US President Donald Trump last month reportedly warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that if Israel does not curb its ties with China, its security relationship with the United States could suffer.
Similar messages have reportedly been relayed in recent months by top Trump administration officials, including National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Trump issued the warning during his meeting with Netanyahu in Washington in late March, shortly after he officially recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, Channel 13 reported Sunday, citing several senior Israeli officials briefed on the content of the meeting.
According to the officials, Trump did not make a specific threat or present an ultimatum, but asked to know where the matter stood.
They said that while Netanyahu would have no problem preventing Chinese companies from participating in government tenders for telecommunications, he would be hard-pressed to cancel a tender for building a port in Haifa, since the Chinese company that won it has already began the construction work.
According to the report, Netanyahu has told the US administration in recent months that the cabinet is going to approve a new mechanism to monitor Chinese investments in Israel. However, two cabinet meetings on the matter yielded no decisions, amid disagreements over the issue within the Prime Minister’s Office and between the foreign and finance ministries.
The White House said it had no comment on Sunday’s report, and the Prime Minister’s Office said it was false.
China and Israel have stepped up business ties in recent in years and launched free-trade talks.
In October, Netanyahu and China’s Vice President Wang Qishan co-hosted a high-profile trade and innovation conference in Jerusalem. Netanyahu announced at the time that the two countries would complete a free trade agreement in 2019, and that China plans to invest heavily in Israeli infrastructure, including new ports and a light rail.
Chinese firms have made major inroads in Israel, including the takeover of local food giant Tnuva in 2014, and deals to manage the key Haifa and Ashdod ports.
During his visit to Israel earlier this year, US National Security Adviser Bolton encouraged Israeli officials to take a tougher stance against Chinese electronics manufacturers ZTE and Huawei.
“We are all concerned about theft of intellectual property and Chinese telecoms companies that are being used by China for intelligence-gathering purposes,” said a senior administration official who was briefed on the talks, according to Reuters.
Speaking to Channel 13 last month, Pompeo, the US secretary of state, highlighted the risks posed by Beijing.
“China broadly presents a real opportunity, they are an economic powerhouse and there are lots of opportunities for countries to do business with China. When China behaves transparently, when China is engaged in real economic transactions, we are untroubled,” Pompeo said.
However, he warned that China also poses risks, using “debt as a trap,” and “engages in spying through its commercial state-owned enterprises and presents risk through its technology systems, companies like Huawei,” Pompeo said, adding that these “present real risks to the people of Israel.
“We want to make sure every country is wide-eyed and awake with regard to the policy threats posed by China,” he said. “America will have to make decisions too. If certain systems go in certain places then America’s efforts to work alongside you will be more difficult, and in some places we won’t be able to do so.
“Intelligence sharing might have to be reduced, co-location of security facilities might have to be reduced, we want to make sure countries understand this and know the risks,” he added.
In January, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency was said to raise similar concerns over China’s involvement in the country’s national infrastructure.
Channel 10 (now merged into Channel 13) reported then that Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman warned that massive Chinese investment in Israel could pose a danger to national security.
“Chinese influence in Israel is particularly dangerous in terms of strategic infrastructure and investments in larger companies,” Argaman said at a closed-door speech at Tel Aviv University.
Argaman noted that Chinese companies would be taking over operating part of the Haifa port and constructing the Tel Aviv light rail system, and were actively seeking to acquire other major Israeli firms.
Argaman advised the Knesset to pass legislation to monitor foreign investment in Israel.