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Experts: China Faces Uphill Battle Brokering Peace Between Israel and Palestinians

Israeli security forces patrol the area around the residence of the Palestinian Sub Laban family following their eviction from their home in the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem's old city to make way for Jewish settlers, on July 11, 2023.
Israeli security forces patrol the area around the residence of the Palestinian Sub Laban family following their eviction from their home in the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem's old city to make way for Jewish settlers, on July 11, 2023.

China's attempt to strike peace between Israelis and Palestinians is likely to fail but could create an image that U.S. influence in the region is waning, experts said, even as Beijing is optimistic it could resurrect talks that have been stalled for nearly a decade.

China brokered a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March that restored diplomatic ties that were severed in 2016. Now Beijing is trying to replicate the achievement with Israel and the Palestinians, whose U.S.-brokered negotiations have been frozen since 2014.

"I believe China is ready to play a positive role in promoting peace talks" between Israel and Palestinians, Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA Korean Service on Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on June 27 that Beijing has invited him for an official visit on an unspecified date this month.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang previously offered to broker peace talks in telephone calls to Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad al-Maliki in April.

"Beijing was emboldened by the Saudi-Iran detente, which had been underway for months," said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center's Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy Project.

"But the Saudis used China to send a message to, and increase leverage with, the U.S. So Beijing attained a kind of status in the region as a credible neutral broker. [China] had to be as they get oil from both Saudis and Iran," said Manning.

"One explanation for this hopeless Israeli-Palestinian effort [by Beijing] is to make a statement to the U.S. that U.S. hegemony in the Middle East is fast fading," Manning added.

Saudi-U.S. relations had soured over the Biden administration's accusing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of approving the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist who fled Saudi Arabia and continued to criticize the government as a Washington Post columnist.

In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a proposal for a peace talks with Israel when he was in Beijing. Xi said he supports a two-state solution.

Included in the proposal was "the establishment of an independent state of Palestine that enjoys full sovereignty on the basis of the 1967 borders and with east Jerusalem as its capital."

During the Six Day War of 1967, Israel occupied large land areas including the West Bank and Gaza Strip, home to millions of Palestinians who consider them part of their territory.

Palestinians have been seeking to establish the West Bank and Gaza as an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but continues to occupy the West Bank, expanding its settlements into the area while calling all of Jerusalem its capital.

In a two-state solution, thousands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank would have to leave, relinquishing portions of the land to Palestinians.

"The circumstances of the Israeli-Palestinian standoff have not changed, and China simply will not succeed," said Dennis Wilder, who served as National Security Council director for China from 2004-2005 and is currently a senior fellow for the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University.

"The chance of China brokering a peace agreement are between zero and 5%. There have been many attempts by the United States and others over the decades to find a solution acceptable to both parties and all of these attempts have failed," continued Wilder.

Last week, Israeli forces launched the largest attack on a Palestinian refugee camp since 2002 in Jenin.

Jenin is a city administered by the Palestinian Authority since the 1990s in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Yu Jie, senior research fellow on China in the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House, said for China to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it needs to have a deeper knowledge of the region than Beijing may have.

She continued, “China doesn’t have many Middle East experts compared to experts on the U.S. foreign policy or European studies," and that Beijing “must come across as being a neutral player.”

China has been maintaining good ties with Palestinians. Beijing was one of the first countries to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its self-declared state of Palestine, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

The PLO opened a diplomatic office in Beijing in 1965 followed by an embassy in 1974.

According to Benjamin Ho, assistant professor for the China Program at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, "the perception of China in the Middle East is a relatively positive one" after "a reservoir of goodwill" was created when Beijing sent COVID-19 vaccine to the region.

Experts said Beijing's interest in brokering peace talks with Middle Eastern rivals is motivated by its need for oil imports and deepening economic ties through its Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure project stretching across the globe.

Wilder said, "It is to China's advantage to have a stable situation in the Middle East as almost half of China's oil supply comes from the region."

Wilder continued, "China's Belt and Road Initiative requires a peaceful environment. China's ambitions in the Middle East are to build extensive economic ties, and it has had success in this realm."

However, he added, "China has no ability to replace the United States as the security guarantor in the region, and there is no evidence it is seeking that role."