What does Israel's future 5G network have to do with coronavirus?

5G is not the only issue hurting due to Israel’s continued political instability. The entire country is suffering as people’s lives are threatened by the coronavirus.

A REPORTER RECORDS Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A REPORTER RECORDS Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting.
On Monday, Robert Blair, US President Donald Trump’s deputy chief of staff, flew to Ottawa for an important meeting with Canadian officials. He came with a warning – do not install equipment from Huawei – a Chinese telecom company - in Canada’s next-generation 5G network.
Blair reportedly shared with Canadian intelligence officials how Huawei equipment is used by China to covertly access mobile phone networks through “backdoors” which allow the Chinese to spy on those governments. He warned that if Canada went ahead with Huawei, America would not be able to continue sharing sensitive intelligence information with its neighbor to the north.
Blair’s message echoed a similar warning that Richard Grenell, the US ambassador to Germany and the newly-appointed acting director of National Intelligence, had made last month.
Grenell revealed that Trump had called him from Air Force One and asked that he make clear to Germany and other countries “that any nation who chooses to use an untrustworthy 5G vendor[s] will jeopardize our ability to share intelligence and information at the highest level.”
Not every country has heeded Trump’s warnings. The United Kingdom, for example, decided earlier this year to allow Huawei to play a limited role in the construction of its 5G mobile networks and provide “non-core” equipment. The decision drew a sharp condemnation from Tom Cotton, a leading Republican senator.
“Allowing Huawei to build the UK’s 5G networks today is like allowing the KGB to build its telephone network during the Cold War,” Cotton said a few weeks ago, calling on Grenell to “conduct a thorough review of US-UK intelligence-sharing.”
What makes 5G so important for Trump and the US is that it is predicted to soon serve as the backbone for all critical infrastructure and is viewed by experts as having the potential to be as transformative for the world as the invention of electricity was in the 19th century.
5G’s faster download speeds mean that it will be the foundation of all new technologies – think driverless cars as an example – and if it is compromised, it could give a country like China the ability to undermine another nation’s basic needs.
Trump is determined to beat the Chinese who are currently leading the world in development of 5G components. Last April he said that “The race to 5G is a race America must win… It is a race that we will win.”
While the US and China are fighting it out on the global stage, Israel is lagging far behind. In April, the Communication Ministry issued a tender for the construction of the network offering government incentives to cellular operators of up to NIS 200 million.
But Israel cannot build the network on its own. Like Canada, Germany and the UK, it too has to make a decision who will be its main partner – China or the United States. For Israel, the question should be a no-brainer. The US-Israel alliance is key to the survival of the Jewish state and is illustrated not just in the close diplomatic and military cooperation between the two countries, but also in the intelligence sharing that exists between the different agencies.
On the other hand though, Israeli-Chinese relations have also flourished in recent years and Beijing is today Israel’s biggest infrastructure partner, building roads, tunnels, ports, railroads and more in deals valued at tens of billions of shekels.
On land, Chinese companies are building tunnels for the Tel Aviv light rail and at sea, a Chinese company is completing construction of the new Ashdod Port, and another one will soon start managing the Haifa Port. All three deals are worth close to NIS 20 billion.
Over the last year, due to US opposition, Israel instituted new oversight mechanisms to prevent China from penetrating further into Israel’s economy. The US made clear to Israel that if China continues building all of Israel’s infrastructure, continued intelligence sharing will be at risk.
“We need to decide if we are with the Chinese or the Americans and the government understands this very well,” explained Moshe Koppel, chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Koppel has been working behind the scenes trying to bring Israeli and American officials together to jointly develop some of the components and hardware needed for 5G networks. While the US’s Qualcomm, for example, is a leader in 5G technology, it is still believed to be lagging behind the Chinese. Here, Koppel says, is potentially where Israeli companies can help.
“A lot of the cutting edge hi-tech stuff that is related to security and to big data collection cannot be done alone by a small country like Israel and needs to be done by big international consortiums,” he explained.  “We can only be part of a consortium like that with the US if we commit to not compromising security by working with China.”
Officially, Israel is not saying much but there are talks. The 5G issue came up, for example, at the meeting Defense Minister Naftali Bennett had with US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the Pentagon in February. One government official explained that the reason Israel is staying quiet for now is to not upset the Chinese.
But in the end, as Koppel said, Israel will have to make its position clear. Trump’s National Security Council has long pressed Israel on China and it has become a regular topic in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conversations with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “If not dealt with correctly, China could end up being the issue that causes the Israeli-US relationship more damage than anything before it,” one US official said recently.
But while the decision seems easy to make, there is one major obstacle left – establishing a government in Jerusalem that can make decisions with strategic significance. The Americans are said to be prepared to move ahead, but there is no real point of contact in Israel as the country remains mired in an endless election cycle.
What this means is simple – a strategic opportunity like partnering with America on 5G networks is simply languishing on the side, waiting for Israel to get its act together. Will it?
5G is not the only issue hurting due to Israel’s continued political instability. The entire country is suffering as people’s lives are threatened by the continued spread of the novel coronavirus.
Netanyahu’s handling of the situation so far seems responsible. Israel, under his leadership, has instituted stringent restrictions, especially regarding air travel into the country, and sending tens of thousands of people into 14-day self-isolation. And so far, it seems to have worked, keeping the numbers of sick at bay.
But the prime minister’s criminal trial begins on Tuesday and his government is not legally capable of passing the decisions required to ensure Israel gets through this crisis as needed. It can’t pass a state budget and can’t pass laws needed to ensure the public’s safety and security at a time of great uncertainty and personal danger.
The possibility that the country will plunge into a fourth election is no longer far-fetched even if it seems delusional to be happening at a time when the entire world is bracing for the damaging effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
But this is what happens when both of the leading candidates to serve as prime minister – Netanyahu and Benny Gantz – are not meeting and are barely talking about the possibility of sitting down with one another to discuss a unity government. What this shows the public is truthfully what it has known for a long time – the politicians care more about their own jobs than they do about the public.
Israelis don’t need televised demonstrations from the prime minister every other night how to sneeze into your arm or walk around with a pack of tissues. They need a government that is working to keep them safe; not politicians who are just waiting for a fourth election.
The time has come for Gantz and Netanyahu to meet and begin to do what Israelis expect of them – establish a government.