
Hacohen went on to say that in Rangoon he had met with many American diplomats and experts and heard views about this mood that were different and even contradictory to that reported by the Israeli embassy in Washington. Most of his interlocutors, he added, had deplored the lack of logic and political wisdom in the U.S. alienation from China "because of some irrational mental complex that has nothing to do with wise policy." Many in Burma, he said, including the U.S. ambassador, expected "Israel to appoint an ambassador in Pekin and thereby help dispel that complex that causes people to lose their clear and balanced thinking. I had a reasonable basis to doubt the considerations of my colleagues in our Washington embassy."
For example, Hacohen totally rejected Eban's suggestion to let the Arabs establish relations with China first and thereby bear the consequent U.S. fury. This, he claimed, would further improve the Arab position at Israel's expense.
Not the fear of America's reactions - exaggerated, inflated and imaginary - should have ruined the peace of mind of our embassy people in Washington, but the failed coverage of our position against that of the Arabs; of our power to cope with them not in the American arena, where we don't face any real danger, but in the Asian arena, with all the Eastern bloc that was then integrated with China.
He concluded: "I have no doubt that the Washington-embassy pressure caused Moshe Sharett to abandon his intentions early in the year  to act for the establishment of diplomatic relations with China."41
An example of such "pressure" is a "strictly personal" telegram, dated 14 February 1954, sent by Shiloah from Washington to the foreign minister. It conveys the forthright response of Bedell Smith to the recent explorations between Israel and China:
As a friend of Israel I advise you, delay the issue for the time being. Who but you know that I personally would like, based on important reasons, to see an Israeli mission in Pekin. [But], in view of the existing situation in public opinion and the Congress, I am ready to sacrifice certain interests and recommend to you not to take any step that could be interpreted as encouraging the process of China's admission to the UN family. You cannot imagine the difficulties facing [Secretary of State] Dulles because of his agreement to the Geneva Conference [on Indochina] and after all his agreement to the Geneva Conference does not constitute any basic deviation from the situation in Panmunjon [that ended the Korean War]. You have to understand that there is no question of political logic here. The issue is a mental complex that drives people insane. You could not have chosen a less suitable time. My advice to you, delay the issue to a more appropriate moment.42 (emphasis added)
Issued on the same day, a CIA document reflected Washington's anxiety about Israel's plans, in particular about the prospects of sending an Israeli commercial delegation to the PRC. It said that "There is no indication that any government in the [Middle East] area would wittingly accept communist influence or domination, but several, notably Egypt, Syria and Israel, might enter into far reaching agreements with the [Soviet] Bloc for the sake of direct economic benefits and in the hope of securing further advantage by playing the Bloc against the West"43 (emphasis added).
Still, shortly after this document was approved, Israel notified the Chinese of its agreement to send the delegation. The pressure to proceed to diplomatic relations increased and officials pointed out that a number of governments, notably Pakistan, Indonesia, and Japan, had managed to defy U.S. objections (reflected in the October 1951 [Embargo] Battle Act) and promote trade with China. Director of the Asia Division Daniel Lewin, who put forward these arguments, added that the U.S. attitude toward Israel's steps should of course be taken into consideration, but "it is not my duty to weigh the importance of this [US] objection." He named a number of prominent Americans, including Richard Nixon, Bedell Smith, and Henry Cabot Lodge, who believed that U.S. policy toward the PRC should change.44 Israel's policy, however, did not change, yet.
On 25 May 1954, the Israel Ministerial Commission on Foreign and Security Affairs came to a decision not to officially propose diplomatic relations to the PRC, let alone before the end of the Geneva Conference (8 May-21 July 1954), so as not to open the gate for Communist China's intrusion into the Middle East. Aware that some Arab states, whose relations with the PRC had already begun to improve, could overtake Israel, the commission cautiously rejected a decision on Israel's readiness to establish relations with China "in principle," to be implemented later. In light of this decision, Director-General Eytan instructed all of Israel's missions abroad to cultivate good relations with the Chinese and to show goodwill but "without taking any official or public measure that could lead to revenge in our relations with the West and especially with the United States.... Be careful not to say a word that could be interpreted as a commitment, or even as just a hint, that the question of diplomatic relations was discussed by us."45
These instructions led to a number of reservations by Israeli representatives, primarily in communist-bloc countries. They pointed to the advantages in forming diplomatic relations with China now that the Korean War was over.46 While fully accepting their analysis, the director-general informed them about the firm opposition of the Israeli officials in the Washington embassy to the establishment of relations with China. He explained that the China question provoked American public opinion and administration circles even more than the Soviet question. Under these circumstances, any positive act toward China would not only harm U.S. -Israeli relations but also disable the efforts of the Jewish community that was trying to raise U.S. political and material support for Israel, and undermine the United Jewish Appeal and thereby the money remittances to Israel.47
Beijing: Emergence of the Arab Option
All this debate between opponents and proponents was based on the assumption that China was interested in diplomatic relations with Israel. Indeed, PRC diplomats did approach Israeli representatives exploring Israel's intentions to form official relations with China, but it is doubtful - certainly in retrospect - to what extent these explorations were serious.
