Last week, the media was abuzz when Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang indicated his interest in helping mediate the Israel-Palestine conflict by speaking to both the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers. This generated some discussion as to whether China was looking to build on the success of its hosting of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia last month, which led to their re-establishing diplomatic relations after several years of rivalry and tension.
However, just as the Iran-Saudi Arabia talks should not be overstated, neither should the Chinese offer to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, the proposal was not new; Chinese officials have made similar proposals in the past. And when it has hosted talks between the two sides, China has not had any substantive impact — as happened last time in December 2017, when a senior Palestinian delegation met a more modest Israeli one in Beijing and both sides struggled to agree to anything more than a non-binding resolution.
Perhaps the greatest challenges facing successful Chinese mediation is the nature of the conflict and the peace process around it.
First, the conflict is an asymmetrical one, in which one party, Israel, has imposed what activist and scholar Jeff Halper calls a “matrix of control” over the Palestinians. By this he means that Israel holds both military and administrative control over the occupied Palestinian territory and the movement of Palestinians within it. Along with the nearly 20-year siege of Gaza, successive Israeli governments have allowed nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers to take up residence in the West Bank while building a parallel road system that connects the settlements to Israel and breaking up Palestinian territorial contiguity.
Second, the disparity between Israel and the Palestinians is extended into the Oslo peace process itself. Although the two sides recognized each other and agreed to negotiate toward a final peace settlement, Israel’s matrix of control has meant a growing disconnect between the ambitions set for the process in 1993 and today.
The imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians means that the former has remained the stronger party, even as Israel has faced internal political convulsions, including electoral instability and deep tensions within its polity. By contrast, the pressure on the Palestinians has led to substantial fragmentation. That includes not only the long-standing split between Fatah’s control of the West Bank and Hamas’ control of Gaza, but also challenges to Fatah’s authority within the West Bank. Independent militias like the Jenin Brigades and the Lions Den are emerging, and uncertainty clouds what will happen when current President Mahmoud Abbas eventually leaves the stage.
Israeli strength and Palestinian weakness mean that the latter’s wish to “internationalize” the conflict and bring in more external actors as a way to counter Israeli power is a non-starter. Meanwhile, Israel is unlikely to budge from maintaining the current arrangements in which the United States is the principal third party mediator. That state of affairs works extremely well for Israel, not least because Washington has largely declined to put pressure on Israel to reach an agreement.
If the U.S. has found it hard to help achieve peace, it is unclear how China would fare better. Like the United States, China’s relations with Israel are more important than its ties with the Palestinians. Economically, Sino-Israeli ties have grown substantially over the past decade, almost doubling from $9.8 billion in 2011 to $18.2 billion in 2021, while Chinese investments into Israel amounted to $10.6 billion over the same ten-year period. Such figures are magnitudes of order larger than that between China and the Palestinians, suggesting that Beijing would be unwilling to put them at risk.
In addition, China adopting a position that challenges the status quo would fly in the face of established Chinese diplomatic and mediation norms. In general, the Chinese claim to not want to impose their own preferences on others, claiming that this non-interference is what makes them different from other global powers like the United States. But while the Chinese position may be welcomed by existing and potential partners as a counterweight to Western conditionality, it has an adverse flipside in the context of conflict such as that between the Palestinians and Israel, in that if followed through, it will not disrupt the existing imbalance between them.
If the Chinese offer would not have made much of a difference, why then did Beijing make it? There are a couple of possible reasons, and they are not mutually exclusive.
The first – and most idealistic – is enthusiasm on the part of the Chinese, especially following the apparent success of the Iran-Saudi talks last month. Officials may have got carried away by what they saw as a successful outcome of conflict de-escalation and thought they could do the same on one of the most long-standing and intractable issues in the Middle East.
However, while Beijing hosted the dialogue between the two Gulf rivals, arguably China was not the instrumental actor it appeared. Indeed, much of the hard work had been done over the past two years through the good offices of both Iraq and Oman, who hosted talks between the Gulf rivals’ officials.
Another more cynical and self-interested possibility is that the offer was part of Chinese self-promotion. As Alexander Pevzner, a lecturer at Reichman University in Israel, pointed out on Twitter last week, the Chinese Middle East envoy met with Arab diplomats a week earlier and reiterated China’s long-standing support for Palestinian self-determination. According to Pevzner, this was a form of “signaling” by China, which has historically backed Palestinian national aspirations.
In line with this view is the theory that the Chinese offer was meant to implicitly highlight U.S. failure over the conflict while also reminding the media and regional public of China’s global power. Indeed, that the offer generated widespread coverage and speculation arguably confirms this.
Whatever the reasons for China’s offer to mediate, it is unlikely that it will be tested in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict for now. However, that does not mean it should not be dismissed completely. Indeed, developments since the China-sponsored Iran-Saudi agreement point to possible positive outcomes.
Although the Iran-Saudi agreement has been criticized for being too “thin” in that there is no mechanism to ensure that the two sides refrain from undermining each other, and no explicit promise for China to act as a guarantor, it has since been followed by the Saudis and Houthis meeting in Yemen to establish a ceasefire in relation to the fighting between them. They also agreed to a prisoner exchange, which could open the door to further conflict reduction measures.
If similar outcomes – modest as they are – were to come out of China’s recent mediation offer toward Israel and the Palestinians, then that would be something. It would also make the question of Chinese mediation less a rhetorical device and more one of reality, enabling observers to evaluate their impact and relative effectiveness. In sum: watch this space.