A recent crisis has been brewing between the United States and Israel that, if not contained, has the potential to fundamentally alter relations between the two countries.
Unlike past standoffs, this face-off is unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the constant tension regarding Iran’s race towards nuclear capability that was rife during the Obama years. Rather, the latest dust-up comes amid the Jewish State’s embrace with China.
On Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said during a visit to Israel that China’s growing investments in Israel could harm intelligence cooperation between Tel Aviv and Washington. According to Brouillette, Beijing’s shopping spree in Israel could potentially damage the Israeli intelligence community’s informational security and make the U.S. more averse to sharing sensitive information.
“We know that the threat is growing each and every day,” Brouillette said. “We’re going to share our experiences with China and let folks know that we have concerns with certain activities that we see coming out of China, specifically certain [electronic] companies.”
The Jewish State would be extremely vulnerable should the U.S. cease sharing its intelligence. While highly regarded around the world, Israeli intelligence is significantly smaller-scale than that of its counterparts in the West. For example, while the U.S. has 16 intelligence agencies, Israel only has the IDF military intelligence, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet internal security agency.
The dearth of resources means that Israel relies heavily on the United States for intelligence, particularly signals and imaging. Due to high costs involved in producing and maintaining satellites, Israel often relies on its wealthy ally for the relevant information. Should the U.S. turn off the spigot, Israel would find itself without a significant strategic asset.
Threats to cease intelligence efforts with Israel would be nothing compared to a decision by the U.S. Navy to stop docking in Israel. Yet that’s what National Security Advisor John Bolton warned might happen as a result of Israel’s sale of its Haifa port to a Chinese corporation.
Israel’s second largest port, the sprawling Haifa complex has long been a base for drills with the U.S. Navy. Yet Bolton said that the sale of the port to China’s Shanghai International Port Group could lead to the Sixth Fleet to cease docking in Israel. Already this past year, the Sixth Fleet docked in the Ashdod port for the first time in years, in what many observers saw as a veiled message to Israel.
In addition, the U.S. also expressed its displeasure over the growing market penetration Chinese telecom companies enjoy in Israel and urged the Jewish State to review its relationship with Beijing.
“We are all concerned about theft of intellectual property and Chinese telecoms companies that are being used by China for intelligence-gathering purposes,” said a senior U.S. official following Bolton’s visit. “We specifically put it on the agenda.”
Should the U.S. follow through and cease docking the Sixth Fleet in Israel, the results would be nothing short of catastrophic for Jerusalem. The Sixth Fleet needs to dock in Haifa for the annual drills it holds with the Israeli Navy. The annual joint drills the U.S. and Israel hold in the region train for scenarios in which the U.S. is forced to intervene should a war against Israel’s Arab neighbors go badly. The drills aren’t just intended for war; the constant training sends a message to adversaries such as Syria and Iran that any assault on Israel could cause them to face the full force of America’s military might.
If the drills cease, it would send a message to Israel’s enemies that U.S. support in a future conflict is not assured. Such a message would be especially auspicious at a time when the U.S. is withdrawing its forces from Syria, despite fervent objections from Israel over fears that this will allow Iran to fill the void.
It’s no secret that the alliance with the U.S. is Israel’s biggest strategic asset. This alliance itself is divided into two tracks: the military-intelligence and the political. While the extent of the alliance with the political echelon often changes due to whoever the voters elect, relations between the IDF and the Pentagon commonly continue unchanged.
The steady nature of the defense alliance was especially pronounced when Barack Obama sat in the Oval Office. Despite facing arguably the most anti-Israel administration in the Jewish State’s 70-year history, defense coordination actually expanded. For example, while Obama was threatening Prime Minister Netanyahu during the early days of the administration, the CIA, NSA, and the Mossad were working full time on a massive cyber assault targeting the Iranian nuclear program known as Stuxnet.
With Washington threatening to hurt the aforementioned defense track, Israel should understandably be doing everything it could to assuage the White House’s concerns over its burgeoning trade with China. Indeed, the normally tight-lipped Nadav Argaman, who heads the Shin Bet internal security agency, said last week that Israel needed to establish a system to monitor Beijing’s penetration of the Israeli market.
“Chinese influence in Israel is particularly dangerous in terms of strategic infrastructure and investments in larger companies,” said Argaman during a speech at Tel Aviv University. The spymaster added that Israel was particularly vulnerable to Chinese meddling “due to gaps in Israeli law in regards to its security needs in terms of overseeing foreign investment.”
Yet assuaging the United States may come at a price, for trade between Israel and China has skyrocketed in recent years. If in 1992 commerce between Israel and China stood at only $50 million annually, by 2017 the number mushroomed to $13 billion, a staggering 260-percent increase. Beijing is now Israel’s third largest trading partner in the world and its largest in Asia, and has been on a recent shopping spree as it continues buying up large Israeli corporations.
Within the last three years, Chinese corporations have snapped up the Israeli dairy giant Tnuva and the Ashdod and Haifa ports. China has also emerged to play a key role in Israel’s tourism industry, a major bedrock of the Jewish State’s economy. A massive influx of Chinese tourists played a key role in making 2018 the best year for tourism in Israel’s history, with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin calling China the market’s biggest growth industry. 113,000 Chinese citizens visited Israel in 2017 alone, a 41-percent increase from the previous annuum.
Should Israel roll back its ties to placate the Trump administration, which has been characterized by its hostile stance towards China, it would be cutting off a massive revenue stream, something that it would be hard-pressed to do when Europe, its largest trade partner, slaps more and more sanctions on Israeli goods due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, should the European economy suffer a recession within the next few years, as many economists predict, the market for Israeli hi-tech would likely dry up.
While no Israeli official dares admit this in public, Israel has also pivoted towards Asia amid fears that its longstanding alliance with the United States may be on its last legs. While the Trump administration is exceedingly friendly towards Jerusalem, today’s Democratic Party has been characterized by new politicians who are known for their extreme anti-Israel positions, such as Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Maxine Waters, and Rashida Tlaib.
As the 2020 presidential election inches closer, Israel is growing increasingly fearful that the chaotic political atmosphere could see someone hostile to Israel, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, win the presidency. Add that to a realistic scenario of UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has made a long string of anti-Semitic statements, moving into 10 Downing Street and it’s obvious why Israel is loathe to lower its increasingly fruitful relationship with Beijing.
Within the next few months, Israel’s leadership will have to make some hard decisions. Either heed Washington’s demands or infuriate China, throwing away the economic windfall that Beijing has brought it.