Israel

Resilient
Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
Low
23 85
Local Resilience & Response
High
43 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key findings

Report by: Sarah Cook and Anonymous

 

Note: The numerical scores and narrative report do not reflect conditions in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank

  • Recent reduction in influence: Chinese state media, particularly China Radio International, and diplomatic representatives have made notable efforts in trying to shape public opinion. By 2019, these efforts had made gains in penetrating the Israeli media sector. However, focused public debate on problematic aspects of Chinese Communist Party influence, a new ambassador and new Israeli government, as well as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, appeared by 2021 to have dampened this influence compared to previous years.
  • Changing views of China, skepticism of Chinese government: Available public opinion surveys show a drop in favorable views towards China among Israelis since 2019, from 66 percent to 48 percent, with especially low confidence expressed towards Xi Jinping as a world leader (20 percent) (see Public Opinion).
  • Promotion of cultural affinity, responses to criticism: Chinese party-state communications to Israeli audiences often appear aimed at encouraging a sense of historical closeness between Israel and China or between the Jewish and Chinese peoples. At times, they implicitly or explicitly counter the United States, defense industry, or other critics’ concerns over the national security implications of too cozy a relationship (see Propaganda).
  • China Radio International: The Chinese state media outlet with the broadest audience reach in Israel is China Radio International. The station does not air widely on the radio, but has a relatively strong social media presence and a charismatic young correspondent who speaks fluent Hebrew and who has emerged as a media personality in his own right. China Radio International also provided funding for and collaborated with Israel’s public broadcaster to co-produce a video series about China (see Propaganda).
  • Embassy communications and subsidized press trips: China's ambassadors to Israel and other diplomatic personnel have published multiple op-eds in Israeli media. In at least two documented incidents, the embassy contacted reporters who had been critical of the regime’s rights abuses seeking an apology or retraction but were rebuffed and the incidents exposed. The Chinese government or related entities have invited Israeli journalists on all-expense-paid trips to China, including in some cases to Xinjiang. At least one reporter for Israel Hayom (“Israel Today”), a free daily and the country’s most widely circulated newspaper, returned from such a trip in 2019 and published an article uncritically repeating Chinese government talking points. No evidence of China-linked disinformation campaigns targeting Israel were found, but Chinese diplomats and China Radio International posts have also included falsehoods or misleading information on Xinjiang (see Propaganda, Censorship, Disinformation).
  • Indirect influence via academia: Chinese government funding to Israel’s academic sector has increased over the past two decades, indirectly affecting media coverage. Some scholars reported being encouraged to express a benign view of Beijing or being cautious about public commentary on human rights in China, even as others publicly expressed criticism of the Chinese government or conducted research on politically sensitive topics (see Censorship).
  • Small diaspora media environment: The Chinese diaspora and expatriate population in Israel is small, mostly comprised of migrants working in the construction sector. There is no known diaspora media ecosystem, but individuals may rely on WeChat or other mainland-based applications for news content (see Chinese diaspora).
  • Strong coverage of China and Beijing’s local influence: Israel is home to a vibrant and independent media sector that in recent years has covered topics such as human rights violations and other politically sensitive subjects related to China, including about Chinese Communist Party media influence in Israel. Given the absence of foreign correspondents in China, Israeli media rely heavily on Hebrew translations of international news wires or other reporting for China coverage. Alongside several academic commentators, the “Seventh Eye” media monitoring website has played an important role exposing and critiquing incidents of Beijing’s media influence (see Resilience).
  • Legal protections and investment screening: Press freedom in Israel is protected under the Basic Laws, which serve as a mini-constitution, and an independent judiciary, but print articles on security matters are subject to a miliary censor. Israeli laws place some restrictions on foreign media ownership. In 2019, the Israeli cabinet established a committee to formalize screening of foreign investments, including from China (see Resilience).
  • Gaps and vulnerabilities: The private media in Israel is heavily concentrated in the hands of tycoons with close ties to the political elite and in some cases, business interests in China, who are not required to provide financial or other disclosures to the public. Gaps in transparency, a fragmented media regulatory landscape, and weak enforcement amid frequent changes of government create potential openings for covert Chinese Communist Party influence (see Vulnerabilities).

