Israel not expected to join ‘bizarre’ U.S. boycott of Winter Olympics in China

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Israel is not expected to join the U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in China next year, a senior Israeli official told Haaretz on Tuesday. The official described the diplomatic boycott of the games as “bizarre” and added sarcastically that “Israel’s snow sledding team is already warming up on the sidelines.”

This week, the White House announced that no American government officials would attend the games in Beijing next year, including the opening and closing ceremonies, in protest at China’s human rights record.

The American boycott of the games, which will be taking place in February, does not include athletes on the U.S. team. It is more of a diplomatic snub that will not have an impact on the sporting events themselves. It’s not clear if the U.S. has asked its close allies, including Israel, to take a similar step.

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“The athletes on Team USA have our full support,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, according to a report in USA Today. “We will be behind them 100 percent as we cheer them on from home.” But she added: “We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the games.”

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Explaining the Biden administration’s decision, Psaki cited China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.” She added the administration did not wish to prevent American athletes from competing but still wanted to signal its disapproval of China’s actions. “It cannot be business as usual,” she said.

Following the U.S. announcement, Australia was the first U.S. ally to join in the boycott. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, like President Joe Biden, emphasized that while Australian athletes would be attending the games, Australian diplomats and government officials would not. The decision to join America’s boycott was “not surprising,” he said, considering the growing tensions in recent months between China and Australia.


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President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in November.Susan Walsh / AP

The Chinese embassy in Canberra said in response that “Australia’s success at the Beijing Winter Olympics depends on the performance of Australian athletes, not on the attendance of Australian officials and the political posturing by some Australian politicians.”

By signaling that it won’t join the American boycott, Israel could disappoint its closest ally.

The issue of Israeli-Chinese relations has been a source of tension between Washington and Jerusalem in recent years, particularly when it comes to Chinese involvement in major infrastructure projects in Israel. The United States also attaches importance to cultural competition with China, and if other U.S. allies later decide to join the boycott, Israel could face additional pressure to follow suit.

President Isaac Herzog in London, in November.Justin Tallis / Reuters

Last month, Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, had a telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first since Herzog took office earlier this year. The call was described as “friendly” and took place after repeated signals from top U.S. officials that they expect Israel to stand with America in its dispute with Beijing.

The call came just days after Biden and Xi held a three-hour conversation of their own in which they agreed to tread carefully as their nations navigate an increasingly fraught competitive relationship.

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