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Why Israel and Taiwan are forging a closer relationship

For decades, they have sought to form a relationship underpinned equally by their particular circumstances and connection to America
The Taiwanese flag flies at the Jeffrey D Schwartz Jewish Community Center of Taiwan in Taipei on 26 October 2023 (Reuters)
The Taiwanese flag flies at the Jeffrey D Schwartz Jewish Community Center of Taiwan in Taipei on 26 October 2023 (Reuters)

In a bid to break out of Israel's growing international isolation, an Israeli parliamentary delegation visited Taiwan in late April, highlighting the strengthening relationship between the countries.

This trip marked the second such cross-party Israeli delegation within a year. Despite lacking official diplomatic ties, the two sides share similar historical circumstances. Israel was founded in 1948 and Taiwan was founded in 1949. Both serve as sanctuaries for their respective political projects.

Relations between the two sides have noticeably warmed since the Hamas-led 7 October attack on Israel that killed more than 1,100 people.

Following the assault, Taipei donated more than half-a-million dollars to Israel to help soldiers and their families and to fund municipal services.

Israel’s subsequent war on Gaza has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, resulting in accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

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This hasn’t fazed Taiwan, the US-backed island that seeks to assert its identity as a nation but is claimed by China as a breakaway province.

“It was Mao Zedong who said, ‘Israel and Taiwan are bases of operation for imperialism in Asia. They created Israel for the Arabs and Taiwan for us. They both have the same objective’. So almost automatically, if China supports a side, then Taiwan will support the other,” Arnaud Bertrand, an expert on China, told Middle East Eye.

“In Taiwan, much like in Israel, a very large percentage of the population is relatively new to the territory as they arrived during the 20th century.”

China has historically been supportive of the Palestinian cause, said Bertrand, much to Israel's chagrin.

In February, the Chinese representative to the ICJ said the Palestinians’ use of armed struggle to gain independence from foreign and colonial rule was “legitimate” and “well-founded” in international law.

China's President Xi Jinping and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands ahead of their talks at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on 21 March 2017 (AFP)

Against this backdrop, Taiwan and Israel have found a common cause. Over the past 50 years of their informal relationship, they have signed dozens of agreements to strengthen bilateral ties. In 2022, Israel’s trade with Taiwan reached more than $2.67bn.

Additionally, the glue that binds them and their existence together depends “almost entirely on US imperialistic support,”said Bertrand.

“So, in a way, they are kindred spirits and they are each well aware that the fall of one would make the position of the other more fragile, as it would set a precedent. This is a key reason why they support each other: their fate is bound that way.”

Ties develop

The increasingly warm ties between Taiwan and Israel in recent decades weren't always a foregone conclusion, despite their common dependence on the US.

China's Nationalist government was supportive of Israel as it emerged from the 1948 Nakba. However, after the Chinese civil war forced the Nationalists out of mainland China and onto Taiwan, Israel recognised the new Communist administration in Beijing in 1950.

Israel's approach was based on the assumption that being the first Middle Eastern country to recognise Beijing would help forge a long-standing alliance. 

While it took several decades for China to establish relations with all Middle Eastern countries, Beijing initially had no interest in diplomatic relations with Israel.

In 1951, Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai emphasised that “China will not establish relations ... with Israel. Establishing relations with Israel will not bring anything substantial and besides, this can lead to a worsening of relations with the countries of the Arab League.”

Taiwan initially avoided, at least publicly, drawing closer to Israel. Up until 1971, Taipei enjoyed full diplomatic relations with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

In addition to the diplomatic assistance the countries provided, Arab Gulf states also accounted for 99 percent of Taiwan’s oil needs.

An Israeli cross-party delegation led by the chair of the Knesset’s Israel-Taiwan friendship association, Boaz Toporovsky, met President Tsai Ing-wen on 23 April 2024 (Handout)

That, however, hasn’t stopped the two sides from discreetly developing “very close security cooperation between the 1960s and the 1980s”, said Mor Sobol, an expert on China and Middle East relations at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

During this period, Israel, Taiwan and apartheid South Africa formed what the Los Angeles Times called in a 1980s article an “Alliance of the Shunned”.

