The demand, which came just days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Jerusalem and asked Israel to reconsider some of its joint projects with China, marked an escalation. In previous public statements, Ambassador David Friedman and other State Department officials had focused on the establishment of a more robust review process for foreign investments that could pose risks, and a reduction of reliance on China for emergency equipment in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
But now, the Trump administration seems to be asking Israel to take concrete steps that could jeopardize ties between Jerusalem and Beijing.
For those following the Israel-US-China triangle in recent years, this should come as no surprise. For too long, Israel has cozied up to China while ignoring potential ramifications or fallout with its greatest ally, the United States.
All in all – together with additional tenders that are still ongoing – Chinese companies are operating in Israel today in deals reaching more than $20 billion and more is on the way. Jerusalem has gone so far as to even allow Chinese companies that do business in Iran to compete for major infrastructure projects in the State of Israel.
The US request is based on two motivations. The first seems to be a desire to punish China for hiding news of the original outbreak of the novel coronavirus from the world and then not doing enough to stop it from reaching US shores. President Donald Trump, for example, has long called COVID-19 a “Chinese virus,” going so far as to accuse President Xi Jinping for standing behind a “disinformation and propaganda attack on the United States and Europe.”
“It all comes from the top,” Trump tweeted. “They could have easily stopped the plague, but they didn’t!” Earlier this month, Pompeo told ABC’s This Week that there is “enormous evidence” that the virus came from a Chinese lab in Wuhan, the original site of the outbreak.
The US is upset with China and wants it to pay a price.
The best way to do that is to hurt its pocket and to get American allies like Israel to reconsider their trade and joint infrastructure projects with China.
The second motivation is the fear from Chinese espionage. Back in 2000, after the cancellation of the planned sale of the Phalcon AWACS China, Israel made a decision not to sell Beijing any military equipment. It was a decision based on an ultimatum that if Israel continued selling weaponry to China it would lose American support.
That same ultimatum is coming back, although for the time being, the message is being conveyed in diplomatic terms. The US and Israel share some of the most sensitive intelligence with one another. In addition, American defense contractors sell Israel some of the most classified military hardware and weapons in the US like the F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighter jet.
The US is concerned that with China building most of Israel’s infrastructure – roads, trains, tunnels, ports and more – it will eventually gain access to the lines of communication through which Israel and the US communicate intelligence with one another. That is something that Washington will not tolerate.
It is time for Israel to begin to take this more seriously.
Last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet approved the establishment of an oversight mechanism that was supposed to finally synergize between different agencies and ensure that any deal with China is first vetted and verified.
The US though is not happy with this mechanism. A senior State Department official told Harkov that Israel needs a mechanism with greater enforcement and teeth.
“I don’t think polite deflection will cut it anymore,” he stated. “This is a high priority for the US.”
Israel’s government now includes two former chiefs of staff – Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz – who more than others, understand the importance of Israel-US ties. China is an important trade partner for Israel and we hope it will remain that way but clearer lines need to be drawn and there is no better time to do so than the present.