Planeloads of supplies from China are a godsend for Israel, but an irritation to Washington.
On Monday Morning, a refitted El Al Passenger Plane landed in Israel, carrying 20 tons of protective medical equipment, coronavirus testing supplies and other urgently needed support for Israel’s Covid-19 effort. Ten more such flights are scheduled.
Israel, for reasons that will certainly be investigated when the coronavirus crisis is over, has been badly under-stocked from the outset. It has scrambled to buy more equipment in a hyper-competitive world market, and its efforts have been largely unsatisfactory.
The airlift which was organised by Israel’s Defence Ministry but a large part of which was reportedly donated by Chinese citizens sympathetic to Israel was a godsend.
Why is China being so Generous? Asked about this in a radio interview on Monday, Zvi Heifetz, Israel’s Ambassador to China, cited the long-term warming of bilateral relations, Israeli technological partnerships with the Chinese hi-tech sector and the popularity of the Jewish State. “There has never been anti-Semitism in China,” he said.
Another factor went unmentioned: Beijing’s historic “Belt & Road Initiative,” aimed at linking China to the rest of the world. Israel is a much valued piece of that project. Its Red Sea Port is a Route to East Africa.
Ports in Ashdod and Haifa are links to Greece (already a partner in the Chinese Mega-project) and Italy, which like Israel has received massive Chinese aid. Israel, the strongest and most technologically advanced nation for a thousand miles, is a potential partner in everything from R&D to large scale infrastructure projects.
The U.S. Government is aware of China’s interest in Israel and doesn’t like it. In an interview last October, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told me that China is America’s single greatest adversary.
“Today the strategic opportunity and the strategic threat emanates from the Chinese Communist Party.”
Pompeo was far too discreet to say whether the U.S. wanted to put the breaks on Israel’s burgeoning China connections. “We don’t tell other countries what to do.” Not out loud, anyway. But behind the scenes the message has been conveyed.
In mid-March, Professor Jacob Nadal, the former head of Israel’s National Security Council, warned that U.S. officials have stopped cooperating in some joint projects, especially those, like artificial intelligence, computing and quantum research. One of the primary impediments is “Israel’s flourishing business with China. American officials are clear on that point,” he said.
Nadal argued that it is a mistake for Israel to cultivate relations with Beijing. But China’s successful efforts to fight the coronavirus, and the expertise it has acquired in the process, are highly respected in Israel. They contrast with the U.S.– Israel’s traditional role model where the response has seemed confused, fragmented and at times incompetent.
In Past Emergencies, it has always been Washington that came to the rescue. The most unforgettable example was the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the dangerously depleted Israeli Defence Forces were resupplied by President Richard Nixon. But a health care crisis that threatens Israeli lives as well as the broader economy, isn’t a geopolitical chess match; and this time the U.S. is also battling the same enemy at home.
So American help has not been forthcoming, though it’s not clear that Israel has formally requested it either. President Trump has ordered a ban on the export of N95 respirators, surgical masks, gloves and protective equipment so that they can be kept for domestic use.
Israel, a country that customarily puts its own interests first, can certainly understand the rationale. But staying on the good side of Beijing, even at the price of annoying the U.S., is also in Israel’s interests.
Nor will the U.S. be too worried: The U.S.-Israel relationship is too deeply rooted to be displaced by China. Eventually, America will recover its equilibrium. It also stands with Israel on the same side against the Iranian regime. Jerusalem still counts on American diplomatic support at the UN as well as military aid (although perhaps not in the generous amounts of prec-Covid-19 recession America).
Then there is Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century, a West Bank annexation opportunity that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu desperately wants to begin implementing while Trump is still in office.
That could explain Netanyahu’s muted public response to the Chinese airlift. In a pre-Passover broadcast to the nation, one day after the first resupply plane touched down in Israel, Netanyahu didn’t even mention the Chinese help.
When the crisis passes, there will be time for Netanyahu to repair the damage in Washington. But this airlift has changed the equation. By reaching out in a time of extreme need, China has won hearts and concentrated minds in Jerusalem. In a masterful display of soft power, it has achieved a new status here.
It is now more than a huge market or tourist destination. It is a superpower that has proven ready and capable of delivering urgent help in a time of extreme danger.
That’s not the kind of thing Israelis take for granted or will soon forget. And neither, of course, will Beijing.