Could China serve as broker of Israel-Palestinian peace? - analysis

A more powerful China is clearly rising and it is willing to take risks, like working with the Saudis and Iranians.

Chinese and Israeli flags are seen on a table during a signing ceremony in Tel Aviv, 2014 (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Chinese and Israeli flags are seen on a table during a signing ceremony in Tel Aviv, 2014
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

Last week saw an interesting discussion around China playing a possible role in peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians. The discussion illustrates China’s growing role in the Middle East.

After China helped broker a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it appeared that Beijing could solve many problems by posing as an outsider with no real agendas or baggage.

China’s foreign minister indicated that Beijing could play a role in Israel-Palestinian peace talks, according to reports last week. He had separate calls with Israel and the Palestinians, The Guardian reported.

“The separate phone calls between the Chinese foreign minister, Qin Gang, and the Israeli and Palestinian top diplomats comes amid recent moves by Beijing to position itself as a regional mediator,” the report said.

According to an article at Al-Ain media in the UAE, for many years, “China maintained good relations with the Palestinians and the Israelis, but it did not present itself as a mediator to resolve the conflict between the two parties.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks to representatives of Arab League member states at a China Arab forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, July 10, 2018.  (credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS)Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks to representatives of Arab League member states at a China Arab forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, July 10, 2018. (credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS)

China has now played a role bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran together, however, so why not tackle another area of tensions, the report said.

“Israel considers the United States to be the exclusive mediator in its conflict with the Palestinians, and has always rejected European, UN and Russian mediation,” it said.

It appears the Palestinians think the Chinese might play a positive role. This was raised by Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki last week. However, China is now perceived as a rival by the US, and Washington has been clear to Israel and other countries that they should be wary of China’s influence, especially as that might relate to sensitive technology.

This is at the heart of several controversies over the years, such as China investing in ports or communications. Because Israel has such close ties to the US and Israeli defense companies have many US partners, there is an increased spotlight on China’s role in the region. In fact, China’s growing influence in Israel appeared to peak a few years ago.

China is reaching out to the Palestinians. Beijing says it supports the PA, seeks to continue assisting the Palestinians and backs the two-state solution. The Chinese said they would welcome visits by Palestinian officials.

So how would China facilitate peace talks with Israel and the Palestinians?

SO HOW would China facilitate peace talks with Israel and the Palestinians? Considering how China signed a 25-year deal with Iran recently, is it an impartial actor today? The global shifts that are taking place in the wake of COVID and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have changed things so much that Beijing would find it to be an uphill struggle these days.

Nevertheless, China appeared to have message discipline on this issue. It has spoken to Israel and the Palestinians. Chinese President Xi Jinping appears serious. There are several ways this could develop, and China could try to mediate more and play a larger role.

This will put Israel in an awkward position. If Israel appears to not be interested, it could cause China to see Israel in a negative light and begin to invest more in ties with the Palestinians and Iran. Tehran has interests here as well. Iran’s agenda is to undermine the PA and spread chaos in the Palestinian cities via weapons smuggling.

China is officially against militants, terrorists and chaos. Beijing claims to want stability in the region, and it wants deals between parties in conflict so that it can develop trade relations.

China has been talking up its Belt and Road Initiative for years. This was supposed to knit the region together in economic terms. However, once again, the Russian war in Ukraine and US-China tensions have changed things. Russia’s war accelerates processes in international relations, which means it accelerates China’s confrontation with the West.

Despite France’s outreach, Beijing is indicating it supports Moscow undermining the global rules-based international order. Beijing continues to make comments about the Baltic states that cause dismay in the West.

On the other hand, as the Belt and Road Initiative may not be as important these days, because the world is more divided, and China’s soft, quiet and consistent approach to influence building in the region has shifted, it’s not clear if the economic-stability model is even relevant.

For instance, for many years, we were told that linking Russia’s economy to Europe would reduce the chances of war. In the end, this globalization neoliberal agenda failed because China and Russia have shown that despite economic links, they have become more nationalist, authoritarian and hostile to the West.

Thus, democratic peace or Belt and Road have not come to fruition. Therefore, how will China’s talk of brokering peace deals come to fruition?

For China, the role of mediator is bolstered by it not having a major historic role in the region. On the other hand, it suffers from declining perceptions of neutrality in the region as it plays a greater role here. That means countries all pour into China their hopes and beliefs of what it might be to the region, and as with all diminishing returns and feedback loops, it will inevitably come up short because you can’t be all things to all people.

The region has a history of having expectations and then being angry when they aren’t met. At the same time, China doesn’t have a long historic track record of mediation or solving conflicts. The US, despite its baggage, does have a long role of helping end conflicts. This goes back more than 100 years, when Teddy Roosevelt’s administration helped end the Russo-Japanese War.

China’s track record closer to home at ending conflicts does not bode well for peacemaking in the region. A more powerful China is clearly rising, and it is willing to take risks, such as working with the Saudis and Iranians. That may not mean that what it achieved in those talks can be replicated.