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China’s Missed Opportunity in Israel

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Mordechai Chaziza

Beijing’s relative absence in the Israel-Hamas conflict may stymie its ambitions in the region.

China’s efforts to position itself as a mediator in Middle East conflicts are now open to doubt. Particularly open to scrutiny is Beijing’s lack of concrete actions following the Israel-Hamas conflict is now subject to scrutiny. This may have immediate and long-term consequences for China’s standing in the broader Middle East. Bridging the gap between rhetoric and concrete actions will be crucial in China’s role as a regional mediator.

In recent years, mediation diplomacy has emerged as one of the central pillars of China’s foreign policy objectives and practice, with Beijing deliberately positioning itself as a peacemaker in the Middle East region. This approach aligns with China’s broader foreign policy objectives, including expanding its global influence, fostering economic ties, and positioning itself as a responsible international player. Earlier this year, China brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran that many hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough. It signaled Beijing’s desire to be a diplomatic heavyweight in the Middle East—a region traditionally dominated by American power. China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, said the country would continue to play a constructive role in handling global “hotspot issues.”

Over the decades, many players in the global and regional arena have intervened, at some stage or another, in the Middle East region conflicts, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict, as peace brokers. The United States, the EU, Russia, regional powers (e.g., Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia), and major international organizations have all tried without noticeable success to broker lasting peace and security in the region. As the world’s second economic and great power, China, unlike the Western powers or Russia, carries no religious, political, historical, or colonial baggage, making it a suitable candidate to break the gridlocks in the region’s conflicts and to play the role of an “honest broker.” China’s involvement could offer a fresh perspective and potential contributions to peace and stability in the region. However, its effectiveness will depend on its ability to navigate complex and deeply rooted issues, gain the trust of all relevant parties, and avoid being seen as pursuing purely self-serving interests.

Beijing has been eager to become more involved in Middle East conflicts, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict. China has a long history of friendly relations with Palestine. Since founding the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, China has recognized the State of Palestine and actively supported the Palestinians. Beijing has supported the Palestinian cause in international forums, consistently advocating for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the two-state solution. In 2023, China signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Palestinian Authority, underscoring its commitment to strengthening its ties with Palestine.

At the same time, China-Israel relations have evolved and grown. Today, they are especially noteworthy in economy, culture, academic cooperation, and tourism, and in 2017, they signed a “comprehensive partnership.” Beijing’s prime interest in Israel is its advanced technology, and it sees Israel as a world leader intechnology and innovation in cybersecurity, bio-agriculture, and green technology. Israel’s geographical location makes it a potential node in China’s “Belt and Road Initiative.” For Israel, the attraction of Beijing lies not only in its vast economy but also because Israel seeks to diversify its export markets and investments away from the United States and Europe. China (excluding Hong Kong) became Israel’s third-largest trading partner ($21 billion in two-way trade), behind the European Union ($48.5 billion in 2022) and the United States ($22 billion in 2022). In 2021, China officially surpassed the United States to become Israel’s most significant source of imports. To diversify its foreign reserves, Israel added the Chinese yuan to its central bank holdings in April 2022 while reducing its dollar and euro holdings. The two countries are expected to conclude a free trade agreement (FTA) soon.

Over the years, Beijing has consistently sought opportunities to project the image of a peace broker in the Israeli-Palestine conflict through rhetoric and peace plans without putting real weight behind them. Thus, China’s mediation role is part of a carefully devised conflict-management strategy, which suits the country’s non-interference policy framework. This approach, rather than conflict resolution, has served Beijing well over the past several decades. Therefore, China’s mediation efforts in the Israeli-Palestine conflict mainly aim at constructive conflict management rather than conflict resolution. Beijing’s inability to back up its promises with concrete actions may suggest a lack of willingness or capability to influence the situation in the Middle East. In the long run, this persistent pattern might affect China’s image and credibility as a reliable peace broker. Beijing’s longstanding non-interference policy can sometimes clash with its aim to demonstrate its great-power status.

