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. Iran and trade to top Olmert's agenda in China visit
JERUSALEM, Jan 7 (AFP) Jan 07, 2007
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is due to arrive in China on Tuesday, marking the last and possibly trickiest leg in his recent tour of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council amid efforts to stop Iran's controversial nuclear programme.

Along with pushing Israeli concerns over the prospect of its arch-foe obtaining an atomic bomb, Olmert will also seek to bolster important bilateral economic ties with the rising world power, officials say.

Unlike his talks in the United States, Britain, France or Russia, officials expect to encounter little enthusiasm in Beijing for Israel's call to slap heavy sanctions on Iran, one of China's major suppliers of oil and gas needed to feed its burgeoning economy.

Israel, believed to be the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear power, refuses to believe Tehran's claim its nuclear programme is aimed solely for peaceful means, and fears it is aimed to obtain a nuclear bomb.

The Jewish state considers the Islamic republic its arch-foe due to repeated calls by its President Mahmud Ahmadinejad for Israel to be wiped off the map.

"As a permanent member of the Security Council, it is very important for the prime minister to present China's leadership with his views on regional issues such as the Palestinian question, Syria, Lebanon and Iran," a high-ranking Israeli official told AFP.

Even though China did not oppose a Security Council December 23 resolution slapping light sanctions against Iran, Israel is aware of China's many vested interests in the Islamic republic.

"It is still very important to go to Beijing and spell out Israel's concerns over a nuclear Iran. The Chinese, too, do not wish to see an Iranian nuclear bomb and the fact is that they supported the sanctions against Iran," the official said.

Although China has generally kept a low profile in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the recent upsurge in efforts to kickstart the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians will also appear on Olmert's agenda.

The recent visits to Israel of senior Chinese diplomats, including Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, signal its growing involvement in the region.

But China, traditionaly seen as pro-Palestinian, raised the ire of Israel when it hosted Palestinian foreign minister Mahmud al-Zahar of Hamas last June in defiance of an international boycott on the radical Islamic group.

Many of Olmert's talks will evolve around trade issues, and according to government spokeswoman Miri Eisin, "the visit marks an effort to upgrade bilateral economic ties."

China is one of Israel's main clients for agricultural technology, including advanced irrigation and water purification systems, as well as a massive milking farm outside Beijing that Olmert will visit.

But bilateral ties have been hampered in recent years, after US intervention on two occasions scuttled Israeli arms sales to China -- the sale of advanced Phalcon spy planes in 2000, and the sale of spare parts for Israeli-manufactured Harpy drones five years later.

Following these incidents, prime minister Ariel Sharon bowed to Washington's demand to consult it before any sensitive sales to China.

"We know who our strategic ally in the world is and what we can and can't do," Eisin said. "But the United States will not pose any difficulties in our ties with China."

According to another official, "after the Phalcon affair the Israeli-Chinese relations were damaged but since then they have been restored and are today at a very high point."

Other than the cold interest-based ties, the official says the Chinese people also have a high regard for the Israelis.

"They have deep respect for what they call the 'Jewish genius', and for figures such as Yitzhak Rabin," the general-turned-peace-maker who became the first prime minister to visit China in 1993, the official said.

During his three-day visit, which comes 15 years after the establishment of diplomatic ties, Olmert will hold talks with President Hu Jintao and his counterpart Wen Jiabao as well as other senior officials, Eisin told AFP.

For Olmert, whose parents found sanctuary from Jewish persecutions in Ukraine in the the city of Harbin in northeast China in the early 1900s, this will be the second visit in less than three years, but the first visit of an Israeli premier since 1998.

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