Donald Trump has other burning problems on his mind, but sooner or later, the expanding economic ties between China and Israel will inevitably attract the American president’s attention as well. The current administration’s paranoia about China’s moves around the world and fear over losing the trade war to Beijing have pushed events in East Asia to the top of Washington’s agenda.
Two months ago, Haaretz reported that, at a conference with their Israeli counterparts, retired American admirals warned that Washington was simply astonished at Israel’s decision to award major infrastructure projects, including the construction of a civilian port in Haifa, to Chinese companies. Somebody even suggested that the U.S. Sixth Fleet might steer clear of the Israel Navy base in Haifa because of the Chinese involvement in building a civilian port there.
Based on conversations with ministers and other top officials, it now turns out that the Israelis were amazed at the intensity of their American counterparts’ ire on the matter. “They blew up at us,” said one of the Israelis who attended the meetings.
The Americans asked Israel for guarantees that China wouldn’t be able to take advantage of projects in Israel to improve its strategic standing and its intelligence capabilities. They remained unconvinced that Israel’s answers were good enough – and said if Israel couldn’t provide the guarantees they wanted, that would be grounds to have Israel reconsider its project contracts with China.
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In one such exchange, Americans told their Israeli counterparts that the United States could not be friends with a country for which China was building ports. They mentioned another country, not Israel, but Jerusalem got the hint.
Washington’s increasingly extreme attitude toward Beijing is the product of a gradual process that began under President Barack Obama, but it has intensified under Trump. In Israel’s analysis of the situation, no malicious intent is ascribed to the Chinese; just long-term strategic thinking focused mainly on patiently accumulating economic dividends.
Constructing the ports and carrying out infrastructure projects -- from highways to tunnels and subway systems -- all help expand China’s economic and political influence and fit in well with its Belt and Road Initiative, which is aimed at making China the leading world power.
The Americans are afraid of losing contracts to China, concerned that China will gain a foothold in Israel, afraid of allowing China a foothold in Israel and worried that it would be exploited by the Chinese for intelligence purposes. A top White House official who spoke with an Israeli delegation a few weeks ago said the Pentagon was also infuriated too, as were the Treasury Department and the office of Vice President Mike Pence, but as far as is known, the issue is not yet on Trump’s agenda. The official did warn, however, that when Trump is personally briefed on the matter, he would be expected to be furious.
Israel probably doesn’t have any way to mollify the president now that contracts have already been signed, but tensions with the Americans over economic relations with China seem to be just a matter of time.
A State Department official told Haaretz on Thursday: “The U.S. and Israel collaborate extensively on a range of issues, including trade and security. We don’t discuss the details of diplomatic conversations.“