Ousting the Middle Kingdom from Zion: A U.S. Strategy toward Chinese Influence in Israel

Ousting the Middle Kingdom from Zion: A U.S. Strategy toward Chinese Influence in Israel

The United States has a deep interest in stopping Israel from falling any further into China’s orbit. Doing so requires mobilizing non-military tools of diplomacy, including some coercive ones, to bring Israel around to the U.S. position.

Going forward, the U.S. government should complement public pronouncements like Pompeo’s with discreet diplomacy. More closed-door talks between government officials should go on so American and Israeli leaders can discuss the China issue frankly. If the White House readout is to be believed, then China was not a topic of discussion between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, when they met in Washington this spring. Another venue the United States should use is Track II diplomacy, which would let non-government actors from both countries weigh in on China. Business executives, think tank experts, and civil-society activists should have a forum in which they can talk about how China has harmed bilateral relations. Moreover, Track II diplomacy gives the U.S. government tools to achieve its policy aims surreptitiously: presumably, the American delegation would try to prod the Israeli one into believing that closer ties with Beijing run contrary to their national interests. After all, any honest appraisal of China’s global economic footprint must conclude that many countries are sacrificing their independence for commercial dependence on Beijing. Track II dialogues would underscore this point. It would behoove Washington to find a university, think tank, or other non-governmental organizations (NGO) willing to sponsor them. 

Rather than demanding outright that Israel do no business whatsoever with China, a more practical approach is stressing the many risks of engaging China and how that engagement imperils ties with the United States. Then it will be easier to convince Israel that, at a minimum, it should protect critical infrastructure from Chinese investment and have strong oversight in other sectors. In 2019, Jerusalem decided to create a body to screen foreign investment, but little is known about how it works. American officials should put pressure on their Israeli counterparts to be forthright about its activities as soon as possible. Should Israel get serious about reviewing the Chinese money it lets into the country, U.S. officials will breathe easier.

Accordingly, a long-term goal of the United States must be minimizing Sino-Israeli commercial relations. To the greatest extent possible, Washington should help Israel tap other markets. Foggy Bottom’s Middle East hands should build on the success of the Abraham Accords brokered last summer through outreach to other Arab countries that might normalize ties with Israel. An end to Israel’s regional isolation would allow Israel to transfer some of its economic dependency from China to its Middle Eastern neighbors. With China’s neighbors, however, the greatest potential lies. Muslim nations in Asia could follow the lead of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in normalizing relations—Indonesia, with its nearly 300 million people could be an especially lucrative trading partner for Israel. Elsewhere Washington should encourage Jerusalem to conclude ongoing free trade agreement talks with India and Vietnam, whose economies could produce much of what Israel imports from the PRC. Israel would also be well served to expand economic ties with rich Asian countries like Japan and South Korea that might be eager to buy Israeli high-tech exports that currently go to the PRC. The sooner Israel weans itself off Chinese trade, the better.

COAXING ISRAEL into breaking up with China will be markedly easier if Jerusalem sees that it cannot treat trade as separate from national security. The realization that economics cannot be divorced from national security is one of the few salutary strategic insights the Trump administration has left our country, and Israel should conclude the same. As for the PRC, it hid its geopolitical ambitions while it was poor and traded with a world all too keen to exploit its humongous market. Now other countries, Israel included, must come to terms with the fact that a richer China is a more menacing China. It is revealing that Israeli national security bigwigs like Meir Ben-Shabbat have led the charge in favor of a harder line toward Chinese investment. A country whose former prime minister prides himself on the moniker “Mr. Security” should be especially attuned to the China threat. 

Beyond commercial relations, U.S. interests will be most at risk if Sino-Israel military ties grow. For that reason, Washington must relay to Jerusalem in no uncertain terms that America sees as unacceptable its cozying up to the PLA. Israel by now knows that any arms sales to China are out of the question. It needs to get the same message about PLA contacts. In 2011, then-IDF chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz received a Chinese commander with an honor guard at military headquarters in Tel Aviv. The following year, Chinese warships landed at Haifa in advance of meetings on defense cooperation, the press release for which the IDF’s website has tellingly since deleted. Those contacts could be breeding grounds for PLA espionage, from harvesting military technology to surveilling IDF installations. The United States should tell Israel they must end for good.

