Palestine is ripe for Chinese mediation

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) with the visiting Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas, Beijing, 18th July, 2017

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken drew a blank in Riyadh in his mission to coax Saudi Arabia to grant diplomatic recognition to Israel and resuscitate the moribund Abraham Accord. The Saudi stance is unwavering:  a two-state solution to Palestine problem first; normalisation with Israel can only come after that.  

The Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said at his joint press conference with Biden on Thursday that “without finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people, without addressing that challenge, any normalisation will have limited benefits. And therefore, I think we should continue to focus on finding a pathway towards a two-state solution, on finding a pathway towards giving the Palestinians dignity and justice. And I think the US has a similar view, that it’s important to continue on those efforts.” 

Blinken later called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to brief him. The state department readout mentioned that they “discussed areas of mutual interest, including expanding and deepening Israel’s integration into the Middle East through normalisation with countries in the region.” 

After the Saudi snub to the US, Beijing announced on Friday that at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will pay a state visit to China from June 13 to 16. On the same day, at the daily press briefing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin effusively spoke of Abbas and “the high-level friendly relations between China and Palestine.” Wang reiterated Beijing’s intention to mediate between Palestine and Israel and mentioned President Xi’s hands-on role. 

To quote Wang, “The Palestinian question is at the heart of the Middle East issue and matters to the region’s peace and stability and global equity and justice. China has all along firmly supported the Palestinian people’s just cause of restoring their legitimate national rights. For ten consecutive years, President Xi Jinping has sent congratulatory messages to the special commemorative meeting in observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. More than once he put forward China’s proposals for resolving the Palestinian question, stressing the need to resolutely advance a political settlement based on the two-state solution and intensify international efforts for peace. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China will continue to work with the international community for a comprehensive, just and enduring solution to the Palestinian question at an early date.” 

In the Chinese political system, the foreign ministry rarely invokes the name of Xi Jinping. At the very least, Abbas’s visit to China and China’s public diplomacy track on the whole would suggest that Beijing may have sounded Israel and other important stakeholders — Saudi Arabia, in particular — and found that the early signs are encouraging.

With Abraham Accord turning into a pipe dream, Israel has nowhere to go and nothing more to lose as it emerges that the US is struggling to shore up its regional influence. 

Without doubt, Palestine problem is at the core of the Middle East crisis. For the past four decades, the US and Israel deflected attention by whipping up paranoia about Shia Iran’s threat to the Sunni Arab regimes but with the Saudi-Iranian normalisation, it appears Washington and Tel Aviv hoisted their own petard. 

Last Thursday, the prominent Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that “reconciliation between Tehran and Riyadh is in full swing.” It quoted the commander of Iranian Navy, Rear Admiral Shahram Irani disclosing that a number of countries in the region, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, are going to form a “new maritime coalition for actions in the northern waters of the Indian Ocean.”

Interestingly, the UAE recently decided to withdraw from the US-led maritime security coalition operating in the Middle East, explaining that the decision came “after a lengthy assessment of the effectiveness of security cooperation with all partners.” 

Now, Tehran is proposing a regional coalition instead. According to the Qatari news portal Al-Jadid, the navvies of Gulf states, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman, will form a coalition together with China.

By the way, Prince Faisal underscored at Thursday’s press conference with Blinken: “China is an important partner for the kingdom and most countries in the region, and I think that partnership has given us and China significant benefits.  And that cooperation is likely to grow just because China’s economic impact in the region and beyond is likely to grow as its economy continues to grow.” 

The expert opinion in Moscow is that a regional coalition will be “a positive course of events, because the stabilisation of the situation in this territory will have an appropriate impact on neighbouring regions: Central Asia, and potentially Transcaucasia… a geopolitical confrontation had been imposed on Riyadh and Tehran for a long time, not only in the physical space of the region, but also at the ideological and value level… Iran and Saudi Arabia have finally figured out that they have a common interest… You can call it a breakthrough. Most of the experts and analysts expected this in the medium term.” 

The prominent Kremlin politician Alexei Pushkov has written in his Telegram channel that all these trends are “a demonstration of the new independence of the countries of the non-Western world, which are developing relations among themselves without much regard for the United States.” 

But rhetoric aside, it was left to Prince Faisal in a revealing remark at the press conference, in Blinken’s presence, to frame the profound winds of change sweeping across the Middle East:

“I think we are all capable of having multiple partnerships and multiple engagements, and the U.S. does the same in many instances.  So I am not caught up in this really negative view of this.  I think we can – we can actually build a partnership that crosses these borders.  I think I’ve heard statements also from the US about a desire to find pathways to better cooperation, even with China.  So I think we can only encourage that, because we see the future in cooperation, we see the future in collaboration, and that means between everybody.”

This is also where Recep Erdogan’s victory in the Turkish election becomes a tipping point, as it has a multiplier effect on the regional yearnings for a new dawn that were eloquently framed by Prince Faisal.  Indeed, the mediation on the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement lends credibility to Beijing’s initiative on the Palestine issue. Russia whole-heartedly backs the initiative. (Moscow is also navigating Saudi Arabia’s membership of BRICS for an early decision.)

That said, Palestine issue has proved to be intractable so far. But then, the crux of the matter is that Washington was lacking in dedication and sincerity of purpose and US domestic politics played havoc. The US had all the advantages but it looked at any Palestinian settlement primarily through the geopolitical prism with a view to preserve its regional hegemony, control the oil market, punish Iran and use the Iran bogey to promote arms sales, exclude Russia from the region, and above all, pin down the regional states to the petrodollar phenomenon which sustains dollar’s status as reserve currency. 

Enter China with a clean slate. China has excellent relations with Israel. Evidently, Israel is brooding about a dark future. The old swagger has vanished. Netanyahu looks tired and old. Whereas, from the full height of its regional prestige today, China is well-placed to offer to Israel a new creative pathway backed by all regional states, which even the non-state actors of the so-called “axis of resistance” will not dare to undermine.