One of the first to perceive China's reluctance was the most enthusiastic supporter of relations with China, David Hacohen.
For one thing, it had taken over six months for Beijing to respond (positively) to Israel 's late-February-1 953 proposal to send a commercial delegation to China. Somewhat disillusioned, Hacohen wrote to Daniel Lewin, director of the Asia Division that "the Chinese [ambassador] has no doubt about our intention to expand the framework [toward diplomatic relations] and not to settle for a commercial delegation." Without saying so Hacohen implied that, perhaps, Ambassador Yao's interest in Sino-Israeli diplomatic relations had been out of tune with Chinese foreign policy toward the Arab governments. "May I use this opportunity," he told Lewin, "to turn your attention to the fact that the problem of foreign legations in China is not so simple. The Chinese, as it seems, are not so eager to encourage the opening of embassies [in Beijing]." Even the Dutch and British, who were already represented by charges d'affaires, were practically inactive. "Any attempt to consolidate their diplomatic status and turn the charges d'affaires [legations] into embassies and accordingly send new people met with Chinese postponement using different excuses and in fact with refusal and freezing existing relations to complete idleness."48
If these were Hacohen's feelings, he was - unknowingly and retrospectively - right. As Israel's diplomats feared, well before the mid-1950s Beijing had begun to perceive the importance of the Arab and Muslim countries, not only in terms of quantity but in qualitative (anti-Western) terms as well; the disadvantages of Israel's association with Washington; and Moscow's evolving negative attitude toward Jerusalem. Documents from the newly opened PRC Foreign Ministry archive demonstrate that in those years the Chinese were no longer interested in relations with Israel, which ultimately appeared to be totally submissive to Washington, at least on this issue.
In November 1953, that is, one month before Hacohen's arrival in Rangoon, the Chinese Foreign Ministry instructed its envoys abroad: "Although China and Israel had recognized each other in January 1950, from the beginning Israel hesitated about diplomatic relations while we later tried to establish relations with Egypt - so [we] decided to postpone [diplomatic relations with Israel]." The instructions said clearly, openly, and honestly: "We do not have urgent political and economic need to establish diplomatic relations with Israel; however, the relations with the Arab countries are always an issue we should take into consideration in our international struggles."49 The documents also shed light on the reason for Beijing's belated approval of the Israeli trade mission visit: "Considering the rumors that the Arab League is discussing the question of recognizing our country [China] the decision [on the Israeli delegation] will be made after the Arab League meeting ends and its attitude becomes clearer."50
Beijing's explorations toward Israel became fewer and more sporadic. If China went on with this cat-and-mouse game, it was probably because the Arabs were slow and because Beijing was looking for ways to circumvent the U.S. -imposed embargo.
Israel: (Too) Late Ignition
From then on it was all the way downhill. Attempts were still made to resuscitate the corpse of Sino-Israeli diplomatic relations. The directorgeneral reminded the foreign minister that the Geneva Conference, given as a starting point for resuming the efforts toward diplomatic relations with China, had ended. He pointed out that the United Kingdom had established official relations with China without irritating the United States and went on to say:
At the time, Shiloah put forward the view that the establishment of relations with China would weaken Israel's position in the United States, but recently an entirely opposite view was expressed by other sources. Israel's position in the United States had become weaker anyway. One of the reasons for this is the Americans' feeling that we are "in their pocket" anyway. An act that reveals independence, such as the establishment of relations with China, may show the Americans that we are not so much "in their pocket" as they believe. Our position in the United States would be strengthened accordingly.51
This analysis was somewhat naïve. Implicitly more sober about the prospects of relations with China - given the delay in the Chinese reply, "it is clear that they are in no hurry" - Hacohen answered Eytan in his usual rude language:
I am not expressing my views about the United States reactions now, although I am not of one mind with you on the entire front. It is possible that your evaluation of the American administration is right but I am not certain if we could that easily consider also the American public opinion, the wild press, the circles that are clearly hostile to us [and] the stupidity of the brutal and anarchic tens of millions and the influence of all these on the opinion and outlook of the Jews.52 (emphasis added)
On the same day Sharett, who had earlier supported relations with the PRC, also wrote to Eytan in a tone much tougher than ever before: the issue of having relations with China, he said, was not one-sided.
