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Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu to visit China to enhance ties

Jerusalem:  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive in China on Monday, in a rare visit Israeli officials hope will increase exports to the Asian economic giant.

The Israeli premier will also reiterate his concerns over Iran's nuclear programme with the Chinese leadership and discuss the peace talks with the Palestinians.

"We hope the visit serves to upgrade the level of cooperation between the two countries," Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev told AFP. "China and Israel have both much to gain from enhanced cooperation, and that's our goal."

The two countries established diplomatic ties in 1992, and the last Israeli premier to visit was then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, who travelled to Beijing in 2007.

In 2012, Israel imported 5.32 billion dollars (3.8 billion euros) in goods from China and exported 2.74 billion dollars, according to official figures.

China is "one of our most important trade partners, and there is much potential in drawing Chinese investments to Israel," said Eli Belotsercovsky, director of economic relations with India and China at Israel's foreign ministry.

"The idea is to draw the attention of the Chinese establishment and state-owned enterprises," he said.

"There are a number of fields essential to China's development goals, and we have a lot to contribute," he continued, noting hi-tech, renewable energy, desalination, communications, medical equipment and agriculture.

Netanyahu will spend the first two days of his visit in Shanghai, where he will focus on economic and trade issues, before heading to Beijing for meetings with the Chinese leadership, including recently appointed President Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang.

"The fact that Netanyahu is meeting with the new Chinese leaders to base a close and intimate dialogue and establish the ability to convey messages directly is very important to us," said director of the Northeast Asia division at the foreign ministry, Hagai Shagrir.

"We see this visit as an excellent opportunity to establish economic ties, promote Chinese investments in Israel, encourage them to open research and development centres in Israel and invest in infrastructures," he told AFP.

According to Tehila Levi-Lati, an Israeli attorney whose law firm joined forces with a Chinese office and specialises in trade between the countries, "in China, the government authority is everything".

"Therefore governmental officials joining business meetings open doors, especially at the level of a prime minister," she told AFP.

Netanyahu is also expected to push for Chinese backing on harsher sanctions against Iran in a bid to slow its nuclear programme, which Israel and western countries suspect is aimed at developing nuclear weapons.

Iran has repeatedly denied this, and says its programme is for energy and medical purposes only.

"I'm sure we'll be discussing Middle Eastern issues, the peace process and of course challenges to regional stability," Regev said.

China is a member of the P5+1 group of nations - the five veto-wielding permanent UN Security Council members and Germany - that has been pressing Iran over its nuclear programme.

It is also one of the biggest customers for Iran's oil, and has publicly resisted joining the Western sanctions imposed on Tehran.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas will visit Beijing between Sunday and Tuesday, and according to the official Xinhua news agency, China would be willing to arrange a meeting between him and Netanyahu, though the two leaders will not be in the city at the same time.

Beijing has traditionally remained distant from Middle Eastern affairs, although it has begun to take a more active diplomatic role in recent years.

Netanyahu is due back in Israel on Friday.

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