When Israeli officials claim the country’s controversial Judicial overhaul poses no harm to Israel’s national security, they almost certainly have Israel’s essential strategic relationship with the United States in mind. How the Middle East and Asia view Israel’s current troubles and their possible impact on its national security is a different matter.
A few days after Israel’s November 2022 elections, the country began to slip into its most serious domestic crisis since its founding in 1948. At the same time, the Chinese were entering the Middle East in major, visible ways. They did not walk into the region in military boots as the Russians do, they came in soft silk slippers.
On December 7, President Xi arrived in Saudi Arabia for a long-awaited three-day state visit. He met the 21 main leaders of the Arab world. Forty of the agreements that were signed position China as a key partner of the Arab world. They demonstrate that Saudi Arabia has options other than America, reiterate China’s traditional support for a Palestinian state in accordance with the 1967 “borders” with East Jerusalem as its capital, and criticize Iran.
The meeting’s most interesting novelty are four relatively harsh references to Iran. Iran is admonished for its “destabilizing” activities in the Middle East and is asked to “fully cooperate” with the IAEA to prove that its nuclear build-up is peaceful.
These critiques infuriated the Iranians, which in turn triggered Chinese appeasement maneuvers. China’s ambassador to Teheran, Chang Hua, waxed poetic: “Love between old friends will endure.” To calm Tehran’s “deep irritation,” China invited Iran’s President Raisi for a two-day state visit, which took place in mid-February. In addition to a flurry of cooperation promises, the joint summit statement included criticism of Israel, the only country mentioned by name. Israel was urged to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty and place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards.
To add insult to injury, the statement commends Iran’s “commitment to…denuclearization,” although the Ayatollahs had shredded that commitment years ago. The finger-pointing at Israel was something new. Never before had a Chinese president signed a summit statement rebuking Israel, particularly one co-signed by an Iranian president who, more than once, had threatened Israel’s annihilation. China’s intention was to hit America by cynically striking out at Washington’s closest ally in the region.
China was also appeasing Iranian anger because it had disparaged Iran’s nuclear policy in the Saudi summit resolutions. That resolution did not mention Israel’s nuclear policy. The Arabs did not ask for it, which is significant. Their problem is Iran.
Foreign observers spoke of a Chinese “balancing act” between the Arabs and Iran. But ancient Jewish folk wisdom says: “You cannot dance at two weddings at the same time.” Well, apparently the Chinese can. For a time. Until the music stops at one of the weddings, or at both. China has no deep and genuine good or bad wishes for the Arabs, Iran, or Israel. It uses all three for its own main objective, its grand game against America.
There is, in addition, an ominous global consequence of the China-Iran summit. Numerous cooperation agreements, some with technological security implications, alongside the swipe at Israel, empower Iran and give it more legitimacy. They enlarge a crack that allows Iran to break through the wall the United States has erected to surround it. This crack in the wall was first opened by Russia. Russia’s successful demand for Iranian weapons for use against Ukraine has changed Iran’s position. It is now a continental geopolitical player beyond the Middle East. How will Iran use the instruments China has allegedly promised to supply, for example face-recognition technologies to identify regime opponents, and access to a major Chinese spy satellite? Will Iran use both on a global scale?
Why then bring Israel’s internal crisis into a discussion about China? Israel is consumed by its domestic turmoil. Its media barely reviewed the two Chinese summits and did not pick up on the references to Israel. The Chinese media do not report on Israel’s crisis, but policymakers including President Xi are certainly aware of it. Their main preoccupation is their struggle with America, a Cold War in all but name. Israel must be aware that its image as a havoc-ridden country in decline will encourage China to increase its support for Israel’s enemies, particularly Iran. Why? Because they are also America’s enemies. Israel will likely pay a growing price for the Sino-American confrontation.