Jerusalem is tempted by investment from Beijing, as well as the idea that it can’t be solely dependent on an unreliable American ally. But it must not be neutral in this conflict.
By Jonathan Tobin, JNS.org
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 towards 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 attitude is understandable. But that is especially true at a time when the United States becomes obsessed with appeasement of rogue states like Iran, the chimera of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, as well as when it demonstrates an increasing disinterested in engagement in the Middle East. The recent failures of the Biden administration fuel the disillusion some Israelis feel with the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Israelis should have their eyes wide open about the problems associated with their dependence on the United States 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 viable diplomatic options is that there is no real alternative to the United States.
As much as it might be entertaining for some 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 efforts to restrain Beijing’s efforts to achieve global economic and military hegemony.
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 then, China has emerged from Maoist totalitarianism with a prosperous semi-free capitalist economic system while retaining its brutal Communist government. That has allowed it to become a global economic power, as well as one with strategic ambitions that rightly frighten the West. At the same time, Israel went from being an economic basket case to having a First World “Startup Nation” economy. 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 specify 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 as it begins to flex its muscles there, too.
Still, a difference exists between that and the sort of wholehearted embrace of the China option that some supposedly smart people in Israel desire.
Israel and China are not “partners”
China has been profligate in throwing money around all over the globe as it flaunts its ambition to, at the very least, achieve full superpower status alongside that of the United States and to eventually surpass it. So it’s hardly surprising that at a time when Israel is looking for more investment in its burgeoning high-tech sector, some believe that Beijing can provide exactly what the Jewish state needs.
As David Feith, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs noted in an insightful op-ed published this past summer in The Washington Post, 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 United States 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 or regulating their activities. Indeed, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly boasted of his unwillingness to do anything to stop the spread of their influence inside Israel.
While Netanyahu generally was a master of foreign relations, this was a mistake. The fact that, 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,” 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 Secretary 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 U.S. Navy after years of its Mediterranean fleet treating the northern Israeli city as a home away from home.
Some of Netanyahu’s devoted admirers believe that current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who put together the government that ousted him from office, is bungling Israeli foreign policy. In many respects they are right, but what they forget is that Netanyahu’s efforts to woo Beijing were an abysmal failure.
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 they 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.
Also delusional is the idea that high-tech investments will alter China’s basic orientation away from an effort to co-opt and profit from the success of radical forces in the region. Israelis think of themselves as partners with the Chinese and believe that they are influencing it to be more favorable with them. 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 in the same unfair manner as most of the other members of the United Nations.
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 when it comes to the Palestinians and Iran. But statements like his claim that American fears about China’s push for global dominance are baseless demonstrate his utter cluelessness about the subject.
So when some Netanyahu fans criticized the new government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Lapid for voting with the West to condemn the Chinese government’s crimes against the Uyghurs at the United Nations 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 pre-eminent 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. Its recent violations of Taiwanese airspace are a sign that if the democracies don’t start acting as if they are serious about containing Beijing’s aggressive instincts, the problem will only become more dangerous.
Israel is neither an American vassal nor the 51st state. But as much as it may daydream about being free of the Americans, as a democracy whose fate is ultimately linked to that of the security of the West, 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.
Jonathan Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.