With the August 27, 2021, visit by new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to the also-new U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, concerns about the U.S.-Israel relationship, which had lingered since the presidency of Barack Obama, seemed to be swept away. Bennett and Biden agreed to turn the page on the past and look to new opportunities for strategic cooperation in the Middle East. But there are still some issues on the table, of which one of the most complicated is Israel’s burgeoning relationship with China. This relationship isn’t likely to rupture Israel’s American connection, but it will require a fair amount of managing.
During the administration of President Donald J. Trump, American-Israeli ties seemed to reach new heights of mutual regard. Trump adopted a Middle East policy committed to countering Iranian influence in the Middle East and supporting many of Israel’s claims against the Palestinians. On the Israeli side, the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, responded warmly to Trump’s policies, which were especially welcome after eight years of ups and downs with President Obama and the entire Democratic establishment.
As the Netanyahu era ended, many international observers feared that Israeli-American ties would enter a turbulent phase; and even after the Bennett-Biden meeting, which signaled a mutual willingness to begin a new dialogue, the two countries must still deal with China’s rise in the Middle East in general and its growing economic connections with Israel in particular. Even if President Biden has shown a general intent to break with many Trump policies, he seems determined to maintain a strong posture against Beijing. Indeed, the expanding ties between Israel and China have alarmed Washington since the rise of President Xi Jinping. China’s new foreign policy goals threaten the United States in areas from geopolitical tensions in the Pacific to technological competition in sectors including artificial intelligence, communication networks, and semiconductors.
Israel is stuck in the middle of this confrontation. The United States is Israel’s key geopolitical partner in the Middle East region. But China has emerged as a critical economic partner of Israel’s in investments and in bilateral trade, which amounted to $14.8 billion in 2019.
At least three areas of Israeli-Chinese cooperation concern Washington. First, China and Israel have developed strong ties in the military sector; nowadays Israel is one of the world’s main suppliers to the People’s Liberation Army. This relationship reflects China’s sense of Israel’s long-term advanced military capabilities, developed through repeated clashes with the Arab world since 1948.
Because of Chinese technological improvements, there is a double track to this cooperation. Israel does not just export arms to China but has agreed to buy military drones manufactured by China’s DJI Technology, which is known in the United States for its domestic-use drones but was blacklisted by Trump on account of internal security concerns.
Second, Israel and China have pursued mutual interests in technological fields like artificial intelligence, communications networks, and software. Chinese companies that operate in these security-sensitive fields are eager to benefit from transfers of know-how by Israel, the “start-up nation.” The increasing Chinese investment in Israeli high-tech companies has so alarmed Washington that in late 2020, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker publicly declared that this type of technology transfer could threaten both America’s and Israel’s internal security.
Third, Israel has allowed China to build and run a new terminal in the port of Haifa, thus strengthening Beijing’s influence in the Mediterranean and increasing concerns about China’s Belt and Road initiative. Beijing’s interest in a partnership with Israel appears to be based on not only economic factors in a narrow sense but a wider penetration strategy in areas of the world that, until a few decades ago, were under almost exclusive American influence.
All these concerns, though, should be considered in light of larger trends that have emerged in Asia and the Middle East. President Biden, in his first months in office, followed the Obama policy of gradual withdrawal from the Middle East-Near Asia region while deploying more resources to counter China in the Pacific. China, for its part, reacted with an increasing presence in the Middle East. Beijing has strengthened not only its Israel ties but its political and economic relationships with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt. This geopolitical “chess match” has affected the area’s precarious equilibrium; every move in one direction can generate a dangerous opposing consequence. Israel is now in the uncomfortable position of being closely monitored by both the United States and China.
For example, American officials have strongly recommended that Israeli’s national security advisor, Eyal Hulata, establish a new committee to evaluate foreign investments, replacing the Finance Ministry’s existing committee, whose jurisdiction does not include some areas targeted by Chinese interests. Subsequently, the Israeli government has been deciding on the winner of the billion-dollar procurement contract for building the green and purple lines of the Tel Aviv Light Rail. Many Chinese companies that are already blacklisted for their alleged ties with China’s Ministry of Defense have been part of the groups competing for the contract. Israel is in a dangerous situation. Formally excluding China from the competition could severely undermine Israeli-Chinese ties, while dealing with China could strain the new relationship between President Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Still, the most likely scenario in the near future is a closer alignment between Israel and the United States. There are several reasons for this. First, China is still too close to Iran for Israel to see the Chinese as long-term allies. In 2019 Tehran and Beijing signed a $400 billion deal including Chinese investment in Iranian banking, telecommunications, ports, railways, and information technology in exchange for uninterrupted oil supplies. Also, as evidenced by United Nation votes, China still supports the Palestinian struggle. Finally, the United States is a key part of Israel’s diplomatic efforts toward normalization with the Arab world, a high-priority goal for Bennett’s new government.
Political calculations and personal relations can vary, but the long-term goals of the United States and Israel are highly aligned. Both countries see the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat; the confrontation between the United States and Israel in 2015 was mainly a clash over means, not ends. Meanwhile, both countries’ establishments see Beijing’s well-known support for Tehran as a “red line.” For this reason, Israel does not really have a choice of field; it can only try to maximize its opportunities within the field it already occupies.
In order to pursue this maximization, Israel will have to draw limits around Israeli-Chinese cooperation—restricting access when it comes to rail and port sites; establishing effective committees to monitor foreign investments; and avoiding dangerous practices like hardware and software installations in security-sensitive sectors. Balancing the divergent pressures of the two superpowers through these practices could be Israel’s winning move in the current geopolitical chessboard of the Middle East.
Elia Preto Martini is a recent graduate in Middle Eastern studies from the Catholic University of Milan and currently works at Centro Studi Internazionali.
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