China’s Response to Hamas Terrorist Attack

On October 7, the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas launched large-scale surprise attacks on Israel. Hamas had fired thousands of rockets from Gaza and sent fighters to kill and abduct soldiers and civilians. At least 1,300 Israelis were killed, over a hundred kidnapped hostages, including children and the elderly, and more than 3,000 wounded after dozens of Palestinian militants infiltrated Israel from Gaza by land, sea, and air. Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza; at least2,600 Palestinians have been killed and more than 9,000 injured in the Israeli strikes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “We are at war. Not an ‘operation,’ not a ‘round,’ but at war”, adding that “the enemy will pay an unprecedented price.”

The outbreak of violence between Israel and Gaza challenges China’s mediation efforts in the Middle East. Beijing has tried to position itself as a potential mediator in the region, and the international community closely scrutinizes its responses to such crises. However, the United States, the EU, and much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America issued statements condemning Hamas’ terrorist actions and expressing support for Israel. Beijing’s initial response to the attacks did not mention the militant group by name, instead calling for de-escalation, protecting civilians, and implementing a two-state solution. Its response was no condemnation of Hamas for a rampage that unleashed the killing of civilians and kidnapping of hostages, including children and the elderly: “China is deeply concerned over the current escalation of tensions and violence between Palestine and Israel. We call on relevant parties to remain calm, exercise restraint, and immediately end the hostilities to protect civilians and avoid further deterioration of the situation.”

The Foreign Ministry and Chinese officials continued to take this line throughout the week: “We call on relevant parties to remain calm, exercise restraint, and immediately end the hostilities to protect civilians and avoid further deterioration of the situation,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement last Sunday about the “escalation of tensions and violence between Palestine and Israel.” China’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, together with the representative of Russia, prevented a formal condemnation by the Security Council against Hamas and said, “China condemns all violence and attacks against civilians in Israel and the Palestinian territories.” At the regular press briefing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said China “opposes and condemns acts harming civilians” and said the priority is to “end hostilities and restore peace as soon as possible.”

Israel is disappointed by Beijing’s response, which expressed little sympathy or support for the Israeli people during these tragic times. Israeli diplomats in Chinahave called for stronger condemnation of Hamas, “When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state solution.” The current crisis raises the question of whether this would seriously impact Beijing’s role as the Middle East’s new peacemaker and its relationship with Israel in the longer term. Paraphrasing the words of Abba Eban, Israel’s legendary foreign minister, the “Chinese never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity to play the role of peacemaker in the Middle East.”

Before the Hamas-Israel conflict outbreak, China tried to present itself as a mediator in conflicts in the Middle East. Its weak response may expose its limited regional influence and undermine its honest broker image. Mediating effectively in an area requires balancing diplomatic principles of non-interference and demonstrating a commitment to resolving conflicts. The vagueness of Beijing’s condemnation of the terrorist attacks on Israel is consistent with its policy of non-interference in global conflicts. Beijing’s reluctance to condemn Hamas has drawn comparison to its response to the Ukraine war. There, China has refused to condemn Russia’s aggression or consider it an “invasion.” It also reflects the limit of its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and reconfirms the impression that Beijing will not be a peacemaker. Beijing has little to do, and its remarks and actions show that the mediation diplomacy approach is limited.

Moreover, China’s response does not come as a surprise; Chinese diplomacy has long been risk-averse, and the spiraling conflict between Israel and Hamas puts its diplomats in a difficult spot, given its traditional support for the Palestinians, its rivalry with the US, and its relationships with Russia and Iran. To be sure, Beijing can successfully manage problems by brokering reconciliation agreements (e.g., Saudi Arabia and Iran). However, when it comes to conflict resolution, it is a very different situation. Thus, China’s role in the Middle East, especially as a peacemaker, will continue to be a subject of scrutiny and debate. Its ability to adapt its diplomacy to the evolving dynamics in the region and take a more active role in resolving conflicts remains a significant question for international observers and stakeholders.