Shaul Horev dropped a bombshell, but hardly anyone noticed. Horev, an Israel Defense Forces reservist brigadier general who has served, among other posts, as the navy chief of staff and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, is currently director of the Research Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy at the University of Haifa. At the end of August, the center held a conference, to which participants from the United States were invited, to examine security issues relating to Israel and the Mediterranean region.
In an interview with the religious-Zionist media outlet Arutz Sheva, Prof. Horev noted that one topic that came up at the event was Chinese investments in Mediterranean ports, and in Israel in particular. Pointing out that a Chinese company will soon start operating Haifa Port, he said that Israel needs to create a mechanism that will examine Chinese investments to ensure that they do not put Israel’s security interests at risk.
“When China acquires ports,” Horev said, “it does so under the guise of maintaining a trade route from the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal to Europe, such as the port of Piraeus in Greece. Does an economic horizon like this have a security impact? We are not weighing that possibility sufficiently. One of the senior American figures at the conference raised the question of whether the U.S. Sixth Fleet can see Haifa as a home port. In light of the Chinese takeover, the question is no longer on the agenda.”
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Horev also noted that the Americans are now turning most of their attention to the southern China Sea and the Persian Gulf, at the expense of the Middle East. In a period like this, he said, it would be right for Israel to bolster its status as a strategic base for the Americans.
The Haifa conference was held in conjunction with the conservative Washington-based Hudson Institute. Several of the American participants were former senior Pentagon and navy personnel. The remarks of the senior figure Horev quoted were sharper than the polite tone he used. The Americans who were at the conference think Israel lost its mind when it gave the Chinese the keys to Haifa Port. Once China is in the picture, they said, the Israel Navy will not be able to count on maintaining the close relations it has had with the Sixth Fleet.
The Chinese company SIPG won the bid to expand the Haifa Port three and a half years ago. The project is slated to be inaugurated in 2021 and calls for the Chinese company, which also operates the Port of Shanghai, to run the Haifa Port for 25 years. Another Chinese firm won the bid to build a new port at Ashdod.
Those decisions were made by the Transportation Ministry and the Ports Authority, with zero involvement of the National Security Council, and without the navy being in the picture at all. The problem lies not only in the implications that ties with the Chinese have for Israel’s relations with the United States, which under the Trump administration is ramping up its rhetoric on China because of the trade wars and tensions in the China Sea.
The civilian port in Haifa abuts the exit route from the adjacent navy base, where the Israeli submarine fleet is stationed (and which, according to foreign media reports, maintains a second-strike capability to launch nuclear missiles). As with Chinese involvement in other huge Israeli infrastructure projects – such as the Mount Carmel tunnels and the light-rail train in Tel Aviv – it seems as though no one involved in the security or diplomatic arenas even stopped to think through the strategic consequences of these moves.
China is acquiring vast influence over essential infrastructures in Israel and, indirectly, also a closer look at some of Israel’s military capabilities. Over the years, that could place at Beijing’s disposal a potential means of wielding pressure against Israel, if the latter should endanger Beijing’s interests in the region.
In Chinese eyes, as I have written before, Israel is barely a speck on the great world map. China is looking to the long term, is building projects and expanding ties as part of its “one belt, one road” initiative (aka, the “economic Silk Road”): the strategy that aims to extend Beijing’s economic influence and upgrade its global status. China is not necessarily hostile to Israel, but its interests are tangled and complex, and certainly don’t recall in any way those underlying the strong alliance between America and Israel.
A good example: China’s close ties to Iran, against the backdrop of its consumption of Iranian oil. The remarks of the senior American figure quoted by Horev need to serve as a warning light. Israel must upgrade its transportation infrastructures, and there’s nothing wrong with improving its trade relations with China. However, the question is whether the decisions that have been made took into account all the relevant considerations – and the possible risks.