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Pointless Pressure on Israel

Jun 12, 2020
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

On May 13, with concerns about COVID-19 raging around the globe, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a personal visit to Israel even though he could have easily picked up a telephone.

Part of his mission was to pressure Israel to cancel a Chinese company’s tender for an Israeli desalination project as part of U.S. efforts to suppress Chinese business growth worldwide. Pompeo was successful, but the effort made no sense.

The Sorek Desalination Plant B, which was in the media spotlight during Pompeo’s visit, is located about 15 kilometers south of Tel Aviv, near Palmachim Air Base and a nuclear research facility. The construction of the plant is set to begin this year, with freshwater production coming in 2023. The plant is expected to produce some 200 million cubic meters of water annually. With its completion, desalination plants will be providing 85 percent of Israel’s drinking water.

A Chinese company, Hutchison Water International, which is owned by Hong Kong-based holding company CK Hutchison Holdings, is one of two companies to have reached the final stage of the tender to build the Sorek B plant. As expected, however, it lost the bid after the U.S. pressured Israel.

It was the latest but not the sole case in which China-Israel cooperation had been unreasonably disrupted by the United States. In 1996, the Israeli government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, signed an agreement to sell China the Phalcon radar and early warning system and accepted payment. Later, the subsequent prime minister, Ehud Barak, canceled the agreement under U.S. pressure, and Israel paid compensation of $350 million to China.

In the 2004-05 period, China sent a number of Harpy drones that had been purchased from Israel in the 1990s back to Israel for technological updates and servicing. The Israeli government returned the drones to China without the update, again due to U.S. pressure. 

In January 2019, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton visited Israel to press Netanyahu to cancel a deal with China regarding the construction of a new port in Haifa, but he was not successful.

Despite its irritation of China, U.S. meddling had not substantially undermined China’s progress, and in some ways has even encouraged China to produce such equipment at home. After the frustration it encountered in the deal for the Israeli early-warning system, China began to work on its own system and ultimately produced one of the best. China has also become one of the leading countries for drone production. Meanwhile, its capabilities for infrastructure construction are steadily moving forward.

The real harm of U.S. meddling was on the Israeli side. First came economic damage to Israel. As a result of canceling the contracts and projects, Israel had to pay compensation.

Second, it undermined Israel’s credibility and international image. As an economy dependent on an international market, Israel values its reputation in business cooperation. Reneging on business contracts will seriously undermine its standing.

In addition, the historical foundation of China-Israel relations is China’s protection of Jewish refugees during World War II. But that has been forgotten, it seems, as Israel knuckled under to U.S. pressure.

Third, U.S. meddling has seriously undermined the joint efforts of Israel and China to develop a comprehensive innovation partnership. Israel stands to lose a potentially huge Chinese market (population 1.4 billion) for innovation. Israel often refers to itself as a country of innovation, but it’s too small to have much of domestic market. That was the background on which Israel and China committed to establish an innovation partnership a couple of years ago.

The U.S. might want to make Israel an example for other countries to follow, but Israel’s compliance as a result of U.S. pressure will not accomplish that. It is true that U.S. pressure on Israel has its effect, but Israel’s case is a special one. As is widely known, the U.S. in recent decades has persistently provided Israel with huge amounts of economic and security assistance and unconditional political support. The last two years even saw the U.S. — led by Donald Trump — recognize Israel’s annexation of occupied territories.

Because of such things, Israel is often referred to as the 51st state of the U.S. So Israel’s compliance was in part the natural result of the special relations between the two.

But can Israel’s case be applied with other countries? The answer is definitely no. No other country has received the level of U.S. economic and security assistance and political support that Israel has. To put it another way, if the U.S. wants other countries to comply with its pressure not to cooperate with China, it will have to pay a high price, though not necessarily as high as it has paid for Israel.

But does the U.S. have the requisite economic and diplomatic resources pull that off? The answer is definitely no. The logic of Trump’s “America first” attitude suggests the U.S. has neither the capability nor willingness to provide more.

In one word, U.S. interference in China-Israel cooperation might express frustration or dissatisfaction with China. but it cannot prevent China’s progress. It can only undermine Israel’s interests. And it will be of no significance in U.S. efforts to contain China.

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