Israel's Netanyahu, Palestine's Abbas head to China

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas next week for separate bilateral talks as it tries to shore up its role in a region where its diplomatic influence is limited.

Mr Netanyahu's visit - the first trip by a top Israeli leader to China since former prime minister Ehud Olmert visited in 2007 - will be focused on trade, though experts have also said he is likely to discuss Iran's nuclear programme with China.

China, Iran's top oil customer and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has opposed unilateral sanctions on Teheran such as those imposed by Washington and the European Union and has called repeatedly for talks to resolve the stand-off over Iran's nuclear programme.

Mr Netanyahu's visit comes as a US official said Israel has conducted an airstrike in Syria, apparently targeting a building, a development that is likely to worry Beijing.

Mr Netanyahu is set to arrive on Monday in China's commercial capital of Shanghai, where he will meet business leaders, and later fly to Beijing for talks with Chinese leaders. Mr Abbas will arrive in Beijing on Sunday.

It is unclear whether Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas will meet in China. China's foreign ministry said the country "is willing to offer necessary assistance if the leaders of Palestine and Israel have the will to meet in China".

China has traditionally had a low profile in Middle East diplomacy, but is keen to assert its role as a key player in international politics. It has tried on and off over the years to mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian issue but with little apparent success.

The visits by Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas come nearly a month after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Mr Abbas discussed reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

China believes that "strengthening its relationship with Jerusalem would be a sign that it gradually is coming to possess a foothold in the region, while somewhat offsetting, and perhaps even undermining, American political influence there", the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), a top Israeli think-tank, said in a paper on Thursday.

Beijing has maintained close relations with the Palestinians for decades. In recent years, it has also cultivated good ties with Israel, especially in the field of defence.

In an interview with China's state news agency Xinhua on Friday, Mr Abbas said he will let the Chinese leaders know the barriers currently rooted in the Palestinians' talks with Israel, as he "expects Beijing's contribution to the stalled peace process".

"It is very good that Netanyahu will visit China too because it is a good opportunity that the Chinese listen to both of us,"Mr Abbas was quoted by Xinhua as saying.

Mr Abbas said he will urge the Chinese leadership "to use its relationship with Israel to remove the obstacles that obstruct the Palestinian economy".

Israeli officials say Mr Netanyahu is expected to sign several bilateral deals with China in sectors such as agriculture and water during his five-day visit, with the aim of boosting bilateral trade worth about US$10 billion (S$12.3 billion).

Mr Netanyahu will also raise the issue of Iran, according to the INSS. Israel, the United States, the EU and their allies say Iran is amassing the capability to produce a nuclear bomb, an allegation the Islamic Republic denies.

Mr Netanyahu, at the United Nations last September, set a "red line" of spring or summer for when Iran would be close to weapons capability, suggesting prospects for an Israeli attack around that time.

But Iran's latest talks with world powers plus adjustments in Teheran's uranium enrichment processes are widely thought to have pushed back that deadline.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.