With Secretary Kerry’s recent attempt to insinuate himself as a peacemaker in the Hamas-Israeli conflict, uninvited this time and facing cool reception by the Israelis and Egyptians, U.S. credibility seems to take another hit in the region. This latest diplomatic gaffe in the Obama administration, after a string of regional foreign policy missteps, seems to further punctuate that U.S. no longer has as much sway in the Arab-Israeli conflict as it once had.
In fact, with regional allies’ perception of Washington’s fecklessness and “withdrawalism” from the Middle East, Israel is looking east for new partners.
In November 2013, while the Great Powers were hammering out an interim agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, retired General Uzi Dayan, former deputy chief of staff for the Israeli Defense Forces, joined former Israeli UN ambassador Dore Gold —who has the ear of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — in Beijing. They explained the need for defensible borders in the West Bank to Chinese military brass, and presented their case on a nuclear Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians, with materials translated into Chinese.
Facing EU Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, growing anti-Semitism in Western Europe, increasing disaffection with U.S. rapprochement with Iran, and failure of the U.S.-brokered peace talks, it’s understandable that Israel is turning to a rising China. Likewise, Beijing has also upgraded ties with Jerusalem and expressed interest to join the Middle East Peace Quartet.
Given China’s unique posture and growing influence in the Middle East— simultaneous good ties with Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Palestinian Authority, and even ties with Hamas and Hezbollah that the West declines to engage, one wonders if it is a matter of time before the Quartet becomes a Quintet.
Beijing first signaled its intent last May, by inviting both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas for separate meetings to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although President Xi Jinping’s four-point peace proposal contained nothing new, he demonstrated China’s willingness to be involved in the peace process. China continues to show pro-activism by dispatching its Middle East envoy Wu Sike immediately following Israel’s launch of Operation Protective Edge, meeting leaders on both sides as well as others in the region.
After the recent failed peace talks, Israelis and the Palestinians would likely welcome China’s role to kick-start the peace process once IDF successfully completes its military operation and a ceasefire agreement is reached. Given traditional bias of EU’s pro-Arab stance and U.S. backing of Israel, China as a new kid on the block without regional baggage would lend it more credibility as a broker. It also lacks anti-Semitism throughout its history, in stark contrast to the recent outburst of anti-Semitic protests that are spreading throughout European cities.
And while the EU threatens Jerusalem with boycott, the Middle Kingdom, flush with a $3.3 trillion war chest unmatched by any Western power, has become its antidote by pouring investments and lucrative trade deals into Israel. Recent high-profile deals include Chinese donation of $130 million to Technion for a research center, Beijing winning a $2 billion tender to build the “Med-Red” railway linking Ashdod port with Eilat as well as a $1 billion Israeli port tender, a $300 million joint research center between Tel Aviv University and Tsinghua University, and Chinese acquisition of a controlling stake in Israel’s Tnuva dairy giant for more than $1 billion.
China is also expanding its investment portfolio in Israel’s neighborhood. In the Levant, China is constructing and financing various strategic infrastructure projects such as Lebanon’s Tripoli Port, Egypt’s Port Said, extending Israel’s Med Red rail to Jordan’s Aqaba Port, and possibly financing a joint Israel-Jordan-Palestinian Authority project to construct the Red-Sea-Dead Sea pipeline.
In a recent article, Brig. Gen. (ret.) Udi Dekel from INSS argued an essential factor to strengthen mutual interests in a ceasefire is the implementation of a detailed economic program in the Gaza strip binding Israel, Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Arab states and the international community. Economic aid should focus on construction of civilian and economic infrastructure in the Gaza strip dealing with water, electricity including gas production from the Gazan marine shelf, and verification that building materials are not used for Hamas infrastructure.
With its location on the Mediterranean coast and blessed with natural gas resources, there is no reason why Gaza’s economy cannot flourish once Hamas is disabled and Gaza is demilitarized. Given China’s influence as an UNSC member, rising extra-regional power while U.S. is retrenching, rapidly increasing stakes in regional economy and stability, and proclivity for large infrastructure projects, it is well positioned to play an important role in post-conflict development of Gaza.
Borrowing former President Shimon Peres’ “Valley of Peace” notion that sets forth a vision of promoting peace, regional stability and social advances by means of economic, regional and global cooperation in the West Bank, this can be applied to Gaza to transform it into a Shanghai or Singapore of the Mediterranean with China’s help.
And while U.S officials in Cairo have raised the possibility of restarting stalled peace talks after a ceasefire, unfortunately the Obama administration has lost much goodwill in the region. Perhaps, Washington should welcome the arrival of the Middle Kingdom to Jerusalem as a way to inject new vitality to the peace process.