Sep 1, 2021 - World

Israeli leader surprised Biden hardly raised China during visit

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Biden talk during Bennett's trip to the U.S. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney-Pool/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had prepared for wide-ranging discussions on China with President Biden and other senior U.S. officials, but the issue hardly came up, an Israeli official who attended the Biden-Bennett meeting tells me.

Why it matters: Chinese involvement in Israel became a rare point of contention between the Trump and Netanyahu governments, with the Trump administration warning of damage to the U.S.-Israel security relationship, but former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dragging his feet on the issue.

Before the trip to Washington, Bennett’s aides prepared to discuss what they saw as Biden's top priorities: China, climate change and COVID-19.

  • Bennett was happy to talk about the latter two issues, but he and his advisers were very nervous about the looming discussion on China.
  • Two weeks before the White House meeting, CIA director William Burns had told Bennett the U.S. was concerned about Chinese investments in Israel, particularly in the tech sector, and involvement in major infrastructure projects.
  • But in Bennett's meetings with Biden as well as with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, China was only mentioned in passing, according to two Israeli officials, one who attended those meetings and another who received a full briefing.

What they're saying: “We were very surprised how little this issue came up in the meetings. In any case, we are very sensitive and aware of U.S. concerns and are going to balance between the need to strengthen trade with China and maintaining our national security,” the senior Israeli official briefed on the meeting said.

  • Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said at a press conference Wednesday that there was “no concrete demand coming from the U.S. about our relations with China" and "nobody asked us to change anything."
  • “It’s important for us to maintain relations with China, but we will listen to the Americans when they talk to us about China," Lapid said.

What’s next: China policy will be discussed further in talks between the Israeli and U.S. national security councils, according to an Israeli official.

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