header2 Background

Note: The numerical scores and narrative report do not reflect conditions in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank

Israel is a multiparty democracy with strong and independent institutions that guarantee political rights and civil liberties for most of the population, although Arab and other ethnic or religious minority populations face systemic discrimination. Israel is rated Free in Freedom in the World 2022, Freedom House’s annual study of political rights and civil liberties.1 The Israeli media sector as a whole is vibrant and often critical of government policy and political leaders. Ownership in the private media sector is relatively concentrated, lying mostly in the hands of ten families.2 Although social media has become an increasingly prominent news source, many people still rely on and trust news websites, television, and radio (including public broadcasting and army radio stations).3 Most outlets publish in Hebrew, although there also exist media that serve English, Arabic, and Russian speakers.

Israel established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1992.4 Under the leadership of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over the past decade relations between the two countries broadened and deepened, particularly in terms of Chinese investment in infrastructure and technology sector collaboration.5 In 2021, China was Israel's second-largest export destination after the United States and became its greatest source of imports.6 Since 2010, over $10 billion in Chinese capital has flowed into Israeli tech firms and infrastructure contracts, peaking in 2018 before declining.7 Israel’s increasingly close relationship with China sparked tension with the country’s most important ally, the United States, particularly over a deal for a Chinese state-owned firm to operate the new Gulf Port terminal in Haifa, which opened in September 2021, for 25 years.8 Chinese state-owned subsidiaries have built other strategic infrastructure projects in the country, such as the Southern Port of Ashdod, mass transit and light rail trains for the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, and power stations. US officials and some Israeli security experts have raised concerns over the possibility of sensitive or dual-use technology transfer, as well as related knowhow and expertise being shared with China. Due to concerns raised by national security agencies, Chinese companies have been excluded from Israel’s 5G sector.9 More broadly, Chinese companies’ success in winning infrastructure tenders has declined since 2020.10

The Chinese diaspora in the country is small, an estimated 7,500 mostly foreign workers, primarily in construction, among a population of nine million.11 There is a small community of approximately 100 Israelis who practice Falun Gong, a spiritual and meditation practice banned in China, and who engage in small protests at the Chinese embassy or leaflet dissemination in various cities to raise awareness about their counterparts’ persecution in China. 12

After Israel’s fourth election in two years, Netanyahu was ousted from power in June 2021 and replaced by a coalition government headed by Naftali Bennet. The new government appeared to take a more cautious approach to China. In June 2022, Bennet announced he would be dissolving parliament, setting the country up for yet another election expected on November 1.13

header3 Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts

Propaganda and Promotion of Favored Narratives

 

Key narratives

Chinese government propaganda and narratives reach Israeli audiences via several key channels, as outlined below. These narratives often appear aimed at encouraging a sense of closeness between Israel and China or between the Jewish and Chinese peoples, at times either implicitly or explicitly countering United States, defense industry, or other critics’ concerns over the national security implications of too cozy a relationship. Key points relayed by Chinese state sources include reference to the fact that China and Israel are both descendants of ancient people and therefore can and should cooperate well together;1 that both China and Israel are misrepresented in mainstream international media, implying that Israelis should be skeptical about negative coverage of the Chinese government in global media;2 and that China saved 30,000 Jews during the Holocaust.3 Chinese state media and diplomats have also actively tried to whitewash or dismiss severe human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang, publishing misleading articles and posts about counter terrorism campaigns,4 dismissing documentation of abuses as lies,5 or offering distorted representations of Ramadan celebrations. The thematic focus on defending Chinese state policies in Xinjiang to Israeli audiences appeared to increase in early 2022.6 There is also much repetition of the stereotype widely present in China that Jews are smart and good at business.7

In other instances, Chinese state representatives more directly argue that increased tensions between China and the United States do not mean that Israel should perceive China as an enemy. January 2022 also marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel, triggering exchanges of messages between Xi Jinping and Israeli President Isaac Herzog, as well as between Chinese premier Li Keqiang and Israel Prime Minister Bennett.8 This followed a November 2021 call between Herzog and Xi, which was reported upon in local media.9

A typical example of the above talking points appeared in an August 2021 op-ed by former embassy spokesperson Wang Yongjun about how Israel should balance its relationship with the United States and China:

