24 March 2020

Caught between two superpowers: Israel’s agonising choice

By Vuk Vuksanovic

Though generally regarded as one of America’s most loyal and important allies, in recent years Israel has been making new friends.

Since 2013, she has been developing a close new relationship with the US’ big strategic rival, China. That has meant growing commercial ties, including cooperation with the controversial Chinese telecomms giant Huawei, whose involvement in Western networks has come under such scrutiny in recent months.

However, as Sino-American relations hit a new low, with a trade war, a tech war and now the coronavirus outbreak, there’s a real chance Israel could swing back towards its traditional ally.

Make no mistake, siding with America will come with costs for the Israelis. Its overtures towards Beijing in the last few years have paid real dividends since Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to China in 2013. Indeed, Israel’s trade with China in 2018 was worth nearly $14bn, compared to just $10.9bn in 2014 and a mere $50 million back in 1992.

The Israeli tourist sector has particularly benefits, with the number of Chinese visitors leaping by 67% in the first half of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018. Meanwhile, Chinese investments and construction projects in Israel between 2005 and 2019 are estimated to have been worth over $12bn.

Some are even touting the idea of joining China’s huge Belt and Road Initiative to help build the infrastructure necessary for Israel’s growing population. China Harbour Engineering, itself a subsidiary of the state-owned China Communications Construction Company, is building ports in Haifa and Ashdod at a cost of some $2bn – a project that has raised eyebrows in Washington, as the US Sixth Fleet is stationed nearby.

China Harbour Engineering is also part of a consortium that plans to acquire the Alon Tavor power plant from the Israel Electric Corp. And another Chinese company, the China Railway Tunnel Group won a tender worth almost $1.4bn to build tunnels and auxiliary electronic systems for a new Tel Aviv rail line.

Then there are tech heavyweights such as Alibaba, Baidu and Huawei, all of which have made serious inroads. In June 2019,  Huawei entered the Israeli solar power market when it began selling inverters for solar power conversion, just hours after quitting the US market. It’s not all one-way, traffic though – the Israeli hi-tech company IRP Systems aims to supply China with its specialised aviation technology products, including aviation propulsion systems.

For all these strong commercial ties, however, Israel will struggle to keep up such a close relationship as China asserts itself against the US. Indeed, the 2019 report on Sino-Israeli relations by the Rand Corporation concluded that Chinese penetration of key Israeli infrastructure could pose a national security threat to both Israel and the US, as it would allow Beijing to collect high value intelligence data.

Some of Israel’s most senior national security officials are now shifting towards the US position. Among them is Nir Ben-Moshe, director of security for the Defence Ministry, who voiced his objection to Hong Kong-based firm Hutchinson building a new water desalination plant. Continuing close cooperation with companies like Huawei and ZTE could also mean the Americans terminating an intelligence-sharing arrangement with the Israelis.

In a strategic sense, Israel cannot simply shift its allegiance from Washington to Beijing anyway, as China has little intention of becoming a central security player in the Middle East. Nor will the Chinese guarantee Israel’s security against a hostile Iran, as Tehran and Beijing already have a complex partnership of their own. On the Palestinian issue too, China would be much more mindful of Arab opinion than the US has traditionally been. In terms of security and defence then, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Israel is stuck with America for the forseeable future.

The importance of the choice is not lost on the Israeli press. As Yaakov Katz wrote in a recent Jerusalem Post op-ed: “For Israel, the question should be a no-brainer. The US-Israel alliance is key to the survival of the Jewish state and is illustrated not just in the close diplomatic and military cooperation between the two countries, but also in the intelligence sharing that exists between the different agencies.”

Israeli think tanks are already talking about how to navigate the US-China trade war, given the centrality of American involvement in Israel’s economy and security apparatus. As Hong Kong-based billionaire, Ronnie Chan has noted: “Israel does not have the luxury to choose between the United States and China” as the US is its “only friend” in a trade war.

And recent history suggests Israel can make concessions if the Americans raise the alarm. In the late 1990s, for instance, Tel Aviv stopped its plan to sell sensitive technology to China after US objections.

The problem is, it’s no longer 1990s. In a new era of Sino-American rivalry, Israel will have to stick with its oldest ally, but it cannot completely sever ties with China. The trick will be keeping the US on side, while also extracting maximum benefit from Beijing.

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Vuk Vuksanovic is a PhD researcher in International Relations at the London School of Economics. This piece is in part based on Strategic Update, he authored for LSE IDEAS.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.