After the China-Iran deal, why is Israel still working with Beijing?

EDITOR'S NOTES: This isn’t about Israel doing a favor to the US, which is in a trade war with China. It is about protecting Israeli national security.

THE CLOSED-OFF entrance to Balfour Street in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE CLOSED-OFF entrance to Balfour Street in Jerusalem.
In six weeks, at the end of August, a number of international construction groups will submit their offers for an estimated NIS 15 billion tender to construct the Tel Aviv Light Rail’s Green and Purple lines.
This is one of the largest infrastructure projects in Israeli history, meant to connect portions of Gush Dan with the middle of Tel Aviv. What makes the tender noteworthy is that out of the six groups pre-approved to submit proposals, three of them include a Chinese partner. In addition, all three of the Chinese companies are owned by the state.
Why is this important? Because this past week, The New York Times revealed that China and Iran had quietly drafted an economic and security partnership that will see billions of Chinese dollars be invested in Iranian infrastructure projects. The investments are reportedly going to be spread out over 25 years, and will reach a whopping $400 billion.
In other words, while China does business with Israel’s #1 enemy, Israel is doing business with China. One could say that while Israel is reportedly waging a covert battle against Iran’s nuclear program with one hand (think about the series of recent explosions across the country), with the other hand it is giving China billions of dollars that could then make their way to Iran.
One of the groups competing for the tender includes CRRC, a state-owned Chinese company that a couple of years ago won the tender to supply rail cars for the Red Line for a hefty NIS 1.2 billion. CRRC already works in Iran. A few years ago, it signed massive contracts to provide the Iranians with subway cars.
Another group includes CREC, China’s largest construction company. A third group has teamed up with China Harbor Engineering, which participated in the construction of the Ashdod Port. Just a few weeks ago, China Harbor Engineering won a NIS 1.9 billion tender together with an Israeli partner to purchase the Alon Tavor power plant, the first of five Israel Electric Corporation power stations to be privatized.
Both of these companies are also in Iran. CREC, for example, is in the middle of building the Tehran-Isfahan railroad project.
And just this past week, Israeli construction companies learned that the NTA Metropolitan Mass Transit System (in charge of the design and construction of Tel Aviv’s infrastructure system) had awarded a contract to a Chinese corporation to construct a bridge in the center of Tel Aviv, a project that could have been carried out by an Israeli construction company but was instead given to China.
All of this is being noticed in Washington, where the Trump administration continues to lose its cool after every new deal Israel signs with the Chinese.
Reports that China is now striking a strategic deal with Iran underscores the problem. It’s not hard to imagine that if one of the Chinese groups wins the upcoming Tel Aviv tender, some of the NIS 15 billion Israel pays will simply move from a bank account in Beijing to one in Tehran.
Is that what Israel wants?
The answer should be obvious, but sadly, it seems like with a lot of other issues these days, it is not. No matter who wins the election in November, Donald Trump or Joe Biden, the US will likely still want American allies to cut financial ties with China.
That alone should be sufficient reason to stop outsourcing state infrastructure to a foreign country, but if it’s not, the deal with Iran should make clear what is happening.
This isn’t about Israel doing a favor to the US, which is in a trade war with China. It is about protecting Israeli national security.
Where is the government?
I WENT TO Balfour Street on Wednesday evening, the night after a scene of violence just outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. Police and protesters had clashed in another night of protest that started peacefully but ended with 50 people in custody.
As Jerusalem’s streets filled with a cool summer breeze, the street was relatively quiet on Wednesday. There were protesters getting ready to spend the night on the street in sleeping bags and on mattresses, while others waved black flags or just stood around talking about the events from the night before.
Udi, from Binyamina, told me he had come to Jerusalem after spending the last few months building coronavirus drive-through testing stations in the North, where he lives. What brought him to Jerusalem? A feeling, he said, that something needs to change.
Eitan, from a Kibbutz near Beit Shemesh, said he was drawn to Balfour after watching the mismanagement of the corona crisis.
As I stood there watching the protesters wave their black flags, I looked over at the lone security guard standing at the entrance to Balfour Street, his assault rifle at the ready. It was a sad sight. I remember the days just a few years ago when it was still possible for regular people to drive up the street or to jog past the Prime Minister’s Residence on an evening run.
Instead, there was a black curtain drawn so people couldn’t even see the prime minister’s house or inside the street. The curtain was erected a couple of years ago so the public wouldn’t be able to see who was coming and going from the residence. In front of the curtain was a locked gray metal gate, and in front of the gate was a black ominous barricade, placed there recently by the police.
For me, multi-layers of so-called protection symbolizes Benjamin Netanyahu’s greatest problem. After so many years in office, he is cut off from the people behind a curtain, a locked gate and a black barricade.
This disconnect is what led Netanyahu to believe that at a time when close to a million citizens are out of work, he could spend days working to get the Knesset to give him a NIS 1 million retroactive tax benefit. This disconnect is what landed him in the trouble he’s in right now at the Jerusalem District Court – his trial resumes on Sunday – where the charges against him reveal an obsession with media coverage and getting the state or private billionaires to fund every expense he can imagine.
IT IS SAD, because under other circumstances, Netanyahu would go down in history as one of Israel’s greatest leaders: one who in the early 2000s put the economy back on track; who paved Israel’s diplomatic relations with Asia, Africa and the Persian Gulf; helped turn Israel into an independent energy power; and under whose tenure Israel marked the lowest number of casualties from terrorism in its 72-year history.
Instead, when his term ends either after Benny Gantz takes over the premiership in November 2021 (no one in Likud or Blue and White really believes that will happen) or before, it will be marked by his bribery trial, by his disconnect, by his family’s hedonism, and most urgently now, the mismanagement of the corona crisis.
When facing trouble though – polls show Netanyahu’s approval ratings at an all-time low – all limits are off. Everything is fair game.
Instead of explaining, for example, why there is only one epidemiological tracer for every 300,000 people in Israel – in Germany there is 1 per 4,000, in New York State one for every 6,200 – we get to read tweets from the prime minister and his son about how Wexner fellows, like the IDF chief of staff and the director-general of the Health Ministry, are a danger to Israel.
So while the country is facing another lockdown, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee needed to urgently hold a debate on Wednesday about the Wexner Foundation and its impact on Israel. Its impact? Just look at every IDF branch, the Mossad, hospitals, non-profits and government ministries. Either their minister, top general or department head graduated from the fellowship at Harvard University.
At a time when the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) is tracking our cellphones and the executive branch is repeatedly bypassing the legislative branch, this is what was so important to debate? The disconnect is outrageous.
On the topic of Wexner, let me add this: I had the privilege of spending a year at Harvard as a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Because of my interests, I spent most of my days at the Kennedy School and took a few classes with some of the Wexner fellows.
I met a future Knesset member, a decorated Israel Air Force pilot, a brilliant former Mossad operative, a government employee dedicated to promoting equality in Israeli society, and the current director-general of a government ministry.
Does this sound like a group of people working to undermine democracy? Does this sound like people who deserve to be called “pedophiles” by the prime minister’s son who lives under the same roof, and whose living expenses are funded by Israeli taxpayers?
It is clear where all of this comes from: a desire to distract attention from what is really happening. Netanyahu is on trial? So are the 500 people who serve the country but went to Harvard as Wexner fellows.
The economy is tanking and tens of thousands are on the streets protesting? Cut everyone a government check with total disregard to their income, whether they have a job, and whether they need the money or not.
What is happening in Israel is no longer a question of whether you support Netanyahu. It is about what is right for a country in the middle of a pandemic. Sadly, right now no one seems to know.