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17 Jun, 2023 09:00

Can China push the US out of the Palestine-Israel peace process?

Following successful forays into settling other Middle Eastern disputes, Beijing is inserting itself into the region’s most challenging conflict
Can China push the US out of the Palestine-Israel peace process?

Chinese President Xi Jingping and his Palestinian Authority (PA) counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, announced that the two had signed a strategic partnership, with Beijing offering to mediate between the PA and Israel in addition to facilitating unity between rival Palestinian political parties. China’s recent push towards further involvement in the Middle East’s central conflict will invite the ire of Washington, whose power is waning regionally.

China has made several advancements this year in Middle East relations, the most notable coming in the form of mediating Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, much to the concern of Washington which still views the region as its own backyard. This week, the president of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, embarked on his fifth visit to Beijing after receiving word that Beijing is ready to help mediate between the Palestinians and Israelis, stepping into a role that has previously been reserved for the US.

Although Xi publicly declared his support for Palestine’s “just cause” for statehood in June 2022, his nation has also maintained strong relations with Israel over the span of roughly two decades. Between 2007 and 2020 alone, China invested over $19 billion in Israel. Joint projects have spanned various sectors, including technology, defense, academia, telecommunications, and shipping. Beijing has invested in the Haifa port construction project, which is included as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in addition to Tel Aviv’s light rail. This indicates that there are cordial relations on both sides; however, unlike the US government, China is prepared to support the Palestinian struggle publicly.

Is China a neutral broker and can it achieve peace?

Although it could be argued that China is biased due to its investments in Israeli infrastructure or its rhetoric towards the cause of Palestinian statehood, it is clear that there is somewhat of a more balanced approach to this issue than what is coming from Washington. The US has viewed Israel as its Western outpost in the Middle East since 1967, and the American’s are so incredibly committed to Tel Aviv that US President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that he subscribes to the nationalist ideology behind Israel’s creation – Zionism. 

The White House is committed to financing, in addition to diplomatically and militarily backing, Israel unconditionally. Even when the interests of the US government are compromised, Tel Aviv is protected and let off the hook for its violations of American red lines. On the other hand, the US government offers financing to the Palestinian Authority (PA) that is based in one of the Israeli occupied territories, yet considers almost every other Palestinian political entity to be a terrorist organization, including Hamas that governs the Gaza Strip and enjoys the most public support of any party in Palestine. The US even helped conspire to overthrow the democratically elected Hamas government in Gaza in 2007.

The US has failed to bring the Palestinian Authority and Israel to the table for dialogue on a Two State solution model – which is supported by the overwhelming majority of UN member states – since 2014. It has also watched as Israeli settlements have expanded, violating its own red lines in the conflict, partially leading to the political climate that currently exists under today’s far-right Israeli coalition, which includes policy makers who are themselves hardline settlers.

China on the other hand does not take clear cut sides. It supports the international consensus for the resolution of the conflict and could start its dealings with a clean slate. In addition, Beijing not only refuses to isolate other Palestinian political groups like Hamas, the PFLP and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), but has actively engaged with leaders belonging to the Hamas party. This means that the Chinese government would be able to speak to Palestinian leaders who do enjoy mass support, unlike the US.

However, the current problem is that there is no resolution to the conflict on the table. The first step towards ensuring any viable political roadmap is achieving a unified Palestinian political platform, which must involve both the Fatah party which partially runs affairs inside the West Bank and Hamas which governs the Gaza Strip. On the Israeli side, they must also be forced to come to the table and China would have to muster staunch opposition to violations of its red lines, aimed at cutting Tel Aviv down to size and ensuring cooperation. Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government would fall apart if it was to consider entertaining dialogue on a two-state solution, as a large portion of its ministers support annexing the West Bank, ethnically cleansing the Palestinians and even changing the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites.

What can China hope to achieve?

Due to current circumstances, there are two tangible objectives that Beijing could work towards: Palestinian unity and diminishing US power in the country. Whether we talk about One State or Two States, there can be no agreement on a solution to the conflict if there is no unified authority or representative body on the Palestinian side. At this moment, the internationally recognised Palestinian president is Abbas, who presides over the Palestinian Authority’s limited enclaves of control inside the Israeli occupied West Bank. Abbas has seized complete control over the PA’s legislative and security wings since taking office and has outlawed democratic elections since the historic Hamas victory in the 2006 legislative elections.

In order for the Palestinians to strive towards any solution, there must be a unified leadership that spans the West Bank and Gaza Strip at the very minimum. The situation will not change as long as there are two separate leaderships in power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. One solution to the deadlock is for Beijing to convince Abbas to hold legislative and presidential elections. In theory, this would deliver a democratic solution to the question of leadership. Although it is no easy task, especially as the US, Israel and their other Western partners will strongly oppose the inevitable results of the elections should they take place.

All recent polling data suggests that the majority of Palestinians oppose Abbas as leader and call on him to resign. Polling data and anecdotal evidence also suggests that the majority of Palestinians would vote for Hamas in a legislative election and a Fatah Party figure such as Marwan Barghouti in the presidential elections.

Then there is the other element to China’s potential involvement, that being its ability to influence the Israeli government. It is a far cry to suggest that Beijing would be capable of convincing Israel to agree to any solution with the Palestinians at this point, but it could absolutely test the limits of the Israel-US relationship and force Tel Aviv to take a more concrete position as to whether it is a Western nation or actually seeks to integrate into the Middle East. 

As the US government seeks to counter China’s BRI with its own Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII), it does so while navigating a world in which its key allies find themselves part of both spheres of influence. During the Trump administration, American secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, expressed his concerns over the potential security risks posed by Chinese investment in Israel, even going as far as stating that Washington may have to reconsider some of its cooperation initiatives with the Israelis over it.

Considering the Lavi fighter jet debacle of the 1990’s, the US government may be faced with legitimate concerns in its security sector over Chinese-Israeli cooperation. The incident involved allegations that Israel’s then fully nationalized weapons industry had transferred fourth generation fighter jet technology, from a scrapped joint US-Israeli project, to China, enabling the birth of the J-10 fighter jet. Although it is unlikely such a thing would happen today, in the New Cold War environment, the US will not want to see one of its closest allies lean too close to their top global opposition.

Considering the scale of Chinese investment in Israel, it is possible that Beijing could push its weight around and pressure Tel Aviv towards taking certain positions that may come at the expense of the US. We see that despite Beijing blowing a hole in the strategy to achieve a future normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, through its role in negotiating peace with Iran, Israel still continues on as a partner of China. Beijing also carries considerable influence through its relations with Iran, the UAE, and even the likes of Syria and Lebanon to a lesser extent. All of this places the Chinese government in a more powerful position regionally. Consequently, it gives Beijing the ability to maneuver as a potential middleman, especially given the fact that it does not have the gruesome record held by the United States.

Even the public announcement that China is seeking to enter the Palestine-Israel negotiating scene in a meaningful way, is a major blow for Washington, since it lacks the real influence or neutrality to create any headway towards peace. By strategically applying pressure on the Israeli government, in addition to aiding a unification of the Palestinian political scene, Beijing can indeed make some progress and not just demonstrate the diminishing role of the US.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.