Israel’s Communications Ministry is in consultation with the defense establishment prior to its expected launch of a tender for the country’s 5th generation (5G) cellular phone network, following worldwide concern over the activities of Chinese companies.
Amid bans and allegations of espionage against Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, and wider concern over how Chinese companies could be used by Beijing, Israel will soon have to decide on whether it will allow the company to compete in the 5G tender.
The Communications Ministry said it is in touch “with security elements as part of the administrative [preparation] work, [and] as part of the process of formulating a 5G tender. Security elements are activating their various authority in line with the law, and in line with security considerations.”
Huawei has been slapped with bans from carrying out 5G-related infrastructure work in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Japan has also banned the company from supplying network equipment. Debates about potential bans are raging in Britain, Germany, Poland and other countries. Alarmed by prospects of espionage, the United States is applying heavy pressure on its European allies to avoid working with the company on 5G network construction.
Harel Menashri, head of cyber department at the Holon Institute of Technology in Israel and a founder of the Shin Bet’s cyber division, said that Israel should wait to see how the Five Eyes alliance—comprised of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand—proceed before making its own decision on whether to permit Huawei to take part in an Israeli 5G tender.
“The Ministry of Communications is under very strong security regulation, and rightly so,” said Menashri.
“China is a very important country,” he stated. “We should not stop doing business with China, but we should take very seriously the question of what we can and what we should not do. We must understand China’s activities.”
Israel will likely closely monitor how the Five Eyes alliance will act regarding Huawei, he assessed. “The U.S. has also been very active in other countries, like Poland and Hungary to get them to stop using Chinese companies. America is heavily pressuring Germany to do the same,” said Menashri.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, the United States has told Germany that a failure to heed its warning could result in damage to intelligence cooperation.
“If I was making decisions, I’d say, let’s first look at what the others are doing,” added Menashri.
Western states have been gathering intelligence on the Chinese company for years, based on the understanding that there is no separation in China between the government, private sector companies and civilian society.
“Even the biggest Chinese billionaire has a partner, which is the government,” said Menashri.
In recent years, America has “taken off the gloves” when it comes to blocking Chinese companies, he noted, starting with a 2012 executive order by President Barack Obama that stopped a Chinese firm from building windfarms next to a naval base in Oregon.
Menashri called attention to the Chinese 2050 long-term strategic plan drawn up by former president Hu Jintao, which called for Chinese dominance in global communications.
This could be achieved by inserting Chinese-made components in global communications intersections, giving Beijing major future leverage.
In 2017, China passed a cybersecurity law that the government said was designed to protect national security. But it also sparked fears in the West about a government ability to insert “backdoors” in products made by foreign companies that produce in China, according to a paper by the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.
“This demand gives the government a ‘backdoor’ through which it can access the source code of Western companies and make use of it for its own purposes, as well as allowing the code to be copied by Chinese companies connected to the government,” said the paper, which was written by researchers Israel Kanner and Doron Ella.
Last year, Bloomberg Businessweek cited intelligence and business sources as saying that Chinese spies planted computer chips inside equipment used by some 30 companies and U.S. government agencies, which would reportedly give Beijing secret access to internal networks. In February this year, China’s Lenovo computer company said that “it will no longer pre-install software that cybersecurity experts said was malicious and made devices vulnerable to hacking,” Reuters reported.
Within China itself, the government has built the “Great Fire Wall” to control communications, which Menashri described as one of the most advanced state control systems in the world, and one that Western democracies could never legally build in their own countries.
In February, Huawei reportedly dismissed America’s allegations, with a company spokesman saying it was “shocked and sometimes feels amused” by suspicions against it.
Israel needs to be ‘very careful’
Ofer Israeli, a geostrategist and international security-policy expert, said Israel needs to closely scrutinize the entry of any international company into the country.
Israeli, who lectures at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, said foreign companies “need to be examined not just economically, but also security-wise. When we talk about an international company, which in this case is also Chinese, this increases concern because we know that China takes advantage of infrastructure in the world to promote interests and to influence internal dialogue in states where they function.”
In addition, Israeli argued that the Trump administration is in the midst of a major struggle with China over its rising economic influence—a struggle that has seen maritime infrastructure projects and 5G projects caught up in the fight.
Israel, he said, would be well-advised not to march into the dispute by allowing Chinese companies to take part in 5G projects, as this would “fairly quickly result in a vigorous American demand to do a U-turn.”
As a result, Israel needs to be “very careful, and examine such things with caution,” said Israeli. “Security agencies must have a very strong say.”
He also assessed that Israel will likely need to cancel its tender with a Chinese state-owned company to manage Haifa’s newly built civilian port, due to U.S. displeasure.
According to the contract, the Shanghai International Port Group will begin to manage from 2021 for 25 years. “I still think that in the end, Israel will have to withdraw from that because of American pressure,” said Israeli. “Hence, we should be careful about entering into a process [regarding the 5G tender] that, in American eyes, is much more problematic.”