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How China can make a difference in Israel-Palestine conflict

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and China's President Xi Jinping attend a welcoming ceremony in Beijing. Jun. 14, 2023 (AFP)
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and China's President Xi Jinping attend a welcoming ceremony in Beijing. Jun. 14, 2023 (AFP)
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15 Aug 2023 01:08:57 GMT9
15 Aug 2023 01:08:57 GMT9

It is feasible that China will play an important role in mediating Middle Eastern conflicts. In fact, it already has. In the case of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, however, mediation is hardly the issue.

Even before Beijing successfully managed to achieve reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in April, Chinese diplomacy had shown exceptional maturity. For many years, China was perceived to be an outsider to global affairs, supposedly contenting itself with economic expansion or regional economic integration.

Former US President Donald Trump forced, or rather accelerated, China’s global outreach when, in 2018, he launched an unprecedented trade war on the powerful Asian country. Trump’s plan backfired. Not only did Washington fail to make Beijing bow to American diktats, it also inspired what became known as China’s wolf diplomacy — a self-assertive Chinese approach to foreign policy.

From an American — or Western — viewpoint, the new tactic was perceived to be hostile and aggressive. But from a Chinese perspective, the policy was necessitated by the relentless war launched against China by successive US administrations, along with their Western allies.

The Russia-Ukraine war has accentuated China’s role in international conflicts and diplomacy. Though Beijing’s 12-point peace proposal, announced in March, failed to impress the West and was only superficially welcomed by Moscow, it highlighted an important shift. The fact that China found it necessary to develop an elaborate political position as a potential mediator conveyed that it was no longer content with playing the role of supporting actor in international forums.

China’s diplomacy was dismissed by many, especially in Western media and politics, as a nonstarter, if at all serious or even well-intentioned.

China is no longer content with playing the role of supporting actor in international forums

Ramzy Baroud

However, merely three weeks later, the Chinese-brokered Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement was unveiled. Major political actors in the region, including Washington, appeared to be taken by surprise. The Chinese success story was juxtaposed by many journalists in the Global South with Washington’s conflict-prone, dead-end diplomacy in the Middle East.

Buoyed by its success, China ventured further into new diplomatic territories, offering to mediate between Israel and Palestine. The Palestinians welcomed a Chinese role; the Israelis were disinterested.

The Chinese government is aware of the near-impossibility of engaging both Palestinians and Israelis in genuine peace talks. Though Palestinians are desperate to escape or at least balance out Washington’s hegemony, it is not in Israel’s interest to abandon the US — its greatest political benefactor, financier and military backer.

Though China and Israel have developed relatively strong economic and, for China, strategic ties in recent years, Beijing’s geopolitical worth for Tel Aviv is simply incomparable to that of Washington. It would also make little sense for Israel to grant Beijing any political leverage at a time of geopolitical transitions, especially because China has historically supported the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom.

For decades, China served as a key supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization and, later, the state of Palestine at the UN, insisting on the respect and implementation of international laws relevant to ending the Israeli occupation. Unsurprisingly, China recognized the PLO’s political status in 1965 and the state of Palestine in 1988. Now, it is pushing for full Palestinian membership in the international body.

The Chinese position was fundamental to Beijing’s strategic alliances in the Global South in previous decades. But the economic growth of China and its integration into a Western-centric economic system, starting in 1978, progressively weakened China’s trade and political relevance in the Global South.

This process is, however, being reversed, not only because of Washington’s trade war and the hesitance of Western countries to join Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, but because of the US-led Western sanctions on Moscow. The Western economic war on Russia is an urgent reminder to China that it cannot fully rely on Western markets and financial systems.

Palestinians must present their cause as one united front, not as political fragments and factions

Ramzy Baroud

China’s slow drift from a Western-centric economic system is being coupled with a whole new approach to foreign policy — wolf diplomacy in the West and a gentler, kinder approach in the Global South.

Even before then-Foreign Minister Qin Gang phoned his Palestinian and Israeli counterparts in April to offer mediation, China had already introduced a peace initiative known as the four-point proposal. This proposal highlighted China’s readiness to move past its role as a trade partner into one of a political actor on the global stage.

For China, this is not only a matter of prestige. Various Muslim and Arab countries, along with Israel, are critical parties in the ambitious BRI project.

In recent months, China’s interest in being a peace mediator has increased exponentially, especially amid the near-total absence of Washington, the self-proclaimed “honest peace broker.”

China has also shown a willingness to mediate between rival Palestinian groups. That, too, ushers in an evolution in China’s approach to Palestinian politics. However, it will not be easy.

The Palestinian Authority’s financial well-being — and political future — is largely linked to Washington and other Western capitals. Though Palestinian officials, including the likes of Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki, have threatened to “turn to China” due to the PA’s “disappointment” in Washington, such a shift will not be permitted, if not by Washington then by Tel Aviv itself.

The visit in June by President Mahmoud Abbas to Beijing, although touted by the PA-run media as an earth-shattering event, will not be a game changer. True, it highlighted China’s growing interest in Palestine, but it is unlikely to be followed by substantive action on the part of the Palestinian leadership.

Palestinians need China, as they need other powerful players in the Global South, but it is not mediation that they desperately require. Mediation does not end military occupations or dismantle apartheid regimes. Instead, Palestinians need solidarity.

The major changes underway in the world’s geopolitical map and the rising importance of the Global South present Palestinians with unique opportunities to break away from US-Western hegemony and to reconnect with Palestine’s true strategic depth in Asia, Africa, South America and the rest of the world.

For this to occur, Palestinians must present their cause as one united front, not as political fragments and factions. Only then can emerging powers view Palestine as a serious geopolitical asset in a vastly changing world.

  • Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of Twitter: @RamzyBaroud
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