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Discourse Power | June 13, 2023
Palestinian President in Beijing: Alternatives, consistency, justice, thinking big, and the UAE has left the chat
Greetings from Jerusalem,
Today's issue will center on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's (aka Abu Mazen) four-day visit.
It excludes official statements and agreements, the majority of which have yet to be published, so pay attention to reports from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and its spokespeople, CGTN, Xinhua, and People's Daily, as well as Middle Eastern outlets among others.
Editors, journalists, and scholars - do provide a hyperlink or citation if you quote anything from this free newsletter to show your support for my research.
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“Abbas is sending a message to the American administration… saying that the Palestinian side is seriously looking for an alternative”
Jony Essa, China Global South Project’s Mideast editor, was asked to unpack the significance of Abbas’s visit for their highly recommended newsletter (check it out).
What message is this visit sending?
Abbas is sending a message to the American administration through this visit, saying that the Palestinian side is seriously looking for an alternative to play the role of mediator in the conflict. Consequently, any possibility of conducting peace talks between the two parties under Chinese auspices affects American hegemony in the Middle East.
Secondly, through this visit, Abbas will be able to test the reality of the Chinese desire and its ability to bring about a positive change in favor of the Palestinians in the conflict. Although the visit serves China's interests first and foremost, as it seeks to gain international acceptance and consensus for it as a responsible, benevolent, and alternative superpower to the United States, it is also a Palestinian opportunity.
What else is on the agenda?
Ongoing mutual support in international forums, especially regarding the independence of Palestine, non-interference in internal affairs, and the full membership of Palestine in the United Nations will feature prominently. On the agenda as well will be development issues and joint cooperation in various fields.
Following Palestine joining the Belt and Road Initiative in 2022, a joint committee to discuss free trade was set up and work is underway for Palestine to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These moves will be strengthened with the signing of cooperation protocols in the fields of construction, energy, and health, as well as educational, training, and rehabilitation initiatives for Palestinian youth.
What are the implications for the Middle East?
The newly brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia adds to China's legitimacy as a broker, especially in regard to the issue of Israeli normalization. President Abbas will likely raise the issue of normalization between some Arab countries and Israel and the implications it poses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Beijing welcomed the Abraham Accords and its regional policies are based on reducing tensions between Mideast countries, and it is possible that China, like the United States, seeks to expand the Arab normalization framework with Israel. The Palestinian president is likely to take issue with this trend, particularly by trying to get China to use its influence to make these agreements to better respond to Palestinian needs.
“Abbas' visit to China, I think, demonstrates clearly that China now attaches great importance to mediating existing conflicts in the Middle East“
CASS Middle East professor He Wenping disagrees with the notion that China favors the Palestinians over Israel.
Dr. He Wenping is Professor and Research Program Director at the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies (IWAAS) at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).
Transcript of He Wenping’s interview, published June 13, 2023 [lightly edited for clarity. Keep in mind that the original is in English on CGTN under the Central Propaganda Department]:
Yu Li: “Can you elaborate on China's position on the two-state solution, and how the Global Security Initiative (GSI) proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping could help?”
He Weiping: “China's stance on the Israel-Palestine issue has always been clear and consistent. Ten years ago, in 2013