Analysis |

How Deep Has Chinese Intelligence Penetrated Israel?

When senior Israeli defense officials are asked this about China, an uncomfortable silence usually falls on the room

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
A Chinese navy ship docking at Haifa port, Israel, in 2012.
A Chinese navy ship docking at Haifa port, Israel, in 2012.Credit: Israel Defense Forces/Flickr
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

To what extent has Chinese intelligence penetrated Israel in the realm of industrial-technological espionage or for purposes of exerting influence? When senior figures in the defense establishment are asked this question, an uneasy silence usually follows. The sensitivity is clear. Israel has for years been navigating between the desire to strengthen its relations with China and fear of angering the United States, which still considers China its major rival (notwithstanding the current crisis with Moscow).

Netanyahu, as prime minister, pushed hard to promote technological transactions with the vast Chinese market. But in his last years in office, and even more so in the Naftali Bennett era, Israel has been compelled to curb this progress in light of American objections. Flagrant examples of this tendency were the American veto of Israeli deals with China to acquire a fifth-generation cellular infrastructure, and the upgrading of the Israeli governmental mechanism for supervising foreign investments (at the request of Washington, which is still not satisfied).

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Until about a year ago, Nir Ben Moshe was in charge of security in the defense establishment (Malmab, Hebrew acronym for “director of security of the defense establishment”) and dealt intensively with the issue of Chinese penetration of Israel. So an article by Ben Moshe about Chinese espionage on the website of the Institute for National Security Studies is of special interest. Ben Moshe adds a number of presumptions and reservations to his exceptional text, but the reader can probably forgo them. This is the rare case of one who truly knows.

“Israel,” he writes, “is seen by China as a leading technological power. Israel’s advanced capabilities in elite technology, cyber, medicine, agriculture and more have the potential to contribute technologically to almost every aspect of China’s build-up plans … Consequently, alongside the overt and agreed-upon activity, it is likely that China’s intelligence agencies are working in Israel to attain its objectives in espionage efforts, as well as in other countries of value to it. As in the United States, it cannot be ruled out that government ministries, defense industries and civilian companies in Israel have been attacked in the service of China’s intelligence objectives.

“It is also likely that a substantial focus of interest in the eyes of Chinese intelligence is the complex system of relations between Israel and its ally, the United States. The security establishment and the IDF are likely a target of said Chinese intelligence efforts, both in themselves and considering their deep connections with their counterparts in the United States.”

A security guard walks by people wearing face masks in Beijing, on Wednesday.Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

Israel, he notes, “is quite exposed to cyberattacks that aim to steal knowledge. This is due to the extensive use of computers and digital information, alongside well-established communications infrastructure in Israel, as well as the relative ease of attaining remote access, with little risk to attackers.” Ben Moshe recalls that last August a coordinated cyberattack from China was uncovered on dozens of private and governmental bodies in Israel.

China, he sums up, is not an enemy, and Israel’s economic ties with that country are of great importance. However, its methods of operation pose a considerable challenge to Israel, “as an attractive target and a source of advanced technology. There are few real public indications of Chinese espionage in Israel, but it is likely that the intelligence community in Israel sees a broader and deeper picture. … The intelligence threat to the military-industrial system, with an emphasis on its relations with the United States, is especially significant. … A first essential step for coping with the challenge is increasing awareness of the risk and its implications,” he sums up.

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