China's envoy downplays Hamas ties

Tells 'Post' China is worried about stagnation of the peace process.

chinese ambassador 88 (photo credit: )
chinese ambassador 88
(photo credit: )
The Palestinian decision to send Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar to a Sino-Arab forum in Beijing last week was made by PA Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, China's ambassador Chen Yonglong told The Jerusalem Post Sunday, downplaying the significance of that controversial visit. Chen stressed that Beijing did not invite a "Hamas delegation" to China, but rather extended an invitation to the Palestinian Authority as a member of the Arab League to attend the forum of foreign ministers, and the PA decided to send Zahar. Chen said "as far as I understand," Abbas "decided that Zahar should go." Chen diplomatically dodged the question whether hosting Zahar was not giving Hamas legitimacy, saying that China simply invited all members of the Arab League, and the PA was a member of that organization. Israel protested China's decision last month, with Foreign Ministry deputy director-general Raphael Schutz calling Chen to the ministry in Jerusalem and arguing that the invitation "grants legitimacy to the Hamas terrorist government, contradicts the conditions set by the international community, and harms Israeli-Chinese relations." Chen, a veteran Chinese diplomat who has served in Israel since December 2003 and before that spend two years as China's envoy to Jordan, told the Post the disagreement over Zahar's visit "did not harm the relationship, because China is not harming Israel, it is trying to help Israel, to persuade the other side to accept the three conditions." The three conditions he referred to were the criteria the international community has set as the benchmark for granting Hamas legitimacy: recognizing Israel, renouncing terrorism, and accepting previous agreements. As to whether he believed Hams would accept these conditions, Chen said Hamas gave a positive response to "actively study the Arab peace initiative." Hamas acceptance of this initiative would be widely considered implicit fulfillment of the three conditions. The initiative, also known as the Beirut initiative because it received unanimous consent at the Beirut Arab League summit in 2002, called for recognizing Israel and establishing "normal relations" in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Regarding whether there would be a follow-up Hamas visit to China, Chen said, "We can wait and see." Meanwhile, Chen said that Beijing wanted to see Prime Minister Ehud Olmert negotiate with the Palestinians. The ambassador, who has kept a very low media profile since arriving here in 2003, had talking points prepared before this interview that spelled out China's position on the diplomatic process. "At present," the talking points read, "the situation in the Middle East is at a critical moment. China is worried about the stagnation of the peace process and hopes the parties take the opportunity to resume negotiations as soon as possible." Chen refused in the interview to take a stand on the final status issues, such as whether Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to the pre-1967 lines. "We are not getting involved in the details of solving the problem," he said. "You and the Palestinian side are the main sides to the dispute and we encourage you to agree with each other how to solve the problem." Chen also sidestepped a question about how to proceed if the two sides could not reach an agreement. The ambassador also referred to the prepared talking points when asked about China's position on Iran, and deflected any questions about whether China would veto UN Security Council sanctions against Teheran. China's policy is that Beijing "firmly stands for the international non-proliferation regime." The key issue, he said, is that all parties "choose dialogue over confrontation." He characterized the recent US call for a dialogue with Iran as a very good step. He said, however, that it would take "patience" to solve the issue. "We are in favor of an atmosphere of dialogue," he said. "Dialogue is better than the other means, than sanctions." Asked whether there was a point where China would say that the sides were "are all talked out," and that it was time to use sanctions, Chen said, "You have to be patient, and also on the other hand to take into consideration their reasonable concerns for civilian nuclear energy." Chen said the question about whether to believe Iran's claim that it is developing a nuclear capacity for civilian needs is not relevant. "Believe [them] or not, you have to have dialogue with them," he said. "We are opposed to proliferation, but also have to take into consideration Iran's reasonable concern, and work together," he said. Chen described a Sino-Israeli relationship that is strong enough not only to withstand the recent Zahar visit, but also US vetoes over Israeli arms deals to China. Israel, he said, does not need to choose between China and the US, but can have normal relations with both. "It is not a zero-sum game," he said, adding that there were numerous other fields - besides the military field - where the Israeli-Chinese relationship could flourish. He said that the issue of a US veto on Israeli arms sales "is your issue, not China's issue." Chen said that one bilateral issue that soon may get a huge boost is tourism from China to Israel. The two countries are currently working on a memorandum of understanding to govern incoming Chinese tourism and that could lead to a huge influx of Chinese tourists. Chen said this document could be completed by the end of the year. "Even if we are talking about small numbers for China, it is a big number here," the ambassador said, referring to the enormous Chinese tourism potential. He said Israel's attraction for the Chinese is "its rich civilization and culture."