Israel's increasingly close relationship with China is emerging as a top concern for the Trump administration heading into high-level meetings this week with Israeli officials, the administration's assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs told the Washington Free Beacon.
While Iran's ongoing support for terrorism is likely to dominate the discussion, senior U.S. officials told the Free Beacon that Pompeo is likely to air his concerns about Israel's deepening ties with China in his upcoming meetings.
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"We don't want them to get into a problematic relationship with China," David Schenker, the State Department's assistant director for Near Eastern affairs, told the Free Beacon on Monday. "There have been times in the past where China has been an irritant to the bilateral relationship [with America] and we don't want to see that happen again."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will land in Israel on Wednesday as he resumes his global travel schedule amid the coronavirus pandemic. Pompeo's trip to the Jewish state, his first scheduled travel in more than a month, is meant to bolster the U.S.-Israel relationship at a time when the country is under constant threat from Iran and its terrorist proxies across the region. He will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz as the two sides continue work on forming a new Israeli government.
The administration's focus on China springs from the country's longstanding interest in Israeli technology, including on the military front. With Israel receiving more than $3 billion in U.S. security assistance, it has typically heeded the United States' warnings about China. However, that has become increasingly difficult as China becomes more involved in Israel's booming tech sector. Israel has also expressed a willingness to work with China's state-controlled Huawei telecommunications company, even dismissing U.S. concerns about the relationship.
Since the coronavirus erupted, the Trump administration and its allies in Congress have ramped up efforts to hold Beijing accountable and alert the globe to the Communist Party's history of deceit. While these efforts are not wholly new, the pandemic has hardened the administration's stance and spurred a range of diplomatic efforts to counter China's growing global footprint.
"Now with COVID, it's a good time to reassess and talk about Israel's relationship with China," Schenker said, explaining that while Israel is free to pursue diplomatic relationships as it sees fit, the United States is uniquely placed to outline the dangers of this alliance.
China has seen a willing investment partner in Israel, particularly given the Jewish state's technological innovation. In turn, Israel has viewed China as a good partner for cheaper infrastructure projects—a hallmark of Chinese diplomacy as it seeks an economic foothold into Western nations.
"China sees a lot of value in a relationship with Israel, the high-tech, the innovations," Schenker said. "Israel also needs all sorts of infrastructure and it looks to China. China is a low cost bidder and Chinese companies do all this work. But there are things that have to be taken into account. We also have interests and we want to be able to work with Israel."
As it has done with other top U.S. allies, including Britain, Trump administration officials will discuss with Israel the dangers of permitting Chinese companies such as Huawei to enter the country's networks.
China's potential entrance into Israeli networks could pose a significant security concern for the United States, which works closely with Israel on counterterrorism operations and other sensitive security matters. While Chinese companies' services often run cheaper than the alternatives, firms such as Huawei are not independent; they remain controlled by the Communist Party, which the United States fears could weaponize this data.
"All the information, all the data that is exchanged, if it's going over a Huawei line it's property of the Chinese Communist Party," Schenker said. "The Israelis should be aware of that."
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Free Beacon that while Israel "has much more to do to counter Chinese influence," it has recently made good moves in this direction, including barring companies like Huawei from its plan for 5G cell networks. The Trump administration can help Israel move further away from China, he said.
Israel's "security services are monitoring CCP penetration and it has set up a committee to review foreign investment, which needs to be strengthened further to meet U.S. standards," Dubowitz said. "The administration should explore ways to deepen U.S-Israel ties in technology and critical infrastructure financing as well as enabling investment in Israel from other U.S. allies to displace Chinese funding. Israel can be an important proof of concept for how Washington deals with Chinese Communist Party influence around the world. "
It is also likely Pompeo will exchange information with Israel about the coronavirus fight. Israel was one of the first countries to implement a nationwide lockdown and has fared much better than others in the region.
Rigorous testing and preventative measures were put in place ahead of the trip to ensure that Pompeo and his delegation avoid any exposure to the coronavirus, according to Dr. William Walters, the State Department's deputy chief medical officer for operations, who briefed reporters ahead of the trip.
"This is a highly choreographed operation," Walters said, addressing concerns that parties on both sides might be exposed to the virus. "Every person that comes in contact or near contact with the secretary or with the traveling party will have been screened ahead of time."
Pompeo also will address U.S. efforts at the United Nations to ensure an embargo on Iran's purchase of advanced weaponry remains in place. That ban is set to expire later this year and U.S. officials have been pressing allies to ensure this does not occur.
The issue is particularly important to Israel as it works to combat a range of Iranian-armed terror groups such as Hezbollah.