China and Israel formally launched negotiations on Tuesday on a free-trade agreement that officials said could double commerce between the two countries.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced the talks after he met visiting Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong at the Foreign Ministry in Yerushalayim. The countries, whose current trade is worth about $8 billion, have held exploratory discussions of the deal since May 2013.
“Cooperation between Israel and China can produce massive results, and we believe that Israel can be the perfect partner,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office.
It quoted Liu as saying Israel was “world-renowned for its innovation” and that China would embark on “great joint projects” with it.
Netanyahu wants to diversify Israel’s commercial ties abroad, in partly due to what he has said is a need to reduce the country’s dependence on its biggest trading partner, Europe.
Disputes with the European Union over policy toward the Palestinians, and EU labeling of products by Israeli communities in Yehudah and Shomron as in “occupied territory,” discomfit the Netanyahu government.
Netanyahu’s office said the free-trade agreement could double bilateral commerce and investment. At Tuesday’s meeting, China and Israel also signed 13 cooperation agreements, including in energy and water development, officials said.
At a meeting Tuesday with Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong, Israel President Reuven Rivlin stressed the growing ties between the countries and discussed the importance of further increasing those ties. “It is important for us to host you here and discuss the strengthening ties between our two countries,” said Rivlin. “Our two countries are known for our abilities in cyber and innovation, and the cooperation between our peoples is in the mutual interest of China, Israel and the entire world.”
“China is playing a great role and you have a lot of influence in the Middle East, and while we may from time to time not agree on everything, we are pleased to strengthen the relationship and the understanding between us,’ Rivlin added.
Last year, China became Israel’s second largest single trading partner, outpacing the volume of Israeli trade with the European Union. Dozens of Israeli tech firms have opened offices and research and development firms in China, and many Chinese venture capital firms have in recent months invested in Israeli tech start-ups.
China Vice Premier Liu Yandong thanked the president for his warm welcome. “While I am here, we are going to sign a number of agreements on education, culture, science and technology, healthcare, and a range of other fields. I will also attend the first China-Israel forum of university presidents and attend a health-care symposium,” she said. “Israel is an important country in the Middle East with its own distinct features and China takes Israel very seriously.”