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China still doesn’t care about the Middle East

Jun 29, 2023 | Oved Lobel

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Ten years ago, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas flew to Beijing, followed closely by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Now, ten years later, Abbas has flown back to Beijing and reportedly established an undefined “strategic partnership” with China, while Netanyahu is reportedly planning his own trip soon. In those ten years, China has remained almost completely aloof from Middle Eastern politics, which should lead one to question the purpose of these trips.

The only significant outcome of Abbas’ trip was an appalling joint statement in which the Palestinian leader denied what is widely considered to be a genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, agreeing with Beijing’s stance that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs is “not a human rights issue at all, but an issue of counter-violence, de-radicalization and anti-separatism” and saying that he “opposes interference in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of Xinjiang-related issues.”

Abbas also offered full-throated support for China’s horrendous and illegal conduct in Hong Kong, saying Palestinians “support China’s efforts to safeguard national security” and “firmly believe that Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs.”

He further proclaimed his adherence to the Chinese Communist Party’s “One-China Principle” and support for its plan to conquer Taiwan, saying he “supports China in safeguarding national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity” and “supports all efforts made by the Chinese Government to achieve national reunification.”

These are mostly restatements of Palestinian positions since 2019 and 2020.

China provides almost no aid to the Palestinians, unlike the US and Europe, so it’s unclear why Abbas takes these positions, or why the Palestinian Authority suffers no consequences for placing itself so firmly in Beijing’s orbit, despite substantial US and European financial leverage.

For the Palestinian leadership, however, this rather obsequious outreach to China is par for the course. For decades, they have tried to internationalise the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than engage Israel in negotiations, an approach that has resulted in nothing positive for the Palestinians and will continue to fail. Particularly since 2017 and Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they have turned to Russia and China in an attempt to cut the US out of the process.

That year, Abbas made yet another state visit to Beijing, which in turn reiterated its 2013 “four-point proposal” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The proposal is nothing serious or new, and simply calls for a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. Incidentally, Netanyahu also visited in 2017, proclaiming “There is an extraordinary capacity for China to assume its rightful place, as it’s doing, on the world stage. We are your perfect junior partner for that effort… I believe this is a marriage made in heaven.”

Israel and China then announced an “innovative comprehensive partnership”.

Since the Saudi-Iran normalisation deal brokered under Chinese auspices earlier this year, there has once again been exaggerated commentary about China playing a bigger political role in the Middle East. As I pointed out at the time:

There is no information indicating that China actually did anything beyond providing a platform for all three countries to send a message to the US. While this was important symbolically for all three, it seems clear China has no interest in offering either carrots or sticks to change any country’s behaviour… Unless evidence emerges of concrete Chinese guarantees to uphold the agreement, its political role in the Middle East is likely to remain minimal.

By all accounts, China still has little interest in playing a direct political role in the Middle East. It is, however, happy to be used as a means of expressing irritation with the US, which some Israeli commentators suggest is indeed the purpose of Netanyahu’s planned trip.

Yet according to one report, “It is believed that Netanyahu will try to advance relations with Saudi Arabia with the help of China.” As with Saudi-Iran normalisation – which was actually the product of years of US-approved talks to which China contributed nothing – the only role that China could and would play in a theoretical Israeli-Saudi normalisation would be as a platform to signal displeasure with the US.

It is unlikely the Israeli Government genuinely believes China is able or willing to concretely contribute to positive outcomes for Israel, although if it does believe this, it is seriously mistaken. A country that has always voted against and condemned Israel at the UN; that is the greatest contributor to Iran’s missile and drone programs; that keeps the Iranian regime afloat financially and that engages in unprecedented technology theft and industrial and general espionage is not one that Jerusalem should try and involve more deeply in the region, much less inside Israel itself.

Abbas, for his part, is simply following a nearly century-long Palestinian tradition of picking the wrong and eventually losing side to the lasting detriment of the Palestinian people.

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