Palestine question: amid US failures, can China step in as a fair mediator in Israel-Gaza war?

The question of Palestine is of immense significance in the Middle East – settling the issue would contribute a foundational element of peace in the region. The recent escalation, triggered by Hamas’ Operation Al-Aqsa Flood and Israel’s response, also has significant geopolitical and economic ramifications for the rest of the world.
For many decades, the US has been the primary power broker in the Middle East but, recently, China has been assuming a role of mediator. In March, Beijing facilitated the reconciliation of relations between historic Gulf adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia, a development some see as indicative of a shifting global order.
Meanwhile, US efforts to coax a diplomatic normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Israel have been disrupted by the latest outbreak of conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Regionally, the violence threatens to spread and could potentially involve Iranian proxies from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – Tehran has made no secret of its support for Hamas. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which has clashed with Israel, has formidable military capabilities. Adding to the risk is the strategic significance of the Golan Heights, a water-rich, fertile area that Israel annexed from Syria, where Iranian-backed groups are known to be active.
Economically, the crisis could severely affect the global oil and gas supply chain, already strained by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Potential disruptions in the Persian Gulf, which has a daily output of 18.2 million barrels of crude oil, could be exacerbated if the vital Strait of Hormuz – responsible for transporting almost 17 million barrels daily – faces a blockage. This waterway also sees the daily transit of 3.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas, constituting 18 per cent of light natural gas shipments worldwide.

For the US itself, there is a growing concern about the potential for direct military involvement in the Israel-Hamas conflict – a risk that is higher than many realise, according to Michael DiMino, a researcher at Defence Priorities and former CIA counterterrorism analyst. As military assets are deployed to the region, America’s commitment to its allies and partners may lead to pressure for intervention, particularly if red lines are crossed: such as Hezbollah entering the fray.

Amid international blame on Israel for the deadly bombing of Gaza’s Ahli Arab Hospital, US President Joe Biden visited Tel Aviv and endorsed its assertion that an errant rocket from a Gaza terrorist group had caused the tragedy. Despite intense pressure for humanitarian aid to Gaza, the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution seeking humanitarian pauses in the conflict, citing ongoing diplomatic efforts.

Despite the Biden administration’s intention to avoid a deeper conflict, the unpredictability of the situation and the rapid decision-making required during a crisis make escalation entirely possible.

Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians go back a long way, and have stagnated since 2014. Increasingly, there are calls to rethink America’s role as the principal mediator. Given the historic deadlock and recurring violence, there is a need to find fresh approaches.

As the world’s geopolitical landscape evolves, China’s growing influence and its position as a non-traditional mediator could provide a unique opportunity to revitalise the peace process.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ recent visit to Beijing, where he met Chinese President Xi Jinping and signed a strategic partnership agreement, marked a significant step in China-Palestine relations. With the region’s continued instability, there is a case for China to engage more deeply, with the Palestinian question remaining a focal point.
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Chinese President Xi Jinping offers Palestinian leader a ‘lasting solution’ to conflict with Israel

Chinese President Xi Jinping offers Palestinian leader a ‘lasting solution’ to conflict with Israel

In seeking cooperation with all stakeholders to mitigate the conflicts and contradictions in the Palestine-Israel issue, China is acknowledging the pivotal role of the United States and their shared interest in regional stability.

China’s historical stance on this issue aligns with support in many international communities for the Palestinian cause. Over time, China has navigated a complex relationship with both the Palestinians and Israel, from friendly relations with the Jewish nation to periods of pro-Arab and anti-Israel positions.
Driven by the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s recent engagement with the Middle East has provided an opportunity for greater involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli issue, although its Middle East policy remains caught between ethical and strategic considerations.
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Asia’s Muslim-majority countries rally in support of Palestinians as Middle East conflict mounts

Asia’s Muslim-majority countries rally in support of Palestinians as Middle East conflict mounts

China’s involvement in the conflict has primarily focused on low-risk dialogue rather than an active push for solutions. A meeting it organised in 2017 with Israeli and Palestinian delegates, for instance, struggled to achieve a consensus, never mind a binding resolution. But China’s efforts to involve Palestine in its Belt and Road Initiative and other global initiatives signals its desire to offer an alternative model for international relations.

While it is uncertain whether China can mediate to achieve a peace deal, its efforts to support full UN membership for Palestine, maintain the status quo in Jerusalem and facilitate peace talks that aim for a two-state solution could still yield a geopolitical victory.

Given the re-evaluation of America’s role in the Israel-Palestine conflict and the potential for China’s mediation, the Gaza crisis is an opportunity for China to expand its influence. China, with its economic interests in Israel and its reputation as a peaceful regional power, may well emerge as a fair mediator.

China’s mediation model, which emphasises collective goals, could contribute to dialogue and de-escalate conflict. The situation, however, remains intricate and there are complexities and challenges in involving China in mediation, highlighting the need for a thoughtful reassessment of the role of various global powers in the region.

Saher Liaqat, a graduate student of international relations from the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, is a research fellow at the Hanns Seidel Foundation, Pakistan

South China Morning Post

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