The Israeli and Jewish relationship with China could not have been more different from America’s – different by origin, purpose and significance. From the early 19th century on, the US was involved with China as ally or adversary, in major ways, on many fronts, and for multiple purposes. Both sides carry emotional baggage as attraction and antagonism kept alternating over almost two centuries. Their relationship is an important part of their historical memory. Jewish links with China are much older than America’s, but few and marginal. They were never problematic as anti-Semitism was and remains unknown in China.16 Israel also remembers that Shanghai saved more than 20,000 European Jews from death during World War II while Western countries closed their doors to them. Even when Mao’s China assailed Israel together with all other Western countries, it never targeted the Jewish people or Judaism, in contrast to the Soviet Union. Three months after Mao Zedong had declared the independence of the People’s Republic of China (Oct.1949), Israel recognized the new country, which welcomed Israel’s gesture (Jan.1950). But in 1951, with the accelerating Korean War, the US warned that it would cut essential food aid for Israel if it kept seeking links with Beijing. American displeasure with Israel’s China links is almost as old as Israel itself. Apart from differences related to Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors, China has been one of the earliest and most frequent bones of contention between the US and Israel. US interference in the China-Israel relationship was not always restrictive as in 1951. From 1979 on, Israel shipped large quantities of heavy weapons to China, including 600 new Soviet tanks captured during the Yom Kippur war, in order to strengthen the country against a threatening Soviet Union. The US certainly knew and condoned that deal as it conformed with identical US concerns.17 And in 1992, the US welcomed China’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The timing of this decision was a direct result of America’s victories in the Cold War and the First Gulf War. A radical change in US attitudes emerged in 2000 and 2004 when the US forced Israel to abandon any weapon sales to China. In 2000, the sale of an Israeli reconnaissance plane, the Falcon, had to be cancelled. The Pentagon voiced concern that in Chinese hands the Falcon could compromise some US-derived technologies. The US could no longer condone a defense-relationship between Israel and its biggest rival, China. From then on, Israel tried to improve its damaged image in China through economic cooperation. China’s market is huge, and its interest in Israeli technologies manifest.
And this is exactly what triggered a new major wave of US irritation with the Israel-China relationship. On October 24, 2018, China’s Vice President Wang Qishan and Prime Minister Netanyahu attended Israel’s Fourth Innovation Summit, promising future technological cooperation. A few weeks later, a large number of American experts, all non-governmental, fired a salvo of warnings at Israel. It was a simultaneous assault, a coordinated media campaign. Here are two headlines, among many others: Elliott Abrams (then not in government): “Israel Mustn’t Let its Economic Relationship with China Threaten its Political Relationship with America.”18 Dan Blumenthal: “Israel’s Embrace of China is Sorely Misguided.”19 The experts criticized Israel’s agreement to allow China to enlarge and manage a part of the Port of Haifa, as well as other infrastructure investments that were said to raise safety risks for Israel and the US. The immediate reaction by Israeli defense experts – among them, Nadav Argaman, the head of Israel’s internal security service (Shin Bet) and a few retired senior officers – was to say they shared some of these concerns. Two weeks later it was official: both John Bolton, then National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put Israel on notice: “Pompeo warns US could curb security ties with Israel over China relations.”20 In the same speech, Pompeo announced that the United States would recognize Israel’s annexation of the formerly Syrian Golan Heights. Was he offering Israel a deal on behalf of President Trump: We let you have the Golan and you leave China to us?
Then China joined the spat. Beijing protested that the US “has been abusing national ‘security’ to smear and strike down normal business activities of Chinese enterprises.”21 China’s fear that the US was using Israel as a model for other allies was serious. An analysis of the Chinese media – an indication of what Beijing’s leaders are thinking – showed great nervousness about US pressure on Israel.22 Some Chinese papers looked for a way forward. The South China Morning Post (SCMP): “Israel has enough sense and self-interest to avoid efforts to drag it into US-China trade war,”23 and six days later: “A new role for US allies who are also friends of China.”24 The new role conferred to Israel was to mediate between the giants. Some Chinese continue to believe that the Jews have enormous influence in the world. In the meantime, Israeli experts had second thoughts about the US pressure. There was a chorus of voices that amounted to an Israeli backlash. Eran Lerman, a former senior National Security Council official, wrote: “Israel’s Strategy towards China Doesn’t Conflict with American Interests – It Serves and Reinforces Them.”25 Carice Witte, the founder of the NGO SIGNAL, reminded her readers of the many facets of the China-Israel relationship beyond investments.26 A surprising rebuttal came from former Ambassador to Beijing Maj. Gen. (ret.) Matan Vilnai who three weeks before had asked the Israeli government to cancel the Port of Haifa agreement: “Ex-envoy to China does about-face, says OK Chinese will manage Haifa port.”27 In his words, the Chinese surely did not need the Haifa port if they wanted to spy on the US Navy. Brig. Gen. (ret.) Michael Herzog concurred: “A building overlooking the port would suffice.”28 Amb. Oded Eran was equally sarcastic in advising the US Navy to check their own website. It turns out that Chinese companies control ports of many US allies, even parts of US ports that serve as US Naval bases. “China phobia is not a strategy.”29 So why the fuss about Haifa? It hides a broader agenda. As things stand now, Israel has apparently won and the Chinese will stay.30 But in the end, the US was the stronger party. The conclusion of this year-long “tempest-in-a- tea-cup” was that the US got at least part of what it wanted – and what Israel should have done long before according to its own best experts.31 On Nov. 3, 2019 Israel set up a new governmental oversight panel to review foreign investment proposals for their security implications. China was not mentioned. This panel is a first step. It is still weak, has no enforcement mechanism, and does not focus on high-tech.
The “tempest in a tea cup” revealed some of the characteristics of the three actors that make up the “triangle.” The American initiative was well-planned, well-timed, and well-targeted, while Israeli reactions seemed unprepared, messy, and discordant. The Chinese reaction was fast, alert, and unwilling to let go of Israel.