The longstanding friendly exchanges between the Chinese and Jewish people can date back a thousand years ago…. China and China-Israel relations should be viewed in a fair, objective perspective…. We believe the Jewish people, known for their wisdom, can make the choice that best serves their interests.10

Key avenues of content dissemination

Chinese state media outlets—such as China Global Television Network (CGTN) or China Daily have no direct broadcasting or dissemination to the Israeli public via traditional media. Several outlets have correspondents based in the country, particularly in Jerusalem, but they only report about current events occurring in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip for Chinese and international audiences rather than producing news targeting Israeli and Palestinian news consumers. In May 2019, Cai Mingzhao, the head of the Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency and a member of the CCP’s powerful Central Committee visited Israel, but no cooperation agreements with local outlets were announced.11

Nevertheless, the following are some of the ways in which Beijing-produced content or favored narratives have insinuated themselves into mainstream Israeli media:

China Radio International (CRI): The major exception to Chinese state media’s relatively limited presence in Israel is China Radio International (CRI), launched in 2009 during a visit by then-Director of State Council Information Office Wang Chen.12 Although the outlet does not broadcast on the radio, it has a social media presence (including a Facebook page with 93,000 followers at the end of 2021) and a Hebrew-language website: https://hebrew.cri.cn/.13

At the center of CRI’s outreach is Xi Xiaoqi, deputy editor of the outlet’s Hebrew desk, a young and charismatic Chinese man who speaks fluent Hebrew. Better known in Israel as “Itzik”, or “Itzik HaSini” (“Chinese Itzik”), Xi graduated from the Communication University of China in Beijing in 2009 with a major in Hebrew and joined CRI the same year as its correspondent in Israel. Over time, Xi has emerged as a media personality in his own right, being invited on primetime television talk shows to provide commentary about China14 and garnering a following of 22,000 subscribers on YouTube15 and 13,000 on Facebook.16 During the coverage period, local media published profiles and interviews with him, including in the conservative weekly Makor Rishon (“First Source”) in November 202117 and in the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox weekly Yom Le’Yom (“Day to Day”) in February 2020.18 Xi also made a guest appearance in February 2020 on a popular political satire show.19 In 2016, he partnered with the Tel Aviv municipality to produce a music video in Chinese promoting the city as a tourist destination.20 Xi has been able to win over Israelis due to his fluent and vernacular Hebrew, his demonstrated mastery of Israeli pop culture, and what appears as genuine affection he and his immediate family have to all things Israeli and Hebrew. His success has garnered praise a model for replication from Chinese university programs focused on international communications. 21

Much of the content that Xi and CRI produce is soft news related to Chinese culture, food, and language, or about his own journey of learning Hebrew (a rarity among Chinese speakers and a novelty for Israeli audiences). The featured video on his YouTube channel, a 15-minute clip from late 2020 about how he learned Hebrew, had garnered over 130,000 views and over 1,000 largely positive comments in Hebrew by December 2021.22 Much of the content on CRI’s page is similarly focused on Sino-Israeli cultural affinity or various videos highlighting tourist sites or clickbait cooking videos. Posts with more political or propagandistic news (such as a meeting between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin or a congratulatory message from Xi Jinping to China’s international broadcasters) typically receive much lower engagement. On the whole, Xi’s efforts have supported CCP propaganda goals of promoting a benign image of the regime or downplaying the reality of its authoritarian rule and egregious human rights record.

Co-productions with Israeli public broadcaster and commercial television station: In another important instance of CRI content reaching local audiences, beginning in 2017, the Israeli government-funded public broadcaster Kan partnered with CRI to produce a series of about 20 video clips about China on topics such as Chinese medicine or cuisine in Chengdu, including one about Xi Xiaoqi himself.23 In a March 2020 article, the media watchdog website “Seventh Eye” published an investigative report revealing that CRI had paid 800,000 NIS ($230,000) for the production of the videos, above average for such programming.24 Under the agreement, Kan reportedly granted CRI joint editing and content oversight, alongside adherence to Kan’s ethical code although the Israeli partner committed to taking into consideration “cultural sensitivities.” The credits at the end of the clips acknowledge joint production with Chinese state media but do not note that they were the primary funder of the content. Moreover, the details of the deal only emerged after a freedom of information request, the response to which was itself partly redacted by the Israeli broadcaster.

