BEIJING— China separately hosted both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, as Beijing appears interested in playing a bigger role as a mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was welcomed in Beijing Wednesday. He is the first Israeli leader to visit China since 2007.
Netanyahu’s trip comes the same week Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas visited Beijing, where President Xi Jinping presented a four-point peace plan.
China has historically backed Palestinian positions and only formally established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992. But Xiaohe Cheng, a professor of International Relations at Renmin University, said Beijing is seeking to play the role of mediator in the Middle East.
“Certainly China wants to play a larger role, but China has no desire to replace the United States as principal mediator in the peace-making process in the Middle East,” Xiaohe said.
There are still key political differences between China and Israel on issues such as Syria. Beijing opposes outside military intervention, but Israel is suspected of carrying out air strikes in Syria in recent days.
When asked about the strikes this week, China’s foreign ministry declined to mention Israel by name.
"We hope all sides in Syria will respect Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity, remain restrained and calm, avoiding the use of military force and acts that might raise tension," said Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the ministry of foreign affairs.
Professor Xiaohe said this week’s meetings will focus on areas of cooperation between China and Israel, such as boosting economic ties.
“Netanyahu’s visit to China is aimed at strengthening ties between the two countries, and at the same time, you see that Israel has been the principal providers of high-tech know-how to China, and I think the two countries can continue to cooperate in technology cooperation areas,” he said.
Although President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu did not meet each other while in China this week, Beijing has an economic interest in brokering peace and stability in the region.
Trade between China and Israel has grown to $8 billion annually from $50 million just two decades ago, and China is now the largest importer of Middle East oil in the world.