Given the pandas' ubiquity and cuteness, it's easy to forget what a weird diplomatic tactic loaning them is. Pandas are a strange lot. They are notoriously difficult to breed and expensive to keep (U.S. zoos have complained that the animals cost more to maintain than they bring in extra revenue). And although they look cuddly enough, the creatures sometimes have an unpleasant demeanor. "Mean-spirited, mate-abusing, progeny-mauling, deviant monsters" is the way my colleague Ishaan Tharoor once described them.
In the complicated world of diplomacy between Israel and China, perhaps a panda makes sense. The two countries may seem like close allies now, but it hasn't always been the case — and things are already more complicated than meets the eye.
In 1950, a newly established Israel was the first Middle Eastern nation to recognize the Communist Party as the legitimate leader of China. Israel had some reason to look kindly upon China: About 20,000 Jews had taken refuge in the country during World War II. However, for decades after the People's Republic of China was established, relations were strained. China had little, if any, diplomatic ties with Israel and instead emphasized its support for Palestinian groups: It became one of the first non-Arab states to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and developed a relationship with Yasser Arafat.
By the mid-1980s, things were beginning to change behind the scenes: China, rapidly modernizing, was starting to secretly eye Israel technology. In 1992, after Israel and the PLO began peace negotiations, China established diplomatic relations with the country. Relations bloomed. Israel rapidly became the second-biggest arms supplier to China (which, in turn, led to protests from the United States) and bilateral trade boomed — the volume increasing from almost $50 million in 1992 to more than $10 billion in 2013.
Today, both countries play up their relationship. In a video address to China in January to mark the Year of the Dragon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was "confident that the coming year will bring a deepening of the friendship between the two peoples." In return, Gao Yanping, China's ambassador to Israel, wrote that "it is my firm belief that, through our joint efforts, Sino-Israeli relations will enjoy wider and greater prospects!"
However, there are signs that it may not always be an easy relationship. China may be friends with Israel, but it also enjoys good relations with many Arab nations. It remains tied to the Palestinian cause and recognized Hamas as the leader of the Gaza Strip after the group won Palestinian elections in 2006, despite Israel and the United States designating Hamas a terrorist organization (China does not classify Lebanon's Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, either). It remains critical of Israeli settlements built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and condemned the Israeli response to an international flotilla carrying aid and activists to Gaza in 2010.
Perhaps even tougher may be Beijing's friendly relationship with Iran and its support for Tehran at the United Nations. That support has been tempered in the past few years (after significant lobbying from Israel), but it remains an awkward issue. "As the People's Republic discovers the Jews, it should remember an old Yiddish proverb," Oren Kessler, a former editor at the Jerusalem Post who is now deputy director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in 2012. "You can't dance at two weddings at once."
These mixed diplomatic signals seem to reflect the general confusion among both nations' citizenry. In a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, just 15 percent of Israelis said China was a partner. Almost as many (13 percent) said it was an enemy, and 67 percent said it was neither. In a 2014 poll conducted by the BBC, 39 percent of Chinese people had a negative view of Israel while only 13 percent had a positive view. Things were almost as bad in Israel, where just 27 percent had a positive view of China while 34 percent held a negative view.
In this light, perhaps the gift of a panda — a creature that often refuses to procreate and is far less cute than its fluffy public persona may suggest — is appropriate. But perhaps Netanyahu should be careful when accepting panda diplomacy. In 1973, a BBC documentary noted that a number of world leaders who received pandas from China, including Nixon, Britain's Edward Heath and Japan's Kakuei Tanaka, were soon forced out of office. "Panda diplomacy" can sometimes become a "panda curse."