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

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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.”