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Must Israel ‘support Washington to face down Beijing?’ – analysis

A 2019 Rand Corporation Study reviewed Israel-China relations from the perspective of the American national interest.

Published in the Jerusalem Post.

Since 2018, when the United States began to confront China and pressure Israel to greatly reduce its links with Beijing, a growing number of experts and non-experts from both Israel and the US have offered their advice on how Israel should address this challenge. By now there have been many dozens newspaper articles, op-eds, interviews, conferences and Zoom meetings on Israel’s options.

These expert/non-expert opinions fall into two categories. One looks first at Israel’s profound strategic links with the US and the indispensable assistance that Israel continues to receive from its senior partner. These experts see Israel’s American alliance overriding every other geostrategic concern. Therefore, they argue, Israel’s national interest regarding China is identical to that of the US, and if it is not yet, it must now be aligned to America’s national interest.

A 2019 Rand Corporation Study reviewed Israel-China relations from the perspective of the American national interest. The study coats America’s demands in suave diplomatic language: “The US might be willing and able to help Israel to manage its growing relations with China. In blunt language, Israel will have to let the US define precisely which relations it is allowed to have with China and which it will not.

The dominant opinion of the second category is, “Israel has a vital interest in expanding its flexibility and independence in its relations with the two powers,” to quote from the Jewish People Policy Institute’s (JPPI) 2020 Annual Assessment of the Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People. Israel will have to maneuver a narrow path between safeguarding its irreplaceable strategic links with the US and maintaining as many economic links with China as possible. Israel cannot ignore that China is emerging faster than almost every other country from the current pandemic and economic crisis, and that it is entering the Middle East – not only Iran – in big steps, economically and probably militarily, and that it will soon be Israel’s neighbor.

A few days ago, The Jerusalem Post published an article by Yaacov Ayish, a former defense attaché to the United States. He supports the first of the two positions mentioned above. His title is his program: “Israel must partner with the US in the great power competition with China.” More than that, he writes, “Israel must decisively support Washington’s effort to face down Beijing. This would serve not only Washington’s interests, but Israel’s as well.”

Israel has been compared to a small monkey who got entangled in a fight between two gorillas. Monkeys are fast and smart; they can outdo a gorilla but not in direct confrontation. Israel “facing down Beijing?” And this at a moment when most other countries are hesitant to join the US? How would “Israel’s interest be served” when Israel-China links are so miniscule for China that their disappearance would be statistically invisible, whereas it would be very visible in Israeli economic statistics.

Israel would be badly hurt. Israelis must get real and look through the current propaganda fog. America has an uncanny ability to change course and adapt to new realities. The US Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai just wrote its most recent survey that 97% of American enterprises active in China are refusing to leave.

It is not wise for Israel to openly join the fight between the two giants now. Israel has to do what it needs to do to protect its interests on both sides, keep a low profile, avoid dramatic decisions and wait as long as it takes. Half a year, one year, two years? Everything flows. Everything changes. Nothing remains the same. Ancient Chinese and Greek philosophers were teaching this very wisdom at the same time in the fifth century BCE.