In another example of CRI collaboration with local news outlets, in 2021, the private Channel 12 station aired “Made in China,” a five-episode primetime series filmed in China and featuring Xi Xiaoqi.25 Xi served as the segments’ “man on the ground” offering narration and commentary on toy and electric car manufacturing,26 China's handling of COVID, or the alleged defection of China's head of counterintelligence Dong Jingwei.27 In available online clips from 2021, there is no disclaimer informing the audience that Xi is a Chinese state media employee.

Chinese embassy and ambassadorial communications: The Chinese embassy in Israel has also played a key role in delivering Chinese government messages to the Israeli public.28 As in other countries, ambassadors or other embassy personnel have periodically published op-eds in the local press. For example, the current ambassador Cai Run who assumed the post in April 2021 published the article “The Code to China’s Development” in July 2021, in Israel Today (Israel Hayom), a free daily and the country’s most widely circulated newspaper.29

Former ambassador Zhan Yongxin from 2015 to 2020 also published multiple op-eds in outlets like Israel Today,30 Ha’aretz,31 and the English-language Jerusalem Post,32 and gave media interviews regularly. Cai’s predecessor Du Wei also gave a notable interview to the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Ne’eman just before he passed away in May 2020, signaling a concerted effort to reach that sector of the Israeli population. The embassy’s Hebrew website is regularly updated and the outpost also has an account on Facebook, which has only 1,000 followers.33

Journalist and business representative travel: As in other countries, the Chinese government or related entities have invited Israeli journalists on all expense paid trips to China, including in some cases to Xinjiang. The most recent such trip occurred in 2019, when Erez Lin, a reporter from Israel Today, joined the delegation. Upon his return, the paper published a large feature article titled “Peace and Security, Made in China,” which uncritically repeated Chinese government talking points, framed mass re-education in Xinjiang as a potentially legitimate anti-terrorism tactic, and downplayed the authoritativeness of reports of abuse.34 The article included a short disclosure at the bottom stating that “the author was part of a delegation of journalists from around the world who were invited on a tour by the Chinese government to the province of Xinjiang.”

Although it remains unclear if this factor played a role, it is notable that the owners of the paper, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, had built much of their fortune via casinos in Macau (Sheldon Adelson passed away in January 2021, leaving the business in his wife’s hands). The family also owns the conservative weekly magazine Makor Rishon (First Source), which in November published a glowing profile and cover feature with CRI reporter Xi Xiaoqi.35

The Chinese government has also cultivated relationships with other local influential members of Israeli society, particularly from the business sector, who have periodically echoed Chinese official talking points. In one notable recent case, Israeli entrepreneur Raz Gal-Or has become something of a social media sensation in China, also featured in state media reports.36 Although his primary audience is not Israeli, local media have also run feature pieces about his success.37 His father is president of the Israeli Chamber of Commerce in China and hosts his own Hebrew podcast “Zman Sin” (“China Time”).38 Investigations in 2021 by the New York Times and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI)39 included Raz Gal-Or among examples of social media influencers who had spread propaganda points regarding Xinjiang in their videos.40 They found that “In the weeks that followed, the video, along with other clips of Mr. Gal-Or in Xinjiang, were shared on Facebook and Twitter by at least 35 accounts run by Chinese embassies and official news outlets.” One video, for example, in which Gal-Or speaks in English while visiting a Uyghur family, received over 650,000 views, far above his 250,000 channel subscribers.41

Disinformation campaigns

No evidence was found of disinformation campaigns that used fake accounts targeting Israel or of content from global campaigns linked to China on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook reaching local audiences. However, misleading and false information related to events in Xinjiang were shared in Hebrew by Chinese diplomats or state media like CRI.42 For the purposes of this report, disinformation is defined as the purposeful dissemination of false or misleading content, especially through inauthentic activity—via fake accounts, for example—on global social media platforms.

