US Senate warns Israel against letting China run Haifa port

US Senate warns Israel against letting China run Haifa port

Text in spending bill urges Jerusalem ‘to consider the security implications of foreign investment in Israel’; US has repeatedly highlighted threats from Chinese companies

A general view of the deck of the US aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush, as it docks outside Haifa port, on July 3, 2017. (AFP Photo/AFP Photo and Pool/Ronen Zvulun)
A general view of the deck of the US aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush, as it docks outside Haifa port, on July 3, 2017. (AFP Photo/AFP Photo and Pool/Ronen Zvulun)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A major spending bill in the Senate includes a veiled warning to Israel not to allow Beijing to run one of its ports and reconsider massive investments to flowing into Israel from China.

The National Defense Authorization Act is in its final stages of passage and is likely to be approved by the Republican-led Senate.

It includes a “sense of the Senate” passage stating that “the United States has an interest in the future forward presence of United States naval vessels at the Port of Haifa in Israel but has serious security concerns with respect to the leasing arrangements of the Port of Haifa as of the date of the enactment of this Act; and should urge the Government of Israel to consider the security implications of foreign investment in Israel.”

Haaretz, which first reported the passage in the massive bill when it was posted Thursday on a congressional website, said the reference is to the Shanghai International Port Group, which under a deal with Haifa is set to operate its port for 25 years starting in 2021.

The US Navy’s 6th Fleet often docks at Haifa and is a major economic boost to the city. Successive administrations and leaders of both parties see China as a security threat and are wary of any deals that facilitate its access to US security.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and his wife Sara (C-R) speak with American soldiers during a visit on the US aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush, as it docks outside the Haifa port, on July 3, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Ronen Zvulun)

The bill includes multiple passages favorable to Israel, including funding for its anti-tunnel technology for anti-missile systems. Labeling the passage on Haifa as a “sense of the Senate” means it is not binding — but the implied warning that Israel could face consequences for going ahead with the deal is clear.

Israel in the past has suffered US repercussions for its China dealings. The George W. Bush administration suspended the strategic dialogue with Israel for three years until Israel agreed to allow the United States to review any Israeli military sales to China.

The Haifa deal drew an unusual rebuke from Mark Dubowitz, the director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a pro-Israel think tank.

“Israeli officials have to wake the hell up,” Dubowitz, who has consulted with top lawmakers and with the Trump administration on Iran policy, said on Twitter. “This is serious and Israel’s strongest supporters are losing their patience.”

In March US President Donald Trump 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  shortly after he officially recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, Channel 13 reported, 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.

China’s Vice President Wang Qishan, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tour the Israeli Innovation Summit in Jerusalem, October 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, Pool)

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.

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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with the US National Security Adviser John Bolton, during a statement to the media follow their meeting in Jerusalem on January 6, 2019. ( Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

“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.

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.

“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.

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