You do not pay attention at all to the other side of the coin - the appearance of a representative of Communist China in Israel. Obviously, this innovation in Israel's political landscape means something entirely not simple or easy. In this case Israel would be the first state in the greater Middle East where would be thrust the barrel of Asian Communism, which threatens to swallow in its expansion campaign the entire continent. I have no doubt that thereby an important reinforcement would be given to the Communist movement among Israel's Arab sector. Also, there is no doubt that especially this side of the coin could increase the burden on our relations with the US.53
By that time, U.S. -Chinese relations had deteriorated and Washington's approval of relations between Israel and China became inconceivable. On 7 August 1954, Eban reported on a meeting with U.S. officials. Item 5 in his report discussed the PRC UN representation:
the US position had been aggravated because of the vigilance of public opinion and the houses of legislature and the recent incidents [the 26 July clash between China and Taiwan over the Taiwan Strait]. The US would fight forcefully against the admission of People's China [to the UN]. They will do their best to defeat this issue by proposing a procedural postponement like last year and they solemnly request our support.54
Israel was trapped and at a very delicate junction. On 11 September, Hacohen was informed that, at long last, the Chinese had confirmed the visit of an Israeli delegation that could negotiate on "commercial issues and on any other issue concerning the two friendly countries."55 Ten days later, on 21 September, Israel voted for the U.S. motion to postpone the debate on the China seat and to vote first on this motion. Both passed by a great majority.56 Eytan was furious. In a cable to the Israel Permanent Mission to the United Nations he said:
We [are] all deeply shocked [by] your vote [on] China. [I] cannot remember ever such indignation in [the] Misrad [ministry]. Your clear instructions were under no circumstances [to] vote against China. We fail to understand by what reasoning you assumed [that] the vote against China on this resolution was not [a] vote against China. What we feared all along has now happened. [The] Arabs who still recognize Formosa are beginning to work their passage [to] Peking while we quite unnecessarily give ourselves [a] setback.... [I] am proposing [to the] Sar [minister] [that] we inform Peking through various channels open to us that [the] delegation [to the UN] misunderstood [the] instructions and voted as it did by mistake.57
Was it a mistake? The UN delegation offered a number of explanations for its vote for the U.S. resolution, including that the instruction not to vote against China had arrived too late; that Israel had voted along with the British (as instructed, the British also supported the U.S. resolution); that the vote was on a procedural issue, not on China's admission; and that going against the current of the Western countries would have been harmful. Eban, who could by no means vote against the U.S. resolution, thought that abstaining (as he had been instructed to do) would entail no advantage and would enrage the United States. He preferred to join the United Kingdom and the other West European delegations on a proposal that had nothing to do with the principle of China's representation, let alone that there was no majority anyway for China's admission to the United Nations at the time.58 Whatever the excuses, the bottom line was clear - though some officials tried to obscure it: Israel had to comply with Washington. This may have been a tactical mistake, though not a strategic one.
Having gained Israel's support against China in the United Nations, thereby producing a rift in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Washington now moved to frustrate the forthcoming visit of the Israeli trade mission to China. As noted, by that time the Chinese had already decided that relations with the Arabs were more important than relations with Israel, although they by no means ruled out such relations completely. In fact, unlike their earlier behavior, Beijing began to sow hints about the possibility. In September, PRC prime minister and foreign minister Zhou Enlai told China's National People's Congress that China was about to establish diplomatic relations with Israel (and Afghanistan).59 In November, the Chinese officially accepted Israel's explanations about its UN vote, adding: "the People's Republic of China's government is sure that it may be expected that the Government of lsmoi,from a standpoint of the establishing and maintaining of normal relations with China, will from now on adopt a just attitude towards China on the question of the restoration of the legitimate rights of the People's Republic of China in the United Nations" (emphasis added).
