China, not Democrats, poses the greatest threat to the U.S.-Israel relationship

Much ink has been spilled about declining support for Israel within the American Left.   Democratic presidential hopefuls shun AIPAC’s annual conference, while progressive firebrands endorse BDS. It is likely that the Democratic Party, barring an unforeseen reinvigoration of the peace process, will grow even more critical of Israel in the years to come.

Yet lost in the media frenzy over progressive antipathy toward the Jewish State is a far graver challenge to the U.S.-Israel relationship. Budding Chinese-Israeli relations, which now span trade, tourism, education, and defense, should concern those who value strong ties between the United States and Israel. As it has grown closer to Beijing, Jerusalem has imperiled — perhaps unwittingly — its special relationship with Washington.

This administration has no qualms about pursuing its strategic rivalry with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) out in the open. Complementing the identification of China as a “revisionist power” in its National Security Strategy, the White House has confronted Beijing Administration officials have informed Germany that it can count on reduced American intelligence sharing if Chinese state-run technology giant Huawei is enlisted to build the country’s 5G infrastructure. The same goes for Israel. During a visit last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said publicly that Washington may scale back security cooperation with Jerusalem in response to growing Sino-Israeli ties. There are also reports that President Trump told Prime Minister Netanyahu more or less the same. Not even Israel, the U.S. government warns, can extricate itself from this great-power competition.

As a sovereign country, Israel is free to conduct foreign policy as it sees fit. Some Israeli engagement with China — projected to dethrone the United States as the world’s largest economy within 15 years — is inevitable. However, the PRC is now undeniably one of Israel’s major partners. Chinese investment has made Israel part of the Belt and Road Initiative, the PRC’s development strategy to dominate global trading routes. Moreover, A Chinese firm has secured a contract to operate a port in Haifa, much to the uneasiness of the U.S. Navy. Between 1992 and 2017, bilateral trade increased by over 26,000 percent (from $50 million to $13.1 billion). It is undeniable that the PRC’s mark on Israel now runs deep.

Perhaps the Netanyahu government believes it can court Chinese investment without repercussions. Think again. The likes of Pakistan, Laos, and Montenegro, among others, have all incurred onerous debt as a result of Chinese predatory lending. Although Israel is richer than these countries and has the means to avoid such debt-trap diplomacy, it should not consider itself immune from the ill effects of Chinese investment. European countries, for instance, have finally woken up to the threats posed by an influx Chinese money (€47 billion since 2010). Skepticism of closer ties to the PRC would serve Israel well.

Vigilant though it may be, Israel’s security apparatus must be remarkably cautious in its dealings with China. The PRC is at best transactional in its foreign policy and at worst exploitative. As for Israel, which applies? Yossi Melman, for one, argues that China has conducted an espionage campaign against Israel (in order to steal American trade secrets) to which Jerusalem at first turned a blind eye. It makes sense that Beijing is seeking a partnership with the most prosperous and strongest country in the Middle East. Its motives, however, may not be benign.

Make no mistake: Israel has no greater friend than the United States. Risking this special relationship for the sake of Chinese investment is a ludicrous gamble, as Elliott Abrams points out. There is no question that realpolitik (initially regarding Soviet Communism and more recently Islamic terrorism) has played a large role in forging deep American-Israeli bonds. Yet liberal democratic norms are the linchpin of the relationship and set it apart from the United States’ ties to other region powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. A liberal democracy China is most certainly not. Any partnership it builds with Israel will be contingent on expediency, not shared values.

Some influential voices have expressed their concern. A number of American foreign-policy experts have identified the manifold risks Jerusalem has incurred through its overtures to Beijing. As for their impact on U.S.-Israel relations, few are sanguine. If it continues courting China, Israel will further jeopardize its invaluable relationship with the United States.

Pompeo’s warning about security cooperation foreshadows a slew of disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem that will surely follow if the status quo holds. Should Israel pursue ever closer relations with China, the American-Israeli relationship may have reached an inflection point. And Jerusalem may have to choose between its most important ally and the world’s ascendant economic superpower as a second Cold War emerges.

It is up to Israel to determine whether closer relations with China are in its national interest. Likewise, it is up to the United States to determine how to respond to growing Sino-Israeli ties. One thing is clear: As the U.S. government publicly voices its misgivings, this issue is not going away. And it may do irreparable damage to a relationship many consider everlasting.

About the Author
Daniel J. Samet is a foreign-affairs researcher based in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared in Freedom House, the National Interest, Washington Jewish Week, and the Jerusalem Post, among other outlets.
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