China's President Xi Jinping (R) and his Palestinian counter.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee)
SHANGHAI – When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets Chinese President Xi
Jinping on Thursday, part of the conversation will likely be taken up by a
subject Netanyahu did not originally intended to discuss: a four-point Chinese
Netanyahu did not intend to discuss this plan with the
Chinese leader, because up until Monday such a plan did not exist, and was only
unveiled after Xi met with visiting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas in Beijing on Monday.
Although the components of the plan are not
revolutionary and are very much in line with traditional Chinese policy on the
Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Chinese have never before formulated their
position into any type of orderly “plan.”
In retrospect, however, Israel
should not have been surprised by the move.
It was no coincidence, for
example, that Beijing invited Abbas to China at the same time Netanyahu was to
be in the country. The timing of the visits should have set off warning bells
that the traditionally un-interventionist Chinese policy in the
Israeli-Palestinian issue was coming to an end.
The fact that Beijing was
able to bring both Netanyahu and Abbas to the country, and for a very short
while fuel speculation whether they might not hold a summit on Chinese soil, is
a signal by the new Chinese government that they “want in,” that they want to be
involved in any Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Until now, the Chinese
have avidly avoided involvement in this issue.
One of the basic
assumptions in Jerusalem over the last few years regarding international
diplomacy was that Russia and China had come to a silent understanding, an
unstated division of labor: China would stay out of the Middle East and follow
Russia’s lead on matters there, in return for Russia following China’s lead on
issues in the Far East, particularly when regarding North Korea.
China’s economic clout is growing, that division of labor seems to be weakening.
China wants to be a player in the Middle East in its own right, and not
necessarily because of tremendous concern about either Israel or the
Palestinians, but rather as a card to play – perhaps a point of leverage – with
the United States.
Showing an interest in the Middle East diplomatic
process, something the Chinese have little experience and limited expertise in,
is not something that many around the world are going to stand up and take
Except in the US, where China’s motivations, tactics and
strategy will be carefully scrutinized.
Just as the US has traditionally
gotten Beijing’s attention by pushing the “Taiwan button,” so China can get
Washington’s attention by taking strides to move in an area that has
traditionally been US-led and dominated.
China’s message here to the US
is clear: take us into consideration.
The message to the Israelis and
Palestinians, at least as far as the content of the proposal, is not
The Chinese want to see a Palestinian state alongside a secure
Israel, an end to settlement construction, an end to violence and an immediate
start to negotiations. If anything, the proposal’s statement that Israel’s
“legitimate security concerns should be fully respected” is something pleasing
The proposal, therefore, need not be a bone of contention
between Beijing and Jerusalem as Netanyahu is trying to push the door to China
open for Israeli businesses.
If anything, it should only underscore to
Jerusalem why it is necessary for there always to be an Israeli or US initiative
on the table. Absent such a US proposal, other actors – who are less concerned
about Israel’s interests and for whom Israel has less impact – are going to move
into the breach with their own suggestions: be it the Russians, the EU, the UN
or – now – the Chinese.