The prospect of greater Chinese involvement in the Arab-Israeli issue was indicated by the recent action taken by Beijing when it invited both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders in mid-2013 for separate meetings to discuss the resumption of the Arab-Israeli peace process. In this meeting, the newly elected Chinese leader Xi Jinping revealed his four-point peace proposal for the settlement of the Palestinian issue. Although it seems that the peace plan contains nothing new, this offer to be the middle party in the peace discussion signals the willingness of China to continue, or even to take a further step, in Arab-Israeli affairs in the future.
This plan is much greater than the sum of its parts, since it pinpoints the real eagerness on China’s part to be an actual stakeholder in the Middle East’s long lasting problem.
Although the Chinese would not be able to magically eliminate all the hindrances in the way of peace negotiations, yet by virtue of their neutral interactions with both the Arabs and the Israelis as well as their relationship with other major forces in the Middle East, like Hezbollah and Hamas – which the West declines to cooperate with – the Chinese seem to be more capable of facilitating and injecting new vitality in the peace process.
Unlike the United States’ biased stance towards the Israelis that has long been negatively viewed by the Arab communities and most of the world, China has an advantage in this regard. That could offer an incentive for the Israelis to comply with some Arab demands in return for Chinese backing on issues relating to Iran, in particular.
Additionally, China’s lack of an aggressive history in the region is arguably another reason for the Arabs to be optimistic about Beijing’s support of the Palestinians. Unlike the Americans, the Chinese have never initiated a pre-emptive war in the region, and distinct from the European powers, China has never directly controlled territory in Southwest Asia. Beijing also has no record of anti-Semitism that could obstruct its future relationship with Israel. This lack of an imperial, as well as anti-Semitic, history in the region could enable Beijing to offer itself as a new actor in Arab-Israeli affairs.
That could offer an incentive for the Israelis to comply with some Arab demands
Moreover, encouraging negotiations through the economic integration of Israel and Palestine seems to be a feasible approach, and the Chinese can raise their investment and boost economic alliances with both states. Historically, Beijing has in several circumstances successfully pressured countries such as the United States, France, and others to end their military involvement in some countries by threatening trade and economic sanctions. Therefore, it appears that China may one day have the means to effectively pressure the two parties to move forward towards a lasting solution.
Another aspect that would likely contribute to the success of China’s involvement in the Palestinian issue is its stability in leadership. Barring unexpected circumstances, Xi Jinping will be the leader of the Chinese People’s Republic for the coming years, and while his successor will differ in personality, the fundamental political principles will mainly be the same.
This is in sharp contrast to the efforts made by the Americans in mediating the Arab-Israeli problem, where the shift in administration can totally change the subtleties on the ground.
Historical records have amply demonstrated these changes affecting the peace efforts, as President Clinton’s last ditch attempts to implement a peace negotiation during the declining weeks of his administration were mainly set aside by his successor, George W. Bush.
Similarly, President Bush took up the Arab-Israeli peace process in his second term only to see President Obama pursue a foreign policy that has been dominated by his embrace of the Arab Spring, and had its attention diverted to the continuing Syrian turmoil, and to a potential conflict with Iran. With the Chinese as a peace mediator, it would not be necessary to press the reset button with each change in government.
Finally, one facet that makes China stand out is its lack of an ideological element when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Chinese civil society simply does not have activist and lobbying movements such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) or other similar pressure groups based on political or religious ideologies exerting considerable influence on its foreign policy.
These movements have frequently utilized their significant power and influence to frustrate efforts by policy makers to hold the Israelis responsible for actions that breach international law and scuttle efforts for peace, most significantly the continued construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.
Although in recent years there have been efforts made by Israeli advocacy groups in Chinese academia to influence public opinion in China concerning Israel, it remains unlikely that such initiatives will bear any tangible fruit in the near future. In the meantime, China simply does not have to deal with independent organizations attempting to obstruct its foreign policy goals, or the blowback of public opinion in taking up a peace effort.
To the people of Middle East who have long waited for an effective partner to search for peace in the region, China’s proper debut could be a welcome development.