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China or the United States? Israel needs to pick one

The Jewish state must make friends where it can find them. Still, Jerusalem shouldn’t get involved in a great power rivalry and flout American security concerns.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Chinese president Xi Jinping, in Beijing on March 21, 2017. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Chinese president Xi Jinping, in Beijing on March 21, 2017. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Contrary to the myths cherished by some American Jews and many non-Jewish sympathizers, Israel is not the 51st state. Though it is bound to the United States by common values of democracy and freedom, as well as strategic concerns, it’s an independent country that has the right and the duty to pursue its own economic and security interests.

That means the two allies are bound to clash at times. As dependent as Israel has been on its sole superpower ally for the sort of military help that it could not get elsewhere, there are times when it is incumbent on Israeli leaders to say “no” to the Americans. The Jewish state’s leaders should always feel empowered to stand up to Washington when it comes to requests to sacrifice its security or rights, especially when it would be Jewish blood that would be spilled as a result of these decisions.

Yet that doesn’t mean that the Israeli government should regard itself as having carte blanche to flout the concerns of the United States in every instance. When it is a matter of economics, then the United States has every right to ask that Israel not thumb its nose at valid American security concerns.

That’s the case with a growing dispute between the United States and Israel over a deal struck last year that would allow a Chinese firm controlled by the Communist government in Beijing to run a facility at the port of Haifa starting in 2021. Though U.S.-Israel relations are as close, if not closer, than they have ever been under U.S. President Donald Trump, the arrangement with China threatens to disrupt things.

The United States is threatening to halt the regular visits of ships from the Navy’s Sixth Fleet to Haifa should the Israeli pact with China be implemented. While the dispute has simmered for months, it’s about to be aired due to the language of the U.S. Senate version of the National Defense Authorization act that is currently being considered that would force Israel to choose between China and the United States over the disposition of the Haifa port.

Why would the government of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even think of doing anything that would potentially undermine the rapport he has established with what is arguably the most pro-Israel U.S. administration to date?

The answer lies in Israel’s growing economy and the unprecedented success it has enjoyed in recent years in establishing trade relations with many countries that had formerly shunned it.

With so much of the world closing its doors to Israeli entrepreneurs and companies in the past, the instinct has always been to enthusiastically welcome any country that wished to defy the old Arab boycott or the contemporary BDS movement’s efforts to isolate the Jewish state. While the origins of Israeli trade relations with China date back to the 1990s, the ties between the two nations have grown in recent years.

But this comes at a particularly bad moment for Israel to be seen as embracing China. Trump’s top foreign-affairs priority has been to redress what he considers to be an imbalanced trade relationship with the Chinese. Trump has demonstrated a willingness to fight a costly trade war with Beijing if it will not agree to measures that will curb unfair practices. But even if, as many expect, China and the United States eventually come to some agreement on trade, the administration remains convinced that Beijing is a dangerous rival.

The U.S National Security Strategy published in December 2017 defined China as a “strategic competitor” that engages in “economic aggression.” So it is understandable that if Israel welcomes Chinese control of the one military facility—the port of Haifa—that it regularly shares with the Americans, the Trump foreign-policy team is bound to regard it as something of an insult.

Israelis answer America’s concerns by asserting that the Chinese company would only administer a section of Haifa’s port facilities. Moreover, they also point out to those who see the potential departure of the Sixth Fleet as a disaster that the U.S. Navy only uses Haifa as a shore leave port with no permanent military facilities. They also argue that another Mediterranean port that is more extensively used by the Navy—Naples, Italy—already has a section that is run by the Chinese. The same happens to be true for Seattle.

But that doesn’t make the decision to partner with the Chinese any more defensible.

Israel is right to want to have as good a relationship with Beijing as possible, but not at the expense of its ties with the United States. Whatever benefits may accrue for Israel from doing business with China, they are not worth the potential damage to those far more important dealings. China is no ally and cannot be trusted, especially in the context of a fractious Middle East where it has closer ties with countries that are hostile to Israel.

That’s especially true when Trump has had Israel’s back on issues far more central to the Jewish state’s interests, like the threat from Iran and the need to hold the Palestinians accountable for their support of terror.

Nor is this the first time the United States has asked that Israel stepped away from a deal with China. The Clinton administration forced the Israelis to cancel a deal to sell the Phalcon radar system to China in 2000. If Israeli-Chinese relations could remain intact after that far more important dispute, then it will survive Beijing’s disappointment about not running part of Haifa’s port.

As much as Israel can and should have the courage to turn down an American request when it involves serious threats to its security, that’s not the case here. Israel would profit from its Chinese deal, but not as much as it will lose in good will with a good friend should it not be canceled. The Haifa port deal should be scrapped.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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