“You have the Americans now, but in 50 years, you’ll be on our side”
US-Israel relations are generally considered to be rock solid, having survived many changes of administration and moves by both parties that weren’t always beneficial to the other.
The cornerstone of that seemingly unshakable connection is a shared faith in the Bible. But as more and more Americans no longer live their lives according to the Word of God, US national interests today rival Christian faith as the driving force behind their government policies vis-à-vis the Jewish state. For many, American nationalism has become their religion.
Enter China, and we begin to see that US-Israel relations are perhaps not so unassailable as many had hoped.
What’s the deal?
Israel has for years been cultivating warmer ties with China. There are two big reasons (and many smaller ones) for this:
- China is a growing consumer of Israeli products, in particular its technological innovations (including in the military sphere);
- China is a major player in the Middle East, politically and economically, and Israel needs to make sure it doesn’t end up wholly siding with the Arabs.
Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo braved the ongoing coronavirus crisis to visit Israel. According to Israeli media, the top item on the agenda was growing ties between Israel and China.
Dr. Shira Efron is a visiting fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is also a Special Advisor on Israel with the RAND Corporation. “Israel,” she told journalists during a briefing hosted by the Jerusalem Press Club, “is attempting to walk a delicate balance between the US and China.”
The present tension between the US and Israel over China has been a long time coming, Efron said.
The problem, she explained, is that Israel “did not anticipate how quickly China would become a serious rival to the US.”
This already happened during the Obama Administration, which “pivoted to Asia because it identified China as the most likely challenge to US hegemony and primacy.”
The situation has only escalated under US President Donald Trump, who Efron noted has taken a much more emotional tone against China by regularly comparing opposing values.
Even so, this is a bipartisan issue. If Joe Biden beats Trump in the upcoming US presidential election, nothing will change on the China front.
Efron warned: “When I speak to US officials, the idea is that there is such strong partnership between the US and Israel … [but] if there’s one thing that can drive Israel and the US apart it is Israel’s ties with China.
Pompeo reportedly impressed on Netanyahu not only the risk of doing business with the Chinese, but the damage it could do to US-Israel relations.
The risk to Israel isn’t only in harming relations with Washington.
“China invests in a lot of infrastructure outside their borders,” explained Efron. “Israel is a unique case. They usually invest in infrastructure in developing countries, and tech in developed countries. In Israel, China does both.”
Indeed, Chinese companies already own several major Israeli food manufacturers, have stakes in Israel’s major sea ports, and only narrowly lost out on a recent tender to build the largest desalination plant in the Middle East.
The problem here, said Efron, is that “China’s interests in the Middle East are not aligned with Israel’s. For one, they are strategic partners of Iran. There’s a totally different set of values and considerations” between the two countries, as opposed to the shared values and considerations of Israel and the US.
During Pompeo’s aforementioned visit, members of the US delegation insisted that “the Chinese are not a reliable partner,” and reminded Israel that “there is no such thing as a privately owned, independent company in China.”
Israel is keen to diversify its trading partners, and as part of that effort tries to differentiate between economic and political considerations. That can be tricky when it comes to China.
But Israel sees this as critical for two reasons:
- The BDS movement has had some limited success in harming Israeli trade with Europe. There’s concern that this could become a bigger problem in the future;
- The US, especially under Trump, is becoming more protectionist, with a focus on moving jobs back to American soil.
And then there’s China, a massive market that’s hungry for Israeli innovation.
What would Dr. Efron tell the Israeli government to do during this delicate phase? She identified two main pieces of advice for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
- “COVID-19 exacerbated US-China tension, and I wouldn’t risk getting in the middle of that. Don’t rush into signing anything. Even if there are economic advantages. The optics would not be good. I would lay low. At least until after November.”
- “Israel in Oct. 2019 in response to US pressure announced the establishment of screening on foreign investments. It was a vague announcement with lots of leeway. I’d urge the prime minister to strengthen this mechanism now (to more vigorously screen investments) before the US brings more pressure to bear.”
Dr. Efron added: “Israel can still partner with China on other issues, such as water and food security. But we must understanding from the US explicitly what their red lines are and work within that allowed space. It would be a mistake for Israel to pick a fight at this time.”
Could China ever replace the US as Israel’s most important ally?
Dr. Efron, who naturally wasn’t considering the faith-based foundation of current US-Israel relations, was asked if China could in the future become more important to Israel than the US.
She noted that on the economic front, trade between Israel and China still isn’t all that significant. Most of Israel’s trade is still with the US and Europe, and most companies in Israel would much prefer Western investment.
But, Efron continued, “US foreign investment is going to be in decline, and Chinese less so. And so the dependency on China could grow.”
She then recalled a recent interaction that no doubt fuels American concerns over present Israel-China relations:
“An Israeli general told me that he met with a group of Chinese military officials, with US knowledge and approval. A Chinese official asked at the end of that meeting, ‘You keep talking about that US as a strategic ally, but how long will that last?’
“The Israeli general replied, ‘What do you mean? We don’t look that far ahead.’
“The Chinese official predicted, ‘We know you have the Americans now, but in 50 years, you’ll be on our side.’”
Originally posted at israeltoday.co.il