Is China Capable of Tackling the Israel–Palestinian Conflict?

Israeli Airstrikes (Photo: The Guardian on YouTube)

In May 2021, another round of armed conflict was sparked between Israel and Hamas due to clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians in East Jerusalem since April. U.S. President Joe Biden has been criticised for his indecisive and incoherent responses, and some critics have lambasted the U.S. for its hypocrisy over the years in regards to the Israeli–Palestinian situation while emphasising human rights. China, which has repeatedly confronted the U.S. on human rights issues in recent years, unsurprisingly seized the opportunity to taunt the U.S. by expressing solidarity with the Palestinians. However, it should be noted that the complexities of the Israel–Palestinian conflict, which has lasted for more than 50 years, make it difficult for any stakeholder to propose a viable win-win solution, and China’s position in favour of a two-state solution is not a new idea. If China tries to intervene further in the Israel–Palestinian conflict, it is likely that the result will be just as fruitless as prior U.S. intervention.

Criticism of the U.S. response to the conflict can be found easily enough in academic and media publications. Among them, one line of criticism states that the U.S. has, from time to time, condemned authoritarian states for violating human rights and subsequently imposed punitive sanctions on some of them, yet it has condoned Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians for more than half a decade. China’s criticism of U.S. bipartisanship in favour of Israel differs little from the critiques of certain Western scholars and commentators, and those accusations should not be ignored.

While Biden’s response to the Israel–Palestinian conflict has been controversial, he still has his defenders, who believe that he faces significant constraints behind the scenes. During Donald Trump’s four-year presidency, the U.S. unprecedentedly recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced an aggressive proposal, titled “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People” (otherwise known as the Trump peace plan), which allows Israel to annex areas in the West Bank where many Palestinians have settled. Although the Israeli government did not implement it before Trump stepped down, it is no exaggeration to say that intensification of the Israel–Palestinian situation is one Trump’s main negative legacies left to Biden.

It was revealed that Biden did not send an ambassador to Israel when the latest armed conflict between Israel and Palestine seized the world’s attention. This saw two mainstream interpretations. First, Biden might be looking to cool tensions between the two sides, as sending a U.S. ambassador to Jerusalem would further provoke the Palestinians. Or second, Biden just might not be interested in actively participating in the handling of the Israel–Palestinian conflict in the short-term.

Although these two interpretations differ, they are not necessarily contradictory. In fact, during his presidential election campaign last year, Biden had strong reservations about Trump’s Israel–Palestinian policy and made it clear that he would not endorse Trump’s counter-productive “peace plan”. Nevertheless, withdrawing Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will have a number of side-effects, such as alienating Israel and irritating the wealthy supporters of Zionism who are influential in U.S. politics.

Biden’s moves since his inauguration have also demonstrated that there are many other issues which deserve more urgent attention, such as U.S.–China relations, the fight against COVID-19 and stimulation of economic recovery at home, and the Iranian nuclear negotiations. With all of this in mind, it leaves little room to deal with the long-standing Israel–Palestinian conflict. Moreover, the crux of the conflict involves a sectarian dispute over the sovereignty of Jerusalem, an issue that has repeatedly been proven to be insurmountable.

Admittedly, supporting the principle of the two-state solution in accordance with the Oslo Accords, which allows Palestinians to establish an independent Palestinian state, has been the basic consensus of the U.S. for many years. However, there has been no real breakthrough in the peace negotiations. When former U.S. President Clinton proposed a two-state solution at the Camp David 2000 Summit, which aimed at preserving Palestinian sovereignty over more than 90% of the West Bank, Palestine was dissatisfied that they could not have sovereignty over Jerusalem, and negotiations ended in failure as a result of a violent outbreak in the form of the Second Intifada.

Worse, history suggests that Clinton’s two-state solution offered the most protection to Palestinian rights so far. Palestinians have lost all subsequent armed clashes with Israel, greatly diminishing their political bargaining power. As such, it is unlikely that Israel will be willing to make any compromises in the future, given that it has secured a significant military advantage over its rival. Since neither Israel nor Palestine is willing to compromise, the chance of achieving peace is slim, even if Biden expends a lot of effort advocating for a new two-state solution.

While it is certainly true that China might face less politico-historical burden in regards to the conflict than the Biden administration, at best, all China can do is mock U.S. failure to find a resolution. If China does take the initiative in tackling the Israel–Palestinian conflict, it will find itself inevitably stuck in the same situation as the U.S. Of course, in theory, China could take a strong stand with the Palestinians. However, this would be at the cost of offending Israel, with whom China has close military and technological ties, and doing so would not necessarily achieve the necessary goals.

Difficult Internal Palestinian Problems Could Further Frustrate China

The internal power struggles and corrupt Palestine political elite could erode China’s support, if any, to the Palestinians. Although China has reiterated its support for the Fatah-controlled Palestinian National Authority (PNA), it is merely a rubber-stamp organisation that has lacked popularity for years. When then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu almost put the idea of annexing the West Bank into practice last year, there were increasingly loud voices urging for the abolition of the aforementioned PNA. The President of the PNA, Mahmoud Abbas, later agreed to hold the first Palestinian elections in 17 years; however, he postponed the election in April 2021 on the grounds that it could not be held near Jerusalem. It is widely believed that this was just a sign that he feared losing power. On the other hand, although the popularity of Hamas, the main political rival of Fatah, appears to have risen in recent years, it is no secret that its authoritarianism and use of terror to silent dissents has alienated many Palestinians.

In light of these problems, it will be extremely difficult for China to reverse the internal and external problems of Palestine, regardless of whether Fatah or Hamas assume the Palestinian leadership.

T-Fai Yeung is a researcher at the Global Studies Institute Hong Kong, a blogger for Stand News, and a guest contributor to the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Hong Kong Free Press and Linhe Zaobao (Singapore). The Chinese version of this article was published in Apple Daily (A12) on 17 June 2021.