Censorship and intimidation

While there were no reported incidents of physical or technical intimidation from China-linked actors towards Israeli journalists during the coverage period, there were several indications of the Chinese embassy closely monitoring Israeli media commentary on China and responding rapidly to voice its disagreement and request apologies or deletions.43

In July 2020, popular morning talk show host Avri Gilad did a live monologue acknowledging the 21st anniversary since the CCP launched its campaign against the Falun Gong spiritual practice, as local adherents were planning a protest in front of the Chinese embassy that day. Gilad also spoke about organ transplant abuses in China and broadly commented on the repressive nature of the regime.44 The Chinese embassy apparently saw the clip and quickly sent a letter of complaint, which Gilad then read on air in an effort to expose the attempt to influence his commentary.45 In another case in May 2022, the English-language Jerusalem Post published an interview with Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu. The piece prompted an almost immediate response from the Chinese embassy, which first called editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz and then followed-up with an email condemning the piece and demanding it be removed from the paper’s website as part of “real actions to eliminate the egregious impacts of the interview and contribute to China-Israel relations.”46 Katz refused the request and publicized the incident. This was not the first time Katz had heard from the embassy, having received a complaint earlier in May over an op-ed by an exiled Uyghur leader and counter-op-eds by embassy representatives to editorials published in 2021 that were critical of China or its impact on Israel’s relations with the United States.47

Such pressures extend both directly and indirectly to the small community of China-focused academic researchers in Israel, who are an essential source of commentary for journalists given a limited China expertise among reporters. Chinese government ties to Israel’s academic sector have increased over the past two decades, indirectly affecting media coverage and some local expert commentary regarding China. Two Israeli universities host Confucius Institutes, namely Tel-Aviv University48 and Hebrew University in Jerusalem49 and receive funding for study abroad programs in China.50 Some scholars have reported being encouraged to express a benign view of Beijing or being cautious about public commentary on human rights in China, even as others publicly expressed criticism of the Chinese government or conducted research on politically sensitive topics.51 In a 2021 radio interview, an Asian Studies scholar from the University of Haifa explained, “There is a constant sense of pressure from China to push a particular narrative and we talk about those limitations explicitly [among Israeli academics].”52 In 2021, scholar Roie Yellinek was contacted by the Chinese embassy who requested a meeting over an article he had written about the persecution of Uyghurs in China. Soon after, Yellinek received a message from LinkedIn that his account had been blocked for viewing to users in China because he had posted “prohibited content,” similar to messages received by critics of the Chinse government in other countries.53

In another incident that affected access to information in Israel and around the world, in May 2021, Israeli website hosting company Wix was approached by Hong Kong authorities asking them to remove pro-democracy website 2021HKCharter.com from their servers because its messages are “likely to constitute offenses endangering national security.”54 The letter warned that if they refused, their employees could face a fine and a six-month prison term under Hong Kong’s National Security Law. Wix removed the website, but after activists exposed the incident to international media, the firm backtracked, apologized, reinstated the site, and committed to reconsidering their screening process for future requests.55

Control over content distribution infrastructure

The Chinese government and PRC-based companies have relatively limited control over content delivery systems in Israel. Nevertheless, two avenues of content dissemination are owned by such companies and have a growing market presence. The first is mobile phone maker Xiaomi, which had a 29 percent market share in Israel as of 2020.56 The second is the short video app TikTok, a global subsidiary of the Beijing-based social media company ByteDance. In June 2022, it was the most downloaded app in the Google Play store and third most used,57 while it ranked fourth in the iPhone store.58 Several local media outlets have accounts on the platform as does the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The IDF allows soldiers to post as well, although cybersecurity firm CheckPoint noted in mid-2020 that there are “multiple vulnerabilities” within the application, which could allow attackers to manipulate videos or reveal personal information linked to the account.59 There have been some documented cases around the world in recent years of TikTok removing or downplaying politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines, although the company has subsequently reported correcting errors.60 A media report from June 2022 based on leaked TikTok meetings raised concern that statements made by ByteDance regarding data privacy of US users were false, and more broadly called into question other statements the company has made regarding its policies.61 To date, no evidence has emerged of content restrictions or manipulation regarding political topics or China being implemented in Israel.

