The Big Story Out of Herzliya Might Be About China and Israeli Drones

A certain Chinese Communist Party School fellow catches Eli Lake’s attention at the Herzliya Conference.

Uriel Sinai/Getty,Uriel Sinai

For the globalist CEO, there is Davos. For the comic-book nerd, there is Comic-Con. For the Middle East policy professional, there is Herzliya. And while you may never have heard of the annual conference held at the Israeli seaside hamlet named for Theodore Herzl, the intellectual godfather of Jewish nationalism, the Zionist wonk in your life almost certainly has.

The four-day conference at Herzliya, which began Monday, is in its 13th year. In the past the conference has been a forum for major announcements from Israel’s leadership. In 2003, for example, then prime minister Ariel Sharon announced his plan to withdraw from Gaza at the conference. In other years the conference has been the first major international exposure for new Israeli politicians like Avigdor Lieberman. This year the big keynote address came from Benny Gantz, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. But it wasn’t his speech that will make waves but perhaps the attendance of a certain Chinese Communist Party research fellow.

The key theme from the man in charge of Israel’s military was that in the future Israel would have to be prepared to send its army into “the tunnels of Gaza, into the foxholes and the villages.” Israel cannot be content, Gantz said, to “play videogames”—a clear reference to drones, the preferred method of fighting terrorism for the United States. As for Iran, Gantz told the audience that he preferred not to get into specifics.

Israeli forces have entered the villages and tunnels of Gaza before, so the announcement from Gantz was hardly earth-shattering. But the country’s political leadership is putting the finishing touches on a new governing coalition, and it’s doubtful the IDF’s top general would want to make too much news before next week’s visit from President Obama.

Still, plenty of other nuggets came out of this year’s conference. One was an exercise from leading international think-tank types on how Israel would react when and if the Syrian regime collapsed. I would tell you more, but the half-day mock exercise was entirely off the record.

Other sessions, however, promise to be potentially more newsworthy. One session, “Iran and the Red Line: Time for Sword or Time for Diplomacy,” features a few former senior Israeli and U.S. officials for a discussion about what appears to be a perennial question during the Obama presidency.

One name on that panel stands out: Liang Yabin, a research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Liang is not the first Chinese citizen to attend Herzliya, but he is the only one to attend from what is known in Beijing as the “Party School.” The communist part is no joke, either—his business card features a Soviet-style hammer and sickle in red.

Liang traveled to Israel through a program with SIGNAL, the Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership. The founder and executive director of the organization, Carice Witte, an Israeli, says SIGNAL is aimed at reaching out to the elite think tanks and universities in China that produce the analysts and advisers to China’s top leaders. Witte was particularly excited about getting someone from the Party School, as the last head of that school was Li Keqiang, the incoming Chinese premier.

Witte stressed that the organization was primarily interested in improving Sino-Israeli academic and economic ties, not in rekindling Israel’s defense relationship with China from the 1990s.

That relationship landed Israel in a bit of hot water with its most important ally, the United States. Under U.S. pressure in 2000, Israel had to cancel the sale of a high tech radar plane known as the Phalcon to China because the Pentagon believed the sale would provide Beijing with sensitive U.S. defense technology. The Israelis sold a similar system a few years later to China’s chief rival, India. As one might imagine, this reversal angered the Chinese who, according to Witte, cooled diplomatic ties with Israel in retaliation for the canceled arms deal.

To be sure, Liang said he was interested in talking academics and foreign policy on his visit to Israel. But when asked what China hoped to get out of the relationship with Israel, his first response was, “Unmanned spy planes, that is what we want to get.” He then explained that he had heard Israel had developed a technology that could break through physical walls, though he did not elaborate further.

The drones might be a tough sell for now, but on the issue of the wave of democratic revolutions in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring, Liang seemed to be on the same page as the Jewish state. “We worry about how the USA provokes democracy in the Middle East,” he said, echoing a sentiment I heard from almost every other Israeli at the conference. “What if this wave of democratization continues to spread to other areas, how about China? We don’t deny democratization, we just don’t want it suddenly.”