Recently retired Mossad chief Yossi Cohen expressed skepticism over Washington’s increasingly tough approach to China on Monday, declaring that he did not understand what the United States was hoping to accomplish by challenging Beijing.
During a lecture at Bar-Ilan University, where he was awarded an honorary degree, the former Israeli spymaster questioned why the United States is pushing for an investigation into China’s possible role in the spread of the coronavirus.
As first reported on Israeli news website Walla, he declared: "I do not understand what the Americans want from China. If anyone understands, they should explain it to me. China isn’t against us and is not our enemy."
Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden called for the United States to investigate the possibility that COVID-19 was released into the wild during a laboratory accident in Wuhan, China, prompting intense backlash from Beijing. During his administration, previous U.S. President Donald Trump sparked a trade war with China and consistently blamed the Chinese for the pandemic, calling it “Kung Flu.”
The White House under Trump also took action against Chinese tech giant Huawei, ordering U.S. companies not to use the firm’s networking technology. The United States has also pressured Israel not to allow China to participate in the rollout of its own 5G networks.
China is Israel’s third-largest trading partner following the United States and Europe.
As part of its global Belt and Road initiative, China has sought to involve itself in infrastructure projects in Israel, including the Carmel Tunnels project in Haifa, Tel-Aviv’s light rail and the expansion of the Haifa Port. The US has expressed concerns that China’s presence at the Haifa Port could provide an opening for technological surveillance, including the collection of information about joint Israeli-American operations, and has previously offered to conduct a comprehensive security review of the Haifa port.
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Jerusalem declined the offer and Israeli officials have claimed that American concerns are unnecessary and that investments are vetted for security risks.
“The security warnings about the Chinese are a joke, completely mad,” one senior government source told Haaretz in 2019. “If they want to gather intelligence, they can simply rent an apartment in Haifa instead of investing in ownership of a port.”
“The Chinese were the only ones to submit a bid and Chinese involvement is more political than economic — to create a foothold for China in Israel, which has been limited relative to the rest of the world,” said one transportation industry source.
That prompted Washington to warn Israel against continuing to work with China on the project.
At various meetings, Israeli officials were even told that the American Sixth Fleet would stop docking at Haifa port as a result of the Chinese presence.
In February, Biden warned that China would pay a price for its human rights abuses, referring to the country’s handling of Muslim minorities in its far western region of Xinjiang.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has drawn global criticism for holding the minority Uighurs in internment camps and other human rights abuses.
The United States will reassert its global role in speaking up for human rights, Biden said, adding that he would work with the international community to get China to protect them.
While relations between Israel and China are friendly, Beijing’s support for the Palestinians has irked some in Jerusalem.
Last month, Israel’s Embassy in China protested what it described as “blatant antisemitism” on a program ran by the overseas channel of state broadcaster CCTV discussing the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
During a CGTN broadcast, host Zheng Junfeng questioned whether U.S. support for Israel was truly based on shared democratic values, saying “some people believe that U.S. pro-Israel policy is traceable to the influence of wealthy Jews in the U.S. and the Jewish lobby on U.S. foreign policy makers.”
“Jews dominate finance and internet sectors,” Zheng says, speaking in English. “So do they have the powerful lobbies some say? Possible.”
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.