Balancing act: How Israel juggles relations with opposing countries

Over the last two decades, Israel has succeeded in developing good relations with countries at odds with one another.

 China and Israel - Friends or foes? (photo credit: REUTERS)
China and Israel - Friends or foes?
(photo credit: REUTERS)

With all its obvious problems, drawbacks and disadvantages, the Cold War provided Israel with one thing: diplomatic clarity.

Even though David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first premier, had hoped somehow to steer clear of US-Soviet rivalry, the USSR made that impossible by backing and arming Israel’s enemies to the hilt.  Israel, as a result, knew for decades who was its superpower friend in the post-World War II order, and who was not.

Back then matters were clear cut. Israel did not have to balance its relationship with the US and either the Soviet Union or China, because it had no relationship with the latter two.    

That was then.

But over the last two decades, one of Israel’s more under-appreciated diplomatic achievements has been its ability to develop and maintain good relations with countries at tremendous odds with one another.

Russian servicemen take part in the ceremony marking the beginning of the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) from Kazakhstan, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, January 13, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/PAVEL MIKHEYEV)Russian servicemen take part in the ceremony marking the beginning of the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) from Kazakhstan, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, January 13, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/PAVEL MIKHEYEV)

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could fly to China for a state visit in March, and the following January be feted during a visit to India. He could literally be in Washington on Tuesday, and Moscow on Wednesday. Not every country could carry out such a delicate balancing act.

Obviously the balance is not equal, as Israel’s relationship with the US far outweighs its relationship with Russia or China. Nevertheless, Jerusalem is in the enviable position of having great relations with Washington, as well as good relations with Washington’s rivals: Moscow and Beijing.

That balancing act is not always easy, especially since a second Cold War seems to be creeping in through the backdoor, and since America’s rivalry with both Russia and China is only intensifying.

It is clear that if Israel were forced to choose between the US and Russia or China, it would side with the US without a second thought.  But the trick is not having to do so. Increasingly, this is getting more difficult.

The Ukraine-Russia crisis is a case in point.

Israel needs to tread carefully here. Although its natural sympathies may rest with Ukraine because of Kyiv’s efforts to align with the US and the West, with which Israel identifies, Jerusalem does have a national security interest in not making an enemy out of Moscow, which is currently camping out on its back porch in Syria where it could – if it so desired – make things extremely difficult for the Jewish state.  

The Washington-Beijing rivalry is another example. On Sunday the company responsible for planning the Tel Aviv light rail announced which firms won tenders to build its Green and Purple lines. Among the companies were three Israeli ones, a French and a Spanish company; Chinese firms were shut out.

That no Chinese firms will be involved in this project – although Chinese companies have been involved in numerous other major Israeli infrastructure works in recent years – is no surprise.

The US has for years pressed Israel to scale back China’s involvement in sensitive infrastructure projects, concerned about security breaches and fearful that Israeli technology transferred to China through business deals could be put to military use.

The tightrope Israel walks in this matter was on full display last month. In the first week of January Israel informed Washington that it would keep the US posted regarding any significant deal with China, and would take into consideration US opposition.

In the last week of January, Israel and China marked three decades of diplomatic relations by holding a virtual meeting on innovation cooperation, led by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and China’s Vice President Wang Qishan, where several bilateral agreements were signed.

“The volume of trade with China has increased significantly over the 30 years of diplomatic relations and today, stands at approximately $18 billion,”  the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The events of the last month – the promise to the US regarding China, the bilateral agreements with Beijing, and shutting Chinese firms out of the Tel Aviv light rail tenders shows that Israel is trying to continue having good diplomatic and trade relations with China, while at the same time being very mindful of America’s security concerns.

Even though this may seem like trying to walk through the raindrops without getting wet, it is a good idea. We can only hope it’s also possible.