Four companies with local, North American, or European ownership dominate the telecommunications infrastructure, leaving little space for a PRC-based company like Huawei to enter the market, although Huawei, ZTE and several other Chinese tech firms have made substantial investments in Israel’s technology sector more broadly.62

Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance models

There were no known trips to China by Israeli government officials documented during the coverage period, and no evidence that journalists who traveled on paid trips were inclined to adopt Chinese government norms of journalism.

In terms of equipment exports, however, Israel has purchased a large amount of broadcasting equipment. In 2019, the main product that China exported to Israel was $582 million worth of broadcasting equipment, although few additional details were found.63

Chinese diaspora media

Given the limited number of ethnic Chinese residing in Israel, there are not dedicated outlets serving the community. Most receive their news online from Chinese-language websites, social media platforms, and state media. The Times of Israel, a major English-language newspaper in Israel, temporarily produced a Chinese-language edition in addition to versions in Arabic, Persian, and French, but discontinued the publication prior to the coverage period of this report.64

header4 Resilience + response

Israel appears to have a relatively high degree of resilience to Beijing’s media influence, although vulnerabilities exist resulting from the country’s broader political instability and regulatory gaps. The country is home to a vibrant and independent media sector that in recent years has covered topics such as human rights violations and other politically sensitive subjects, including CCP media influence in Israel.

Underlying media resilience

  • Media professionalism and investigative reporting: News outlets in Israel routinely engage in investigative reporting and in recent years have reportedly made more use of the 1998 Freedom of Information Law, with judicial support, to increase transparency surrounding government functionality. Israeli journalists tend to be highly educated and attempts by the Chinese embassy to influence coverage have backfired as reporters expose behind-the-scenes contacts. Several independent media projects have emerged over the past decade, often with funding models such as non-profit, crowdsourcing, or transparent private ownership in an effort to offer an alternative to the tycoon-heavy ownership of much of the mainstream media. One example is Seventh Eye, a non-profit news website and investigative magazine dedicated to monitoring media, critically analyzing coverage, and enhancing transparency. 1 It has turned some attention to CCP media influence in Israel, using Freedom of Information requests to unveil CRI funding to the public broadcaster and critiquing an article on Xinjiang published in Israel Hayom that echoed Chinese party-state propaganda.2
  • Robust civic sector, press freedom advocacy, and media literacy efforts: Israel is home to a vibrant civil society, including in the media and information sector. The most notable journalist association is the Union of Journalists, founded in 2012, which advocates on behalf of media workers’ labor rights while providing professional training and initiatives to bolster public trust in the media.3 Organizations like Hatzlacha NGO and the crowd-funded news service Shakuf have advocated for improved regulation and engaged in efforts to enhance transparency in the media sector and in politics more broadly.4 The well-respected Israel Democracy Institute is also regularly cited in media and sought after by policymakers to help inform discussions of regulatory reforms and how to facilitate Israel reaching international democratic standards.5 Media literacy is widely taught in the Israeli educational system, including a focus on digital and social media.6
  • Legal restrictions on foreign ownership, new investment screening mechanism: Israel features a relatively strict environment for foreign ownership of media or telecommunications services compared to other developed economies.7 For example, a license to broadcast on cable cannot be granted to a firm in which a foreign government holds shares, although the Ministry of Communications can approve an indirect holding of up to 10 percent. More generally, for cable and satellite transmissions, at least 26 percent of a license holder’s shares must be by citizens who are also residents in Israel, and various other limits between 20 percent and 51 percent apply to firms offering international communications, radio, or mobile phone services.8 In October 2019, the Israeli cabinet decided to establish a foreign investment oversight committee similar to the American Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).9 In practice, the new mechanism formalized pre-existing rules for reviewing investments from a defense perspective, but could increase consistency in enforcement and allow for expansion to sectors that are deemed vital to the economy or national security more broadly, including infrastructure and telecommunications.10 The move was largely interpreted as a response to concerns over certain Chinese state-run companies’ investments in the country.

