Minister Discovers Life After Politics — In China

Israel’s Ambassador to China, Matan Vilnai. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
Israel’s Ambassador to China, Matan Vilnai. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

Israel’s Ambassador to China, the former head of Homefront Command, Matan Vilnai, says he doesn’t miss Israeli politics, that he doesn’t even know many of the MKs in the party in which he labored for many years. He’s too busy conducting diplomacy and drumming up business for Israel in China.

“I’m in an entirely different world, today,” Vilnai said in an interview a year after departing Israeli politics for Beijing. “I have no longings for politics whatsoever, and I have no idea what’s going on there in the Labor party.”

“I am completely immersed in the vast ocean that is China, of the business and economic opportunities that await us in its cities, towns and countryside. It’s just a matter of time.”

Vilnai is optimistic, but he treads cautiously when it touches on the sensitivities of his hosts. A report in the Israeli media a week ago of a letter from a Chinese firm proposing to build 30,000 units of cheap housing in Israel within two years caused considerable discomfort when an Israeli government source was quoted as spurning the offer because of fears of Chinese domination. “Do we want to wind up like the U.S., where the majority of the national debt is held by the Chinese?” he asked.

The Israeli embassy in Beijing was said to have received the letter. However, neither Vilnai nor anyone else at the embassy had seen it, nor had there been any follow-up from the firm that supposedly sent the letter, to which it received no reply.

The ambassador refused to comment on the proposal itself, since, as far as he could determine, it never existed. The Israeli media, he observed, are not helpful in developing good relations with the Chinese.

He pointed out the difficulty of explaining to them that, unlike communist countries, even those undergoing liberalization, governments in the West do not control the media. The Chinese assumption, based on their own very different experience, is that such comments must reflect the views of the government, otherwise it would not be published.

Among the more pleasant aspects of life in China for Israeli diplomats is the security situation, or rather the lack of one. Matan Vilnai is possibly the only Israeli ambassador who is able to move about without a security detail.

“There is no need for it in China,” he says. “The Chinese respect Israelis and Jews; there is no anti-Semitism, and the treatment I receive here is warm and friendly.”

Official China has taken the side of the Palestinians against Israel, largely owing to a prolonged diplomatic vacuum of which the Palestinians took full political advantage.

Israel did not reach out to China until 1992. But since then, diplomatic and trade ties have been developing at an ever faster pace. Despite Beijing’s pro-Palestinian policy, the people have responded positively to Israel’s efforts to promote a positive image in the world’s most populous nation.

An indpendent survey conducted recently showed that 82 percent of the half million respondents — a huge sample by any standard — expressed support for Israel versus the Palestinians.

The disproportionate number of Israelis and Jews in the U.S. and Europe who win Nobel Prizes is a particular point of curiosity. The Chinese ask how it can be that the Jewish people, with such a small population, can be so successful?

The Israelis are trying now to capitalize on their image as innovators and entrepeneurs in China.

When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu chose Vilnai, he said that the appointment of an ambassador to China was “an issue of national importance. We want to significantly increase our trade and economic ties with the rising powers of the East, especially China. We have many interests, including — for example — infrastructure projects that we are moving forward, and would like to see these powers involved in them.”

Netanyahu said recently he believed Israel’s exports to China, which last year amounted to $2.5 billion, could double and even triple in the short term. He also noted that considering the economic problems besetting Europe and North America, it behooves Israel to look to Asia, specifically China, for partners in economic development.

Vilnai agrees, of course. The biggest problem, he says, is size. Israel is such a small country trying to engage such an enormous one. It will require a lot of innovation and entrepeneurship to succeed.

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