The Chinese documents, however, do reveal Beij ing's disappointment and earlier suspicions. Outwardly accepting Israel's excuses, inwardly the process of negotiating diplomatic relations with Israel not only slowed down but was practically aborted. In November 1954, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's instructions to its envoys abroad reiterated Israel's UN blunder and added: "Although Israel offered explanations afterward, it just defended itself having no intention of recognizing its mistakes. All this proves that the Government of the State of Israel is engaged in double-dealing [wannong liangmian shoufa]"60 Nevertheless, Yao Zhongming said that, in his view, the Israeli delegation's visit would constitute a preparatory stage for diplomatic relations.61
Washington: The Specter of Diplomatic Relations
That is exactly what caused concern in Washington, despite Israel's insistence that the delegation was to conduct no more than preliminary discussions on trade issues. It is unlikely that Beijing really wanted to establish diplomatic relations with Israel while preparations for the Bandung Conference were underway. More likely, China wanted to drive a wedge between Israel and the United States.
Still, Washington considered the Israeli delegation a serious matter. During a routine conversation at the Office of Economic Defense and Trade Policy of the State Department in Washington in early December, the Americans brought up, on their own initiative, the issue of the Israeli trade mission to China. They explained, indeed warned, that under U.S. regulations all U. S. assets of the members of the delegation were liable to be frozen, also banning all their financial and commercial transactions. Donald C. Bergus, officer in charge of Israel -Jordan affairs at the State Department, unofficially confirmed these comments but hinted that in this case, presumably, sanctions would not be imposed. Nevertheless he added that, given the (anti-Chinese) climate in the United States, the visit of such a mission might damage Israel's public relations and could blemish Israel's compliance with the embargo on China.62
A report about this meeting was sent to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. Ivan B. White, a counselor at the embassy then asked Yaacov Herzog, then Foreign Ministry chief of the U.S. Division, about the economic delegation to China. Herzog denied that the trip had been motivated by any political considerations and even understated its economic objectives. Reading from the minutes, which Herzog did not have, White told him that the Israeli side had said that the delegation "had economic and political significance," reiterating that the Israelis had been informed that the visit "cannot but have [a] negative effect on U.S.-Israel relations"63 (emphasis added).
Despite these warnings and contrary to his actions a few weeks before, by early 1955 Eban had begun to support relations with China. Based on the experience of Holland and Norway, he regarded these relations as helpful to the United States, which was not represented in Beijing. He summed up his position in four points:
1. Relations with China would reinforce our international position and therefore, even if the immediate American reaction would be negative, [this] step, that would strengthen us ultimately and that the US administration would also reconcile with and even try to benefit from it, should not be postponed.
2. We have reasons and arguments to soften the American negative reaction and we should use them. There is no special fanaticism in the position of the people responsible here and they also search for a way to repair US-China relations, but we should not expect that our initiative would be praised.
3. The Dutch believe that the measure that they had taken in establishing relations [with China] did not harm them in the US. They think it is easier from the point of view of American reaction to establish direct relations [with China] than to press for China's admission to the UN.
4. In light of the Holland precedent, I tend to regret that we turned to commercial relations and not to diplomatic relations. We should take the warnings by White and others seriously as far as the essence of the China arrangement is concerned, that is, it is prohibited to exceed the limits on strategic materials etc. and no risk should be taken in any trade not engaged with by other Westerners.64
China: Israel's Futile Delegation
The delegation, including the director of the Asia Division of Israel's Foreign Ministry, spent nearly four weeks in China, from 28 January to 23 February. As anticipated - in a positive sense by Jerusalem though in a negative sense by Washington - diplomatic relations were discussed. Both China's vice-foreign minister Zhang Hanfu and Chen Jiakang, director of the Foreign Ministry Asian Affairs Department (and later China's first ambassador to Egypt) held discussions with the (commercial) delegation while showing obvious interest in diplomatic relations with Israel. Reportedly they went as far as to offer Israel a compound for an embassy in Beijing to compensate for Jewish property confiscated in Shanghai.65
In the meeting with Vice-Minister of Trade Lei Renmin,66 David Hacohen, who led the delegation, said that "there are great forces in the world that place barriers on China's road to development through boycotting and sabotaging trade. . . . Our visit symbolizes our opposition to a boycott policy." He expressed his wish that the Israeli delegation "would help to soften the existing misunderstandings between China and some parts of the world," adding: "perhaps our delegation would contribute something to the removal of these misunderstandings." He then insinuated: "We feel that if we could create trade relations with China, the outcome would exceed the framework of just trade relations and would assume a much wider significance."67
