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China as a mediator in Israel-Palestine

July 10, 2023 at 1:01 pm

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China on June 14, 2023. [PALESTINIAN PRESIDENCY – Anadolu Agency]

China’s rise in the 20th century and its advancement in the 21st create what is called a realist security dilemma, and a power struggle in international relations, especially with the baton holder of superpower status, the United States. China’s steady growth as an economic powerhouse and quest for lead status in science and technology poses a serious threat to the future of the US as the world’s sole superpower. As China presents ever greater challenges to the US, it is pushing it to be a “tense hyperpower”.

The US has been enjoying superpower status since its late intervention in World War One. Its importance in world affairs increased during the Second World War, not least due to its acquisition of nuclear bombs, two of which were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring the war in the Pacific to an end. Global power status was passed from Britain to the US, and the world saw the beginning of “Pax Americana”.

This came with great responsibility in international affairs, especially in the Middle East. Cold War politics dragged Washington’s attention towards the region’s affairs, especially post-1948 and the creation of the state of Israel in Palestine. The subsequent conflict was used by the US and the Soviet Union to fight proxy wars. Moscow supported Arab forces against Israel, with Egypt and Syria receiving a generous supply of arms from the Soviet Union. The US was hesitant about taking part in the conflict, given the intensity of the Cold War. Moreover, it was not prepared to jeopardise its good relations with Arab nations, especially Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, it was dragged into the conflict to support nominally “democratic” Israel against the Palestinians and the Arab nations, especially in the June 1967 War and increasingly during and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel almost lost to its adversaries, which were Soviet proxies. The famous airlift of arms secured Israel in the wider context of the Cold War. Defeating the Arab forces was never the US aim, but defeating Soviet influence was; winning for democracy was what mattered most.

The US became the “honest broker” mediating in the Israel-Palestine conflict to secure regional peace and order. Under Henry Kissinger and his successors as US Secretary of State, the US has played a significant role ostensibly to find a workable resolution. US presidents have also played leading roles in so-called “presidential diplomacy”. The presidential retreat at Camp David has played host to a number of “peace process” negotiations with varied degrees of success, which is usually measured by how well they suit Israel. The troubled Trump’s diplomacy distanced the US from Palestine even further, as the Palestinians lost trust in US mediation with the seriously-flawed “Deal of the Century”.

Israel justifies its abuses and crimes against the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories on the basis of “self-defence” and “security”. The US has lost what little control it had over the occupation state. Massive amounts of US financial, political and military aid and goodwill for Israel has not persuaded the hawks in Tel Aviv to abandon their expansionist policies. The rise of Hamas and other resistance groups has complicated America’s task in the peace process. Washington appears to have lost direction in its Middle East policy when it comes to Israel and Palestine.

The conflict is characterised by overlapping history, cultures and religions, which provide complicated diplomatic baggage. Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations is a valid argument in this case. It is no strategic surprise that US diplomats have not resolved the issue, even when we ignore the debate about sincerity and national interests. If relatively liberal-minded America has failed in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, though, will China be able to do better?

READ: Is China filling a US-shaped void in the Middle East?

I am sceptical. The visit by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Beijing last month and the promise made by Chinese President Xi Jin Peng raises questions. Xi’s strong words of support for the just cause of the Palestinian people to restore their legitimate national rights and establish an independent state of Palestine based on the nominal 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital, fit in well with Palestinian aspirations. The Palestinian leadership is now turning towards China with hope for success where decades of dependence on US administrations have failed.

China surprised the world earlier this year when it announced that it had brokered a rapprochement between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. Beijing’s success in ending the hostility between Tehran and Riyadh was a diplomatic milestone which boosted China’s global image. Clearly, China is staking out a greater role for itself in the Middle East, a sure sign of an emerging global superpower.

Can China resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict? Given the clear “clash of civilisations”, it should not overestimate its ability to negotiate a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. At the same time, Beijing should not underestimate the power of the history behind the conflict.

China’s national character is a hindrance to it being a mediator. It has placed less emphasis on its own historic culture in national life since Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Parts of China’s history have been erased in the new China. Communism is the essence of Chinese national culture wherein pre-communist culture and religion are not important national assets. The reality is very different in Israel and Palestine.

How is China going to deal with the roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict? Beijing’s diplomats need to have a deeper understanding of history, culture and religion if they are to be serious mediators; a special diplomatic team probably needs to be groomed for the role, with focused training to understand Israel and Palestine in depth. The wounds of the conflict require radical treatment, not a cosmetic bandage. If China can overcome this obstacle, then it can edge out the US and its influence in the Middle East, and establish a new order in the region.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.