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A new power broker

Gabriel Dominguez
June 18, 2013

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been raging for decades. Now China has stepped in, hosting a Mideast peace forum. Experts see this as part of Beijing's quest for influence in a region largely disappointed in the US.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) gestures at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 08 May 2013. (Photo: EPA)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

According to media reports, participants in the two-day meeting taking place in the Chinese capital include UN officials, diplomats, academics, and present and former members of the Palestinian and Israeli parliaments.

The move comes after Beijing, which backs a two-state solution, hosted Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu (main picture, right) on state visits in the same week last month. China, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has advocated the Palestinian bid for full state membership in the UN.

Beijing's efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict may enhance its reputation in the Arab world and provide the Chinese with new business opportunities, said Josef Janning, a China expert with the Berlin-based think tank German Council on Foreign Relations, in a DW interview.

Beijing has traditionally remained distant from Mideast affairs. Why is China holding peace talks now?

The Chinese are sending out the message to the international community that they are willing to become increasingly involved in problems affecting the Arab world. Beijing wants to assume responsibility and deal with issues Arabs believe are not being tackled with the necessary zeal.

German politican scientist Josef Janning (Photo: dgap)
Janning: 'Beijing is willing to become increasingly involved in problems affecting the Arab world'Image: DGAP

Furthermore, Beijing is seeking to enhance its political status in the Mideast, a region they will heavily depend on for oil in the following decades. There are mostly economic reasons behind China's involvement in world affairs and this explains why the Chinese have such a keen interest in stability in the Mideast.

The US has been trying to reach a political solution to the conflict for years. Why should the Chinese succeed in brokering a peace deal?

It remains unclear whether the Chinese have more tools at their disposal than, say, the United States, particularly since have no leverage to force the Israeli government to change tack. We shouldn't forget that this has been one of the main issues undermining American peace efforts in the area.

Besides, Arabs and particularly Palestinians are disappointed in US President Barack Obama. They had expected a new shift in US policy towards the Mideast, especially after Obama's generally acclaimed speech in Cairo back in 2009.

However, Arabs have realized that Obama's Mideast policy is much more pragmatic and along the lines of former US presidents than they initially had thought. I believe Arabs are interpreting China's growing involvement in the peace process as a message to the US administration: "If you become passive, others will become active."

While it isn't expected that the Israelis change their stance on Palestine, they are keen on doing business with the Chinese. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are looking for a partner who is willing to truly commit to their cause.

What role could China play in brokering a peace treaty?

Even if Israelis and Palestinians reached an agreement one day, the international community would still have to settle the issue of who would be in charge of enforcing the treaty terms. Beijing is simply not in the position to do this, at least not for the next 10 to 20 years.

However, there will also be a need for financial and economic support to keep both parties on the right track. I see China providing development aid and strengthening economic ties with Arab countries rather than assuming the role of treaty enforcer.

How willing is China to cooperate with the United States on this matter?

There is definitely room for cooperation. The US has repeatedly called upon other nations to step in and contribute to the peace process. Besides providing economic assistance, the Chinese could also join other countries in sending observers and troops to the region as part of a UN peacekeeping mission.

China's Premier Li Keqiang talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) during a meeting at the Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing, May 6, 2013. (Photo: EPA)
Janning says Palestinians are looking for a partner that is willing to truly commit to their causeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

However, the US role in the conflict remains exceptional, for no other country is capable of guaranteeing the security of the Jewish state. This pledge to Israel has become an essential part of all negotiations so far, but it has also complicated efforts to find a two-state solution.

But the most important thing is that China is showing interest in one of the Mideast's key conflicts. The previous visits to Beijing by Netanyahu and Abbas are a clear indication that both parties have acknowledged China's role as a broker and that they are willing to use the Beijing forum as a further communication channel.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez