China Can Posture, but It Can’t Bring Peace to the Middle East

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AN TU / EPA

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara visit the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in China on May 7, 2013

China’s surprising offer on Tuesday to referee peace in the Middle East offers an enticing narrative. Having emerged over the last generation as an economic colossus and budding military power, the People’s Republic might seem like a logical candidate to attempt what other global heavyweights so far have failed to achieve: a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Beijing made a good show of trying this week, which began with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on tour in China — Abbas rotating out of Beijing as Netanyahu prepared to arrive, after a couple of days in Shanghai. In talks with the white-haired Palestinian, renowned for his commitment to a negotiated peace with Israel, Chinese President Xi Jinping brought up a four-point plan to bring the century-old conflict to an end. Could it happen?

“I can give you a one-word answer: no,” says Gerald Steinberg, professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University in Israel. “The Chinese are trying to be Europeans. They want to be global actors, and the way to be global actors is to claim that you have something to offer. They have good trade relations with Israel, but there’s a huge gap in terms of understanding the perceptions of the region.”

The reality, Steinberg says, is that no country except the U.S. is trusted enough by both sides to serve as broker to peace talks — especially by Israel, which sees itself as persecuted and misunderstood by a world that does not understand its situation the way Americans do. Evidence of that “special relationship” also surfaced on Tuesday, in reports that Netanyahu has halted construction approvals for Jewish settlements on the West Bank, apparently as a gesture aimed at resuming talks with Palestinians whose eventual state would be built on the same land. The informal freeze, if that’s what it is, comes after months of efforts by President Obama’s new Secretary of State, John Kerry, to coax a resumption of peace talks. The process has gone on for two decades, and spans groaning shelves of proposals, provisions and plans. What Xi heralded in Beijing was a four-point prospectus that repeated in broad, general terms the outline of what has already been discussed for nearly a generation: two states, based on 1967 boundaries, achieved through negotiations.

“It’s not really a plan, just a collection of slogans trying to satisfy everybody,” says Yitzhak Shichor, a specialist in Asian studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Let’s say I would be surprised if China would really become involved in this.”

China did not even have diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992 — and established them then basically to avoid being left out in the cold as world powers gathered for the Madrid Conference, the first great diplomatic effort to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “Beijing needed diplomatic relations with Israel as an entry ticket to the prestigious elite club that played the Middle East great power game — and consequently the world’s,” Shichor writes in an unpublished chapter on Sino-Israeli relations. At the time, however, China already had recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization for several years, a legacy of decades of promoting insurgent Third World–ist causes.

“My own view, and of many of us who deal with China, is China is basically completely mercenary on this,” says Steinberg. “They’re interested in China and what’s good for China.” Despite the campaign of sanctions championed by the West in hopes of thwarting Tehran’s ambiguous nuclear program, Beijing continues to sell refined oil to Iran (which exports crude, but has woeful refining capacity of its own). China has also been protective of Syria, guided by a foreign policy grounded in the notion that sovereign countries should be allowed to do as they wish within their own borders — a logical policy for a government that houses its Nobel laureate behind bars and grapples with restive hot spots like Tibet and the far-western region of Xinjiang.

China is not alone in presenting itself as a surprise mediator between the Jews and the Arabs. In 2011, when Abbas was trying to win U.N. Security Council approval for full U.N. membership, the President of Colombia was invited to arbitrate the issue — less, perhaps, because of any specific diplomatic skills, and more because, at that moment, Bogotá had what appeared to be the deciding Security Council vote.

“China is not Colombia, of course,” says Shichor. But neither is it Washington, or even Moscow. “I don’t think China has the tools, it doesn’t have the connections, it doesn’t have the legacy of long-term involvement in the Middle East. I think it’s going to take time for China really to offer something that will be acceptable to all sides. And so far they’ve been trying to avoid it.”

14 comments
thuan.lam
thuan.lam

We are Chinese and we don't try to be someone  else as you imagine, white skin Animal. I will solve the middle east problem in my own way and use force if necessary. I will nuke the piece of crap U.S.A too.

bs
bs

look back 20 years ago, how many times china has been told "NO" by those western, USA so called 'experts', when China said that she was going to catch up? After 20 years, Chinese has been sick of hearing 'No' from those USA, actually they don't care any more, because facts proved those USA experts were wrong. So they can keep say 'No' to China, can Chinese has learned to put head down to work and know the most important it who is laughing at last...

DrorBenAmi
DrorBenAmi

water shortage in egypt....what happened to the edit button???

DrorBenAmi
DrorBenAmi

hey Karl, did you see the article blaming Turkey for the civil war in Syria. Apparently the whole conflict started over water that used to flow into Syria for centuries, but which now is being diverted for Turkish agriculture or whatever.

when is tony baloney karon going to stop tweeting about football games and write about the war in syria or the water shortage egypt???

LamSam
LamSam

This article is a reflection of how the author and the American diplomats got red faced that china touched their pie.

tomyom
tomyom

Yeah and we know only Good OLD lazy USA can bring peace to the craphole middle east..Why stupid China even trying to get involve. Why just let Good OLD smart USA to pay billion of dollar, while broke, to the two most useless groups in the world.

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9 like.author.displayName 1 Like

It would be very naive of anyone to believe that the cruel Chinese Communist Party is the slightest bit interested in such a thing as World peace. The brutal Chinese Communist Party is actually a gangster regime that the Western media and Governments have not been honest with us about because of corporate greed. The cruel CCP has murdered over 100 million of its own people since 1949 and is now attempting the genocide of the tens of millions of innocent Falun Gong practitioners who live there. The heinous Party is using torture, slavery, organ harvesting and murder. None of these unforgivable atrocities are ever mentioned because of the insatiable greed of Western corporations. Very sad.

keemun
keemun

Your intelligence failed on too many different levels. It's very ironic when ignorant people like you talk about others being naive. Why cant a money sucking dictator government be interested in world peace? What would it gain from a chaotic world? The chicoms are all about earning money to sustain their control of the country. Your logic is like that he's a gangster then he must eat dogs. Laughable argument that is.BTW falun is pure bizzaire based on what I have heard. Of course my opinions can be biased, but unless your a falun yourself, I suggest you get yourself some minimal education of this issue.

keemun
keemun

Your intelligence failed on too many different levels. It's very ironic when ignorant people like you talk about others being naive. Why cant a money sucking dictator government be interested in world peace? What would it gain from a chaotic world? The chicoms are all about earning money to sustain their control of the country. Your logic is like that he's a gangster then he must eat dogs. Laughable argument that is.

BTW falun is pure bizzaire based on what I have heard. Of course my opinions can be biased, but unless your a falun yourself, I suggest you get yourself some minimal education of this issue.

firozekabeer
firozekabeer

Continous expansion of settlement is a proof that current Isreali government has no real intention of peace. It's only motive is make occupation as permanent as possible. This might have a positive side: before 2nd coming of Jesus, all the "Children of Isreal" will gather in the "Promised Land" to have a final encounter with him. 

Karl
Karl

The same headline most aptly applies to the US government which can't even pretend to be objective to the real world because of the pro-Israeli bias of Congress. The only difference is that the US and Israel can prevent anybody else from stepping in as an honest  broker for talks but that is because talks about talks has become nothing but posturing by the US government which has the muscle but not the will to force compromise from Tel Aviv. This will continue until the US is no longer able to dominate the region or a sea change in US  domestic politics takes place. Talking is over, settlement of the West Bank is the only real thing that is going on. And I'm sure you are fine with that. But history wont be.

firozekabeer
firozekabeer like.author.displayName 1 Like

What Carl means by saying that Chinese recognition of PLO was a legacy of it's support for 3rd Worldist insurgency? It shows his ignorence or refusal to differenciate between Insurgents & freedom fighters.  You forcefully kicked out some one from his place of birth and occupied it for half century, and then if he tries to liberate it from your illegal occupation then he is an insurgent? With this kind of mind set peace will never come in middle east. And if China can deliver some thing, which US has failed to do, what is the harm? US can never deliver peace in this conflict because Isreal is a proxy of US: you can not mediate when you have allreday taken a side.

AussieLouis
AussieLouis

Well said drudown!

This is the kind of Jews who invite antisemitism. 

Didn't the Chinese help the Jews at a time when the whole of Europe and the rest of the world refused them.

Talk about an ingrate of a Jew!

drudown
drudown

Dear Prof. Steinberg:

It is disingenuous at best for you to hastily negate the prospect of China materially advancing a resolution in the first right, but belittling to imply that they are "trying to be Europeans" in doing so, as if, in the end, the rest of the World- the US included- isn't fed up with Israel's INABILITY to peacefully resolve its ongoing dispute itself. Last time I checked, the Middle East is slowly eroding into complete chaos and, lo and behold, there is "new evidence" of potential chemical weapons that Israeli hawks imply justifies additional US military action. Your ilk may have duped President Obama's predecessor into invading Iraq under false pretenses, but after a $4trillion debacle over an illusory threat, it is outright insulting for you to imply nothing China can do might help. 

Maybe it is time for the US, China and Russia to collaborate and try to put and end to the chaos given the ostensible inability of the stakeholders in the Middle East to resolve anything themselves.