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June 8, 2020 5:53 am

Pompeo’s Visit to Israel and the Chinese Connection

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avatar by Roie Yellinek


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends a news conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, March 31, 2020. Photo: Andrew Harnik / Pool via Reuters.

On May 13, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Israel for an eight-hour visit. His trip attracted a lot of attention, not only because it was so brief but because it occurred in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, when diplomatic travel had all but ground to a halt.

Why did Pompeo make the trip in the midst of the crisis? To send a message to Israel about China, with which the US is vying for hegemony. The People’s Republic was not Pompeo’s only topic for discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu —  application of Israeli law over parts of the West Bank, and Iran were also on the agenda — but his main focus was reportedly China.

The clash between China and the US has been rising in recent years, especially since Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, during which he claimed that the Chinese were stealing jobs from Americans. Upon Trump’s ascent to the presidency, those tensions increased with the trade war. They have since reached a new high during the global coronavirus crisis, which began in China. Recently, Trump and Pompeo have stepped up their claims that China is responsible for the virus that has paralyzed the US economy and resulted in historic levels of unemployment and more than 100,000 US deaths. Trump is trying to paint China as a clear opponent ahead of the November presidential election, which will probably have a lot to do with the coronavirus.

The spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Israel published a harsh response to Pompeo’s visit, rejecting the American attempts to criticize Beijing’s conduct, both in the context of coronavirus and in terms of its developing relations with Israel. He claimed that Chinese-Israeli cooperation benefited both parties and urged China’s “Jewish friends” to defeat “the ‘political virus’” along with coronavirus and “choose the course of action that best serves their interests.”

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Israel finds itself trapped between the two giants, each of which has many and varied interests around the globe. While it is understandable that Israel leans closer to its longstanding American ally, it does not wish to dispense with its emerging relationship with China, the world’s second-largest economy. The window of opportunity in which Israel can have relationships with both countries without significant interference from either seems to be closing.

The Phalcon crisis of 1999, during which Israel withdrew from an agreement it had signed with China to sell it an Israeli airborne radar system, offers insight into Israel’s current predicament. That crisis undermined China-Israel diplomatic relations for some time, though they eventually resumed and indeed flourished within their limits (i.e., no military relations). The reason for China’s moderation of its initial anger was an Israeli apology and compensation payment that helped it avoid losing face.

Beijing also understood that the deal’s cancellation was instigated by the US, not Israel, which in fact lost out by it. Costly though the cancellation was to Israel, it was necessary to preserve the health of Jerusalem’s strategic relations with Washington.

Today, as in 1999, Israel must accede to American wishes. Sure enough, two weeks after Pompeo’s visit, IDE Technologies — an Israeli company — was announced as the winner of the construction tender of a major Israeli desalination plant, not the Chinese company Hutchison Whampoa.

Israel’s relations with the US are critical, but they should be maintained in such a way as to minimize damage to Israeli relations with China. This means avoiding situations in which the Chinese lose face. Israel-China relations do not compete with Israel-US relations, but they are nevertheless valuable and advantageous, and Israel should not give them up entirely.

Jerusalem should make clear to Washington that Israel is choosing the US, but also make clear to China that it has no choice but to acquiesce to US demands given Israel’s dependence on that country. In addition, Israel should reiterate to Beijing how much it values their relationship and hopes to develop it further. Israel can also perhaps offer to establish a quiet channel for US-China dialogue, which could work to all parties’ benefit.

Roie Yellinek is a PhD student at Bar-Ilan University, a doctoral researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.

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