Any time Israel has reason to doubt the reliability of America’s friendship, some in the Jewish state start thinking about the need to re-evaluate its attitude toward the world. That usually involves a desire to stop thinking of itself solely as part of an alliance with other Western democracies and instead to start acting like a fully independent state that is solely focused on its own interests.
That sort of realpolitik is understandable, especially so when the US is obsessed with appeasement of rogue states like Iran, the chimera of a two-state solution, disengagement in the Middle East.
Israelis should have their eyes wide open about the problems associated with their dependence on the US for military aid and seek more independence in that sector.
But the problem with thinking that it should look elsewhere for friends to give it different diplomatic options is that there is no real alternative to the US.
As much as it might be entertaining to fantasize about a world in which the Jewish state could operate on its own, Israel’s leaders are not playing a board game like “Risk,” where all players are equal and free to make and break alliances with each other.
That’s why Jerusalem must be especially careful to resist the temptation to get closer with China or to distance itself from America’s often inconsistent effort to restrain Beijing.
When China first began to open up to international business and diplomacy in the late 1980s, few nations were as eager to take advantage of it as Israel. After many years of relative isolation in which it was shunned and boycotted by third world nations and the Soviet bloc, it was understandable that the Jewish state would see the chance of ties with Beijing as a golden opportunity.
In the three decades since, China has emerged from Maoist totalitarianism with a prosperous semi-free capitalist economic system while retaining its brutal communist government. It has become a global economic power with strategic ambitions that rightly frighten the West. Meanwhile, Israel went from being an basket case to a first world “startup nation.”
That has led some to believe that close business ties and better relations with China should also be a priority for Israel.
It’s important to stipulate that Israel must to some extent engage with and be careful to keep open communication with other powers. That’s especially true with respect to Russia, which is a military force in the Middle East and possesses powerful influence in the region.
That will also have to be the case with China. Still, there is a difference exists between that and a wholehearted embrace of China some in Israel desire.
China has been profligate in throwing money around all over the globe as it flaunts its ambition to, achieve full superpower status alongside that of the US and to eventually surpass it. So it’s hardly surprising that when Israel is looking for more investment in its burgeoning high-tech sector, some believe that Beijing can provide it.
David Feith, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs published an insightful op-ed this past summer in the Washington Post. He noted that Chinese investors, state-owned enterprises and tech firms, such as Huawei and Alibaba, acquired or invested in some 463 Israeli companies between 2002 and December, 2020.
While the US and other nations have sometimes turned a blind eye to the illicit activities of companies like Huawei, which are rightly feared as agents of influence doing the will of the Chinese Communist Party, Israel has been particularly disinterested in keeping tabs on or regulating their activities.
While former PM Netanyahu generally was a master of foreign relations, his embrace of China was a mistake. As Feith pointed out, “Chinese firms built or are operating some $4 billion of Israeli infrastructure, including Tel Aviv’s light rail, the Ashdod port and the Carmel tunnels.” This is troubling.
Netanyahu did listen to the very friendly Trump administration when it demanded that he keep Huawei from developing Israel’s 5G Internet networks and prevent the Chinese from acquiring a desalination plant.
But the former prime minister’s green light, despite strong objections from Trump and a steadfast friend like former Sec. of State Mike Pompeo, for China to begin operating a terminal at the port of Haifa was a blunder. That could eventually render it unusable for the US Navy after years of its Mediterranean fleet treating the northern Israeli city as a home away from home.
This past March, months before Netanyahu’s ouster, China signed a $400 billion agreement with Iran that altered the correlation of forces in the Middle East.
That pact more or less guaranteed that Tehran could resist Western sanctions because it gave them a reliable market for the sale of their oil.
The massive Chinese investment in Iranian infrastructure, which dwarfs the money China has spent in Israel, as well as the prospect of even greater cooperation between the two countries, decisively strengthened the major regional threat to Israeli security.
Israelis think of themselves as partners with the Chinese and believe that they are influencing it to be more favorably disposed to Israel. But the contempt the CCP has for the Jewish state was on full display in May when China condemned Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Hamas terrorism.
At the heart of this problem is a belief by some that China poses no threat to the West or Israel. Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who is viewed by some as a potential successor to Netanyahu at the head of the Likud, is a voice of reason on the Palestinians and Iran. But his claim that American fears about China’s push for global dominance are baseless demonstrate his cluelessness on this subject.
When some Netanyahu fans criticized the new Israel government for voting with the West at the UN to condemn the Chinese government’s crimes against the Uighurs as naive or a missed opportunity to trade Israeli indifference to genocide for Chinese support elsewhere, they weren’t merely advocating an immoral policy. They illustrated how blind some in the Jewish state are to the preeminent threat to the West in the 21st century.
China’s use of its Internet resources, social-media companies like TikTok and its expanding investment portfolio is now widely seen by sensible majorities of both Republicans and Democrats as a growing problem. Those worries are compounded by the way Beijing is using the weakness of the Biden administration in the aftermath of the Afghanistan debacle to throw its weight around. China is recent violations of Taiwanese air space are a sign that if the democracies don’t start acting serious about containing Beijing’s aggressive instincts, the problem will only become more dangerous.
Israel has a clear stake in the effort to stop China. Like it or not, it must choose a side in that struggle. Anyone who thinks it can remain neutral is ignoring both the Jewish state’s best interests as well as those of the only country with whom it shares the sort of values that make alliances last.