The Chinese documents are more straightforward: the Israeli trade delegation "raised the question of establishing relations with China officially [zhengshi]"6S (emphasis added). In his interim report on the visit Hacohen admitted that in addition to watching and studying China, showing friendship, and dealing with trade, another aim of the mission was "to reflect on establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries." This visit, he added, "should not become an isolated episode because of complacency and neglect on our side and perhaps also [because] of the influence of an external party [i.e., the United States]."69
While Hacohen continued to bombard the Foreign Ministry with desperate calls for the immediate establishment of diplomatic relations with China, the debate was about to end. In what looked like shortsightedness given the approaching Bandung Conference, Sharett stubbornly insisted that any political progress with Beijing was conditional on a reciprocal Chinese trade delegation. "If such a visit will take place - and only after it will - we shall reach stage two [consisting] of a serious discussion on the question of diplomatic relations.... To skip this stage of reciprocity and to proceed straight into diplomatic engagement seems to me unbecoming recklessness. I am ready to walk to Pekin. I am not ready to run, let alone to gallop."10 Frustrated, Hacohen replied: "I do not suggest to walk, or to run, or to gallop in our relations with China; I only suggest to do what was done between us and some other forty states; to engage China in diplomatic relations according to the same tempo and process known to you from your rich experience and without any particular theory of stages invented only for China." He added that whatever the conditions that prevented relations with China - which could still exist - they had nothing to do with a reciprocal Chinese visit.71
Hacohen was now joined by a number of other Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem and Washington.72 Yet all these attempts to convince Sharett, now also prime minister, failed. According to Hacohen, years later Sharett admitted to him that he had retreated under the pressure of cables from Washington and the attitudes of Eban, Shiloah, and Teddy Kollek as well as that of Ministers Pinchas Lavon and Zalman Aranne who had rejected any measure that could cloud Israel's relations with the United States. "Moshe [Sharett] told me explicitly that he had been wrong when he had submitted to them contrary to my pleas and the pressure of Walter Eytan who was an enthusiastic supporter of my view"73
It is possible, though unlikely, that some of these people had been more familiar with Beijing's international intentions - mainly through their connections with the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies - that Hacohen was not aware of. He concluded:
There is one and united China with lights and shadows and there is no reason to doubt its sovereign existence. The entire world knows it and America will have to confess its mistake and reform. Any state, Israel included, that would consolidate its relations with China would help deliver America from its mental crisis and extricate it from the distress it had found itself in.74
It took nearly fifteen years for his prediction to come true, but the other way around. It so happened that Washington, which had indeed begun to improve its relations with China in the late 1960s, established informal representation in Beijing in 1972 and full diplomatic relations in 1979; whereas Israel had to wait another twenty years, till 1992, to gain an official foothold in the PRC. In the early 1950s, this delay had to do primarily with Israel's association with the United States, which Beijing considered its archenemy. However, by the mid-1950s the delay had to do first and foremost with the Chinese strategic decision - kept secret not only from Israel but perhaps also from Ambassador Yao Zhongming in Rangoon - to pursue relations with the Arab and Muslim countries. The advantages they offered in terms of numbers and the struggle against imperialism by far overshadowed and outweighed anything Israel could offer. Launched in 1954 if not before, this strategy was unknown at best, or ignored at worst, by Israel's Foreign Ministry officials, primarily David Hacohen (who may have sensed the change).
This Chinese strategy was consummated at the Bandung Conference. Therefore, when on 29 April 1955, five days after the conference ended, Jerusalem finally and officially informed the Chinese that "Israel desires to establish full diplomatic relations with the Government of the People's Republic of China at the earliest convenient moment," it was too late.
PROF. YITZHAK SHICHOR holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is Professor Emeritus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and professor of political science and Asian studies a the University of Haifa. A former Lipson Chair in Chinese Studies and dean of students at the Hebrew University, and head of the Tel-Hai Academic College, his research and publications cover Chinese politics, foreign policy, and military affairs.…
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Publication information: Article title: The U.S. Role in Delaying Sino-Israeli Relations: Two's Company, Three's a Crowd*. Contributors: Shichor, Yitzhak - Author. Journal title: Jewish Political Studies Review. Volume: 22. Issue: 1/2 Publication date: Spring 2010. Page number: 7+. © Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs Spring 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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