China Addresses the Middle East

I would rather have the Chinese and Russians involved in seeking some kind of breakthrough in peace-making than merely sitting on the side and leaving the arena to the hapless Americans who have proven over the past 45 years that they enjoy neither the political impartiality nor the law-based constructive rigor needed to be a successful mediator in this conflict.

It might be coincidental timing or just a really bad case of mean spirited in-your-face aggressive Israeli diplomacy: In the same week as China announced a peace plan for the Arab-Israeli conflict and Russia and the United States announced agreement to hold an international conference to try and resolve the Syrian conflict peacefully, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he would return to the region later this month to try and re-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Israeli government announced plans to build 300 new settler homes in the Beit-El colony near Ramallah.

The Israeli settlement news is nothing new, but the actions of the three big powers are new and noteworthy. The American, Russian and Chinese initiatives to resolve the Arab-Israeli and Syrian conflicts are as laudatory as they are difficult to achieve, though efforts like this open up new possibilities for collaborative diplomacy through the UN Security Council, which is usually critical for success.

In response, the Israeli government—not a rogue group, but the government of the state that sees itself as the state of all the Jewish people—responds by moving ahead on the settlements-colonies front. This captures the two worst aspects of the current situation: Israeli land annexations and settlements expansion are perhaps the single greatest reason the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has failed for 45 years, and they also reflect the core of the continuing Palestinian condition of occupation, displacement, exile and refugeehood.

The United States predictably responded by telling Israel on Thursday that its West Bank settlement plans were “counterproductive,” which is the next sharpest form of diplomatic rebuke after “naughty, naughty, that is not a nice thing to do to your neighbors.”

So in the current circumstances of aggressive Zionist colonization coupled with a fractured Palestinian leadership, we probably should not expect anything serious to emerge from the American-led effort to re-start Israeli-Palestinian talks, much as all of us would like those efforts to succeed. This raises the question of why the Chinese suddenly jumped into the Arab-Israeli peace-making arena by announcing their “peace plan” during a week when the Palestinian and Israeli leaders visited China.

I personally welcome this move, regardless of how we measure its chances of success at the moment. Chinese diplomacy is the exact opposite of Israeli state behavior—it is discreet, unaggressive, and, well, that’s about all we know about Chinese diplomacy in the Middle East for now. Yet I would rather have the Chinese and Russians involved in seeking some kind of breakthrough in peace-making than merely sitting on the side and leaving the arena to the hapless Americans who have proven over the past 45 years that they enjoy neither the political impartiality nor the law-based constructive rigor needed to be a successful mediator in this conflict. When these three major powers all nibble at the issue from their respective angles, the chances increase that either a common ground will emerge that will lead to something constructive, or that they will find common cause to push for Arab-Israeli agreements as part of a larger package of diplomatic action that could include issues related to Syria and Iran.

The four-point Chinese proposal revealed last Monday by Chinese President Xi Jinping calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and peaceful coexistence with Israel, noting that, “To establish an independent state enjoying full sovereignty on the basis of the 1967 borders and with east Jerusalem as its capital is an inalienable right of the Palestinian people and the key to the settlement of the Palestinian question. At the same time, Israel’s right to exist and its legitimate security concerns should be fully respected.”

It also calls for negotiations as the only way to achieve a lasting peace, but importantly saying that, “The immediate priority is to take credible steps to stop settlement activities, end violence against innocent civilians, lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip and properly handle the issue of Palestinian prisoners, in order to create the necessary conditions for the resumption of peace talks. Comprehensive internal reconciliation on the part of the Palestinians will help restart and advance the Palestinian- Israeli peace talks.”

The third point stresses the centrality of the principles of “land for peace,” relevant UN resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative, and the fourth point calls on the international community to be engaged by offering guarantees for progress in the negotiations towards a permanent, comprehensive agreement.

It is noteworthy that the Chinese president told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the Palestinian issue is the core of the Middle East conflict—a fascinating variation on the American-Israeli focus on Arabs recognizing Israel’s Jewish and sovereign nature as the key to success.

Only the Chinese government knows why it is moving ahead with this initiative, but we should welcome it and engage with it constructively.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global

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