February 17, 2019

Should Israel Be Concerned About Chinese Influence?

“Comments made this week by Nadav Argaman, head of the Shin Bet, set off two storms that got Israel in trouble with two world superpowers — Russia and China. At a closed-door meeting on Jan. 8, Argaman said that “a foreign state” intends to “meddle” in the April 9 elections using hackers and cybertechnology. Argaman insisted he knew this for a fact, although he did not know “which side” the meddling was supposed to benefit. The Russians were quick to deny any involvement in the upcoming elections or in any other election campaign.

Appearing the following day before another closed-door forum, Argaman spoke of China’s involvement in Israel, warning that its massive economic investments could pose a threat to state security. “The Chinese influence in Israel is particularly dangerous,” Argaman said, according to Channel 10 News, “especially as it concerns investment in strategic infrastructure and in major companies.” Argaman was likely referring to the Chinese companies contracted to build a new Mediterranean port in the northern city of Haifa and a light rail system in Tel Aviv; its acquisition of Israel’s largest food manufacturer, Tnuva, by Chinese Bright Food company; and its interest in buying major Israeli insurers. The Shin Bet chief argued in favor of legislation to oversee the Chinese investments in Israel. “The law is lagging behind in terms of foreign investment oversight. This could be dangerous,” he reportedly said.

National security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat from the Shin Bet has made similar comments, also in closed forums.

Israelis are not the only ones concerned about China’s growing involvement in mega investments in Israel. The US administration is not wild about this turn of events and is monitoring it closely. US national security adviser John Bolton raised the issue with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials with whom he met in Israel earlier this month. Bolton reportedly demanded that Netanyahu tighten his government’s oversight of the Chinese firms operating in Israel to foil any espionage activity. Behind the scenes, US criticism of Chinese telecom companies such as Huawei and ZTE is far harsher, with an Israeli security source describing it (on condition of anonymity) as “really furious.” In meetings with their Israeli counterparts, US defense officials repeatedly raise the issue, arguing that China should not be building Israel’s major ports and large infrastructure projects. The Americans have even hinted at the unpleasant prospect of the US 6th Fleet boycotting Chinese-built ports.”

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