The long-running Israel-Palestine conflict is in the midst of the gravest escalation between the two parties in recent years, with the possibility that the situation will deteriorate into a “full scale war,” as the United Nations warned. Israel has been ramping up attacks in the Gaza Strip by intensifying air operations, while Hamas has reportedly launched some 3,000 rockets into Israeli territory. Both sides’ actions have increased the death toll to more than 230, with the breakdown showing the imbalanced nature of Israel’s response: At least 227 Palestinians have been killed compared to 12 killed in Israel.
Though Israel was responding to aggressive missile attacks from Gaza, the roots of current escalation can be attributed to Tel Aviv, whose police exercised excessive brutality while dealing with Palestine demonstrators on May 6.
The situation has been furthered exacerbated by the domestic political challenges facing the ruling establishments of both states. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has failed yet again to coalescence a coalition government and while Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas decided to postpone parliamentary and presidential elections for fear of losing the race to the opposition party. The prospects for a resolution between the two sides look slim.
While the United Nations has called on both states to deescalate the situation immediately, many countries are taking sides.
In the United States, the former Trump administration opted for different approach last year by embracing Israeli aspirations for uniting 30 percent of the West Bank under its rule while allowing Palestine a limited state option – provided Israel recognizes the legitimacy of its political leadership.
New President Joe Biden wanted to shelve the Trump administration’s proposal for Middle East peace and refocus from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, but the recent Israel-Palestine escalation has messed up that plan. In response to the escalating violence, Biden highlighted U.S. support for Israel’s security and “legitimate right to defend itself,” adding later that he saw no “overreaction” by Israeli forces in Gaza.
Russia and China seem to be pursuing a more neutral stance on the conflict. Moscow is calling on both parties to “de-escalate tensions and peacefully resolve the emerging issues.” China’s position was in tune with that of Russia, urging all parties to exercise restraint to avoid further casualties. Russia and China are known for sharing a common attitude toward the U.N. as a cornerstone of global political architecture, while opposing the U.S.-promoted “rules-based international order.”
Moscow and Beijing’s overlapping position on facilitating U.N. leadership in solving global disputes is exemplified by their attempts to bring the Israel-Palestine confrontation to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). China and Russia continue to jointly promote “two-state system” as the best option for a peace settlement, which has also been supported by the United Nations.
On May 13, Putin, together with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, called for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via a “two-state solution,” implying the establishment of Palestine as an independent state alongside Israel. Russia and the U.N. have being promoting the resumption of talks within the framework of the Middle East Quartet – a format set up in 2002 comprising the U.N., United States, EU, and Russia, aimed at mediating Middle East peace talks by supporting Palestinian economic development and institution building.
China along with Russia has been calling on the U.N. to “do more to de-escalate tensions and implement a two-state solution.” Beijing voiced resentment on May 13 over U.S. obstruction of the UNSC’s May 12 discussion by refusing to approve a joint statement calling for peaceful resolution through a “two state solution.” Prior to that, Washington also refrained from adopting a Security Council presidential statement on the Palestine-Israel issue. Another emergency meeting of the UNSC, planned to be held on May 14 was postponed following U.S. objections – a move that also irked Beijing. The eventual meeting held on May 16 also brought political deadlock, prompting China to lash out at Washington for its “obstruction” of common action.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs questioned U.S. motives and reprimanded the country for being “indifferent to the sufferings of the Palestinians.” It is not the first time that the United States has been at odds with its UNSC peers. On May 7, Washington exchanged barbs with China and Russia, indirectly blaming them for “flouting” international commitments and “blocking attempts to hold accountable those who violate international law.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hit back by accusing Washington of attempting to create a closed club of democracies based on ideology, which could only “further exacerbate international tension.”
China has been supporting Palestine independence and officially opposes Israeli occupation of its territories – even while also developing rigorous economic, trade and diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Its good relationship with both sides motivated Beijing to repeat its 2017 offer of providing intermediary services for Israel-Palestine peace talks. Palestine has already hailed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s offer to play peace broker, while Israel has kept silent. That might be explained by either its hunger for revenge – as Netanyahu pledged to continue fighting – or the country’s pro-U.S. position. The Times of Israel’s recent article commenting on China’s criticism of Washington’s obstructive behavior at the U.N. Security Council highlighted that the United States is “Israel’s diplomatic shield at the UN.” It does not seem viable that Israel would accept China’s offer to broker peace talks, since the U.S. would never accept giving up regional influence to Beijing.
On May 19, Biden finally bowed to growing pressure from Democrats and threw his weight behind a ceasefire, recognizing the need to put an end to the hostility by addressing both sides of the conflict, including abuses committed by long-time ally Israel. The U.S. president mentioned that Washington would rely on its regional partners for brokering a deal between the two sides, with Egypt and Qatar as the most vocal proponents. Still the exact timelines have not been set yet, which speaks to the fragility of the emerging peace-talks. Now much depends on the United States’ shifting positions and Biden’s personal resolution to end the current escalation. His next moves will give important clues to Washington’s long-term policy in the Middle East, as well as the approach of the new administration to its regional stronghold – Israel.