At the end of this month, one of the major of events of the Israeli election campaign is due to occur — in Washington — at the annual conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be there and will speak of course, but attendance by his political rival-in-chief, Benny Gantz, is still up in the air.
For Netanyahu, the visit to the American capital will also include a second critical event for his campaign — an official visit with President Donald Trump, which will surely be marked by a warm handshake in front of the cameras and expressions of support from Trump. The Prime Minister’s Office is still waiting for official confirmation of the date for the Trump meeting.
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The president has already appeared in campaign advertisements for Netanyahu’s Likud party and last Thursday, Trump had this to say about Netanyahu in response to criminal allegations against the prime minister from Israel's attorney general: “I can say this. He’s done a great job as prime minister. He’s tough, smart, and strong. He’s very defensive. His military has been built up a lot.”
Trump’s support provides evidence for Israeli voters that only Netanyahu is capable of maintaining the critical relationship between Israel and the United States. But beyond the handshakes and warm words, the Netanyahu-Trump bromance may have also played a role in deliberations this week by Israel’s security cabinet.
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Meir Ben-Shabbat, the head of Israel’s National Security Council, presented a proposal for the creation of a panel that would vet foreign investment in Israel. He offered a variety of options regarding how the committee could operate. A decision on the matter was deferred because Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz was unable to attend due to the death of his mother.
The oversight panel has been on the government’s agenda for many months, long before Knesset elections were called. Last summer, the Prime Minister’s Office began discussions on how to oversee foreign investment. Then in January, Shin Bet security agency chief Nadav Argaman warned that Chinese investment posed a threat to Israel’s national security.
Chinese companies are involved in infrastructure projects such as the Haifa Port and the Tel Aviv region’s light rail network, and they have become increasingly large investors in Israeli high-tech companies. Senior Pentagon officials have warned that China’s involvement in the Haifa Port might make it difficult to continue cooperation between Israel and the U.S. Navy.
Knesset members Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) and Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) have each been working on legislation on the subject. The Bar-Lev bill would require Israeli companies to get government approval if they are involved in critical technology, national infrastructure projects or have access to sensitive data on Israeli citizens.
Supervision of foreign investment is being tightened in Europe and Australia as well, but in Israel’s case, the matter is especially sensitive because of its position between the two global superpowers — the United States and China.
The proposed committee would look at all foreign investment, but the real issue is Chinese investment — something Netanyahu has long encouraged as he has tried to build ties with Beijing. In January, on a visit to Israel, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton expressed concern to the prime minister about Israeli-Chinese commercial ties and China’s increased access to Israeli technology. And the American media have noted the absence of controls in Israel on foreign investment such as those the United States has.
Trump himself has made China and America’s economic competition with it, particularly over technology, a hallmark of White House policy. If Israel moves soon to establish the oversight committee, it will be welcomed in Washington and will be seen as evidence that Israel listens when America speaks. Trump will be glad to hear the news, and it will undoubtedly increase his admiration for Netanyahu.