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China, Israel open talks on free-trade deal

[JERUSALEM] China and Israel formally launched negotiations on Tuesday on a free-trade agreement that officials said could double commerce between the Asian powerhouse and the Middle East's self-styled "start-up nation".

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the talks after he met visiting Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong. The countries, whose current trade is worth about US$8 billion, have held exploratory discussions of the deal since May 2013.

"Cooperation between Israel and China can produce massive results, and we believe that Israel can be the perfect partner," Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office.

It quoted Liu as saying Israel was "world-renowned for its innovation" and that China would embark on "great joint projects" with it.

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Netanyahu wants to diversify Israel's commercial ties abroad, in partly due to what he has said is a need to reduce the country's dependence on its biggest trading partner, Europe.

Disputes with the European Union over policy toward the Palestinians, and EU labelling of products by Israeli settlements in occupied territory, discomfit the Netanyahu government. Israel also worries about anti-Jewish incidents in Europe, such as last year's Islamist attack on a Paris kosher deli.

Netanyahu's office said the free-trade agreement could double bilateral commerce and investment. At Tuesday's meeting, China and Israel also signed 13 cooperation agreements, including in energy and water development, officials said.

A senior Israeli official told Reuters he was optimistic the deal with China could be concluded in about a year.