Yet diplomacy can do only so much. The United States must be prepared to use other tools in its arsenal, such as economic sanctions. In this case, the U.S. government could threaten to impose sanctions on Israeli cabinet officials who have a hand in facilitating Chinese investment, including the minister of the economy, the minister of foreign affairs, and even the prime minister. But a decision to sanction should not be made lightly. On one hand, it’s unlikely the U.S. government could ever muster the political capital to punish Israel given widespread American support for the country. And on the other, imposing sanctions would undoubtedly dent—if not destroy—America’s popularity in Israel. The most drastic tactic would be to sanction Israeli companies that do business with any Chinese firms linked to the CCP (effectively all firms in China). Those sanctions would provide the remedy of dramatically reduced Sino-Israeli economic ties, albeit with the side effect of harming America’s image in Israel and elsewhere. Sanctions might have their place, but they should be used against Israel as a last resort if negotiations cannot extract requisite concessions.

A more immediate instrument within the symphony of power is intelligence. U.S. operatives, especially those stationed in the country, should glean what intelligence they can about not only Chinese machinations in Israel but also the Israeli government’s approach to China. Jerusalem may very well be hiding inconvenient details from Washington about the nature of its dealings with Beijing. Israel hasn’t been wholly honest with us before, most notably in the case of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, and continues its aggressive intelligence collection on American soil. U.S. operatives in Israel should return the favor. No matter how close two countries are, there are always secrets. Effective intelligence gathering will reduce the likelihood Israel gets away with half-truths, empty promises, and outright lies in diplomatic talks with us.

Independent of hard power, the United States should employ the instrument of ideological persuasion. American principles of freedom, openness, and human rights had a lot to do with our victory in the Cold War and stand in stark contrast to the authoritarian challenge of today. Americans need to let unwitting Israelis know that doing business with Beijing is not the same as doing business with Berlin, Brasilia, or Baku. Whoever trades with China is bankrolling a Communist regime that has no friends and wants none. In 2010, the Chinese foreign minister best articulated Beijing’s worldview in stating, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” This point must be driven home to the Israelis. The difference between America and a CCP-governed China is an ideological one. One country seeks a world that is open and democratic; the other seeks a world that is closed and un-democratic. America should remind Israel its interests would be far better advanced by the former.

What these material instruments of power don’t necessarily reveal is a less tangible one that the United States should also exploit: its goodwill in Israel. Goodwill is related to the ideological dimension, but not entirely so. Washington should not overlook the fact that 83 percent of Israelis have a favorable image of the United States. Israelis respect and like America. While they’re certainly grateful to have the most powerful country in the world as an ally, they also admire its culture, the warmth of its people, and the American spirit. U.S. officials should remember this when talking to the Israelis. Israel is most grateful for American economic and political support, from the many billions of dollars in military and economic aid Washington has provided over the years to its defense of Israel at the United Nations and other fora, and admires the American way of life. If the United States asks something of the Israelis, they will listen.

However much Israeli affections for America run deep, Washington shouldn’t discount Chinese soft power in the country. A whopping 66 percent of Israelis view China favorably, making Israel one of the most pro-PRC countries in the world. In addition to public opinion, Beijing enjoys growing person-to-person contacts. More and more Chinese tourists come to Israel each year. The same is true of Chinese students enrolling in Israeli universities, many of which have CCP-run Confucius Institutes. China has also been actively courting Israeli civil-society organizations. An Israeli NGO called SIGNAL notably promotes bilateral cooperation and has close ties to the CCP. Chinese officials like the ambassador to Israel have also exploited Israel’s open society to spew propaganda in the press. Though China cannot match U.S. soft power in Israel, we should not deem its influence nil. Israel hands in the U.S. government should monitor the PRC’s growing cultural footprint in the country.