While Israel, like much of the rest of the world, follows the One China policy and doesn’t officially recognise Taiwan, there has been a shift since 7 October, “given the strong support from Taiwan and the increasing hostility from Beijing”, Sobol told MEE.

'As Taiwan seeks to please the US, it would support any country that enjoys the backing of the American administration'

Mor Sobol, Tamkang University

Sobol said supporting Israel following the Hamas-led attack is "morally justified", but there are other reasons as well. In recent months, Chinese pressure on Taiwan has been growing, with fears in Taipei that Beijing intends to seize control militarily.

“One could argue that Taiwan supports Israel because both belong to the like-minded countries' alliance that shares democratic and liberal values,” he said.

“Another argument could be made that as Taiwan seeks to please the US, it would support any country that enjoys the backing of the American administration.”

On the Israeli side, Sobol noted a “slight shift and less reluctance to criticise China publicly”.

While the shift may have started before 7 October, owing to American pressure on allies to limit ties with China, “some circles in Israel - for example, the security establishment and academia - are starting to question Israel's policies vis-a-vis Beijing and are asking whether it is time to get closer to Taipei,” said Sobol. 

Taiwan's relationship with Israel, however, remains sensitive. Taipei seems acutely aware that it cannot burn all its bridges with the Arab and Muslim world by aligning too closely with Israel.

In May, Taiwan announced a $500,000 donation to help supply Palestinians in Gaza with food, clean water, clothing and tents.

The same month, TaiwanPlus, a public media outlet, ran a segment on why a large portion of the Taiwanese public sympathises with Israel over Palestine. Initially published on X (formerly Twitter) and YouTube, the video was quickly pulled. 

“They quickly unpublished it because they presumably realised how bad that made them look and undermined their goal of garnering more international support for their cause,” said Bertrand. 

Changing views among ordinary people

A recent poll by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation found that just over 35 percent of the population sided with Israel, while just under 15 percent sympathised with Palestinians.

Several concerts organised by the Friends of Israel Alliance have been held across the island. During at least one event, peaceful pro-Palestinian protesters were attacked by security.

Hazem Almassry, a Palestinian from Gaza and a research fellow at National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, said views among ordinary people are mixed when it comes to Israel and Palestine.

Almassry, who moved to Taiwan to pursue a doctorate in 2016, now watches from afar as much of the life he left behind has been reduced to rubble by Israel.

People in Taiwan were asked if they support Israel or Palestine in a poll (Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation)

“While there is a general trend of viewing Israel positively in Taiwan due to technological and economic ties, there are also significant voices of concern about the humanitarian impact of the occupation and the military actions of Israel in Gaza,” Almassry told MEE. 

“Many Taiwanese people I've spoken with are curious about the reasons behind the conflict and the daily realities of life in Gaza,” he said.

“They often express surprise at the level of hardship faced by Palestinians and are sympathetic once they understand more about the situation.”

'Many Taiwanese are influenced by the Israeli narrative and have little information about the Nakba and historical rights in Palestine'

- Hazem Almassry, National Chiao Tung University fellow

Taiwanese perspectives on Israel and Palestine are largely shaped by their country's perceived geopolitical needs. Many see Israel as part of the same strategic camp as Taiwan and the US while viewing China's support for Palestine as being in an opposite camp. 

"Many people are influenced by the Israeli narrative and have little information about the Palestinian Nakba and historical rights in Palestine," said Almassry, referring to the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 during the establishment of Israel. 

The global attention Israel's war on Gaza has received has prompted ordinary people in Taiwan to learn more about the conflict. Many are "unaware of the difficulties imposed by Israel, such as checkpoints, walls, killings, home demolitions, and other measures that severely impact daily life", said Almassry.

"Once they hear our story and perspective, they immediately show sympathy with the Palestinians. The academic community in Taiwan also shows a growing interest in the Middle East, which includes a critical examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"This academic curiosity is helping to create a more informed and balanced perspective amongst students and scholars."

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