Middle East conflict: Israeli delegation visits Taiwan in show of commitment to ties as war continues at home

As tensions in the Middle East escalated amid the Israel-Gaza war, an Israeli parliamentary delegation visited Taiwan last week in a show of warming ties with Taipei.

The cross-party delegation, led by chairman of the Knesset’s Israel-Taiwan friendship association, Boaz Toporovsky, met government officials and legislators throughout the trip, including Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, vice-president-elect Hsiao Bi-khim and Legislative Yuan speaker Han Kuo-yu.

The group – the second Israeli parliamentary delegation to visit Taiwan within a year – also visited the Southern Taiwan Science Park and green energy demonstration site in Tainan.

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“With your support, bilateral interactions have recently been very close,” Tsai said at a meeting with the delegation.

During their 30-year informal relationship, Taiwan and Israel have signed 33 agreements to strengthen exchanges in education, public health and other areas, including most recently a tourism agreement signed last month.

In February, Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) established its own Taiwan-Israel parliamentary friendship group. And in March, it donated US$$500,000 to the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel to aid emergency responses in communities affected by the war.

“I look forward to Taiwan and Israel leveraging our industrial strengths and continuing to deepen our partnership, based on our shared values of freedom and democracy, to jointly build more resilient global supply chains,” Tsai said.

The delegation arrived on the island on April 12, just before Iran launched a retaliatory missile attack against Israel on April 13 following Israel’s attack on the Iranian embassy in Damascus on April 1.

Toporovsky, who is a member of the liberal Zionist Yesh Atid party, called Taiwan a “true friend”. He told the meeting with Tsai that Israel “saw, and will always remember, Taiwan’s support after the attack on Israel on October 7” – referring to the attack last year by Hamas on Israel – as well as support offered by Taiwan over Iran’s recent attack.

“Taiwanese and Israelis have much in common as small but strong democracies in a harsh environment,” Toporovsky said, according to a press release from the office of the president in Taiwan. “It is time that our friendship became even stronger, and that we collaborated in more and more fields.”

Israel’s cross-party delegation met Taiwanese government officials and legislators throughout their trip. Photo: Handout

The delegation attended a Holocaust Memorial Day event which Taipei organises every year with Israeli and German representative offices.

The visit faced some backlash from the Taiwanese public. On Tuesday, protesters gathered outside the Legislative Yuan to denounce Tsai’s meeting with the Israelis and called on Taiwanese legislators involved in the Taiwan-Israel parliamentary friendship group to address the situation in Gaza.

The office of Chung Chia-pin, the head of the friendship group, told Taiwan News: “Taiwan joins peace-loving democratic partners around the world in condemning the war, calling on all parties concerned to exercise self-restraint, and to resolve differences through communication to avoid the continued expansion of the crisis”.

Ties between Israel and Taipei have been warming in recent years as Israel’s relationship with Beijing has gradually cooled, in part because of the influence of the United States.

In Israel, the “anti-China wave” began long before Hamas’ October 7 attack, but China’s vocal support for Palestinians, calls for a ceasefire and meetings with Hamas leaders made Israel believe “China is not a friend, maybe not even a partner, [it is] a threat. So maybe we should do other things and not be so afraid of cooperating with Taiwan,” said Mor Sobol, assistant professor of international affairs at Tamkang University in Taipei.

Although no new agreements were signed during last week’s trip, the visit to Taiwan by Israeli lawmakers during wartime was significant, Sobol said.

Israeli military intelligence chief resigns over October 7 attack

Mainland China’s response to Israel’s war has been seen in stark contrast to that of Taiwan, which immediately condemned the October 7 attack that killed more than 1,100 people as terrorism. Israelis have also taken note of and expressed appreciation for Taipei’s immediate condemnation of the Iranian attack on Israel last week, which Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “seriously damaged global peace and stability”.

The statement by mainland China’s foreign ministry, which is similar to others Beijing has made throughout the war, called on “relevant parties to exercise calm and restraint to prevent further escalation”.

Despite heightened tensions between Israel and mainland China, trade between the two sides continued to grow in 2023. Analysts expect positive trade relations between Israel and Beijing to persist, but say the decline in security cooperation over the past several years is likely to continue.

Taiwan saw the war as an opportunity to learn from Israel’s defence strategies and advance bilateral ties, and was attempting to show Israel Taiwan was a “reliable partner,” Taiwan’s representative to Israel, Abby Lee, told the South China Morning Post this month.

Mostly, ties in areas such as the economy, environment and education have flourished between Taiwan and Israel, with numerous new agreements signed in recent years. Bilateral trade has grown steadily, rising to more than US$3.2 billion in 2022 from US$2.4 billion the previous year.

Taiwan has expressed particular interest in expanding ties with Israel on technology and innovation, as well as on defence.

“I think [Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs] feels much more confident in not being very reluctant, and being assertive toward seeking cooperation in Israel and publicising it as well, even in the context of defence that came from the think tank world as well as from public officials,” academic Sobol said.

But while Taiwan has made many expressions of interest in unofficial defence cooperation, there has been little action. Sobol said Israel’s preoccupation with the war was one reason, as well as the sensitivity of security ties, but also the vagueness of plans on Taiwan’s side.

Taiwan says it wants to learn more from Israeli cyber, intelligence and reserve mobilisation, but “there is no concrete understanding of what we want to extract, how we are going to do it, and how we are going to sync it to the Taiwanese context,” Sobol said.

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