China-specific resilience

  • Widespread use of international media reports to cover rights abuses and other sensitive China-related news: With regards to coverage of China, no major news outlets have a correspondent based in China or journalists dedicated to reporting on China, although in the past freelancers periodically reported from the country.11 Much reporting on the country is drawn from US or other international news wires, translations of stories in global outlets, or articles based on thinktank reports. Coverage often includes reporting critical of the Chinese government, such as mass detentions of Uyghur Muslims,12 the crackdown in Hong Kong, the politically motivated sentencing of Canadian Michael Spavor,13 or the disappearance of tennis star Peng Shuai after accusing a top CCP official of sexual assault.14 Still, most reporting on China focuses on the economy and tech sector or on US-China relations and their effect on Israel.
  • Reporting and commentary questioning CCP media influence in Israel: Since 2019 several articles and commentary pieces have been published about CRI’s role in the Israeli media sector and CCP influence on public debate in Israel more broadly. These have included articles by thinktank researchers analyzing Israeli journalists’ uncritical coverage of CRI’s Xi Xiaoqi,15 reporting in the Epoch Hebrew magazine describing CRI’s activities and ties to the CCP,16 and a program on the army radio station about academic self-censorship.17 In addition to their original venue of publication, several of these articles have been covered by other outlets such as the Jerusalem Post, reaching a wider audience. These exposés, combined with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and public awareness of Chinese officials’ initial cover-up in Wuhan appear to have dampened Israeli mainstream media’s appetite and enthusiasm for CRI. Following the above-mentioned May 2022 incident of the Chinese embassy reacting strongly to a Jerusalem Post interview with Taiwan’s foreign minister, other outlets reported on the story and at least one Member of Knesset formally questioned the foreign minister as to whether the government planned to reprimand the Chinese embassy for such “chutzpah” in attempting to infringe on media freedom in Israel.18

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • Media concentration and lack of transparency: Israel’s media market is highly concentrated and saturated with economic interests that cut across other sectors and media entities, with no significant restrictions placed on cross-ownership. Although privately owned, most outlets in the print, television, and online sectors are controlled by one of approximately ten families. Under Israeli law, they are not required to publish annual financial statements or disclosures to the public or media regulators. Journalists and civil society groups rely on information leaks and rough estimates of circulation, revenue, and income. Many outlets are believed to be loss-incurring businesses, holding value to owners for their political and social influence and making hidden advertising or other non-transparent practices for increasing revenue more attractive. Many media owners have close ties to the political elite, raising concerns over crony capitalism amid the lack of transparency. At least one media owner is known to have strong economic interests in Macau, a PRC-controlled territory. Given the diverse business ties of media owners in Israel, the risk of conflicts of interests related to China—similar to the kind of concerns raised regarding domestic political influence—or China-linked hidden advertising could appear in coming years.1
  • Regulatory dysfunction and political instability: Media regulation in Israel is characterized by multiple regulatory authorities, with varying degrees of independence or reliance on the state, which operate under fragmented communications laws. Israel does not have a unified press law and online regulation is quite underdeveloped.2 This results in duplicated efforts and weak enforcement. These structural challenges have been reinforced over the past decade by increased politicization of the sector, during and after former Prime Minister Netanyahu served simultaneously as Minister of Communications (2014-2017). Several of the pending corruption cases facing Netanyahu relate to use of political and economic leverage to establish quid-pro-quo agreements with prominent media owners enhancing positive coverage of the prime minister and/or negative coverage of his political rivals. Gaps in enforcement have also been amplified by the political turmoil of recent years. With frequent elections and changes of government, leadership at the Ministry of Communications has been lacking or absent and appointments on regulatory bodies like the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council or the Second Authority of Television and Radio have been delayed to an unprecedented extent.3 The Ministry of Communications itself has had at least five different ministers between February 2017 and December 2021. There are no laws protecting journalists against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) and indeed, at least one study noted that such suits filed against journalists have “become a thriving phenomenon in Israel,” with courts offering little protection.4 Although such suits have not been deployed by CCP-linked actors in Israel to date, based on cases elsewhere, this could pose a risk in the future.
  • Gaps in journalistic ethics enforcement, countering disinformation: The country has the Israeli Press Council, a voluntary body established in 1963, to uphold quality journalism and media freedom. The council published a Journalism Ethical Code in 1996 to which journalists must subscribe, and it retains responsibility for enforcing the code. However, experts argue that the council is “toothless” and that many major media outlets have left it over the years, reducing its legitimacy and ability to actively resolve ethical issues in the press.5 Although there are various start-ups working on countering disinformation, they are focused on the security or commercial sectors rather than news consumption and the manipulation of public discourse on social media. A relatively small number of fact-checking or other initiatives have been launched by media and civil society in Israel to monitor and respond to the threat.6
  • Limited political will and public attention to Beijing-linked influence, including among journalists: Political leaders in Israel have paid limited attention to the potential dangers posed by CCP influence and economic leverage. Civil society actors and public debate are often preoccupied with other current events, understandably perhaps. There are few journalists in the country with deep expertise on China and CCP influence tactics, but many business, political, and tech sector leaders possess economic interests dependent upon maintaining good relations with the Chinese government.

header6 Impact and Public Opinion

Available public opinion surveys indicate a shift in Israeli public opinion, showing a reversal from a previous uptick in positive sentiment towards China. Until recently, Beijing’s messaging regarding cultural affinity and the need to maintain good bilateral relations may have contributed to relatively high favorability on China. Data from 2019 surveys published by Pew, for example, shows 66 percent of the public having a favorable view of China in 2019, with only 25 percent noting an unfavorable view, a notable increase compared to 2013 when only 38 percent held a favorable view.1 The report also found that a “majority of Israelis … believe they benefit from China’s growing economy.”2 A more recent poll published in 2022, however, found that only 48 percent of Israeli respondents had a favorable view of China, a notable decline over a period of three years.3

The same surveys found a relatively low level of confidence in Xi Jinping as a world leader. In 2019, 35 percent of Israeli respondents expressed confidence in Xi doing “the right thing in world affairs,”4 which dropped to only 20 percent by 2022.5 A 2018 survey found 66 percent responding that China’s government does not respect the personal freedoms of its people. An earlier 2017 study found relatively high percentages of respondents citing an association between the “Chinese government” and terms like “dictatorship” (over 50 percent), more so than terms like “economic development” (8 percent) or “tech development” (4.8 percent).6 Among both highly educated and general population samples, higher proportions of those who visited China described the media environment in China as “not free” compared to those who had not visited.

The more negative views of China and Xi Jinping since 2019 may reflect the Israeli public’s regular exposure to news in Hebrew about repression in China and foreign-facing aggressiveness by Chinese officials, including via-a-vis other small countries like Lithuania. Other factors contributing to the decline in positive opinion towards China and Xi Jinping include awareness of the initial cover-up of COVID-19 in Wuhan, a 2021 conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, during which Israeli media reported widely on problematic and arguably antisemitic comments made by Chinese officials and state media, and a shift in Sino-Israel relations amid heightened US-China tensions and the Chinese government’s perceived support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.7

header7 Future Trajectory

The following are potential developments related to Beijing’s media influence in Israel that should be closely monitored in the coming years.

  • Pro-Beijing turn post elections: In June 2022, Prime Minister Bennet announced that he would be dissolving parliament, setting the stage for yet another round of elections scheduled for November 1, 2022. Should Binyamin Netanyahu resurrect his political career and return to power, or another leader with a strong pro-Beijing affinity, watch for renewed bilateral ties and messaging from Israeli officials, the embassy, and Chinese state media like CRI.
  • Activating latent influence over information chokepoints: There are several potential entry points into Israeli media and information flows that could be activated by Beijing more aggressively to manipulate content should it feel the need, for example if relations with China versus the United States become a focus of election-related debate. These include the relatively high proportion of Xiaomi phones1 , the popularity of TikTok, and the China- or Macau-based business interests of a small number of tycoons owning major outlets who are already under suspicion of corrupt collaboration with Israeli officials over coverage unrelated to China.
  • Ongoing pushback and more open conversations on CCP influence: Israeli journalists, public, and political leaders have shown themselves to be sensitive to covert tactics or intimidation efforts from the Chinese embassy, sparking exposés and indignation. Future efforts by Chinese officials to use a heavy hand to drive coverage are likely to draw a similar reaction, potentially triggering more covert avenues like paid social media influencers. Additional research is needed on any influence exercised on Arabic and Russian speaking audiences.
  • 1The Lithuanian government found, for instance, that Xiaomi phones in its jurisdiction had browser and other blacklists of hundreds of terms deemed sensitive to the Chinese government that were periodically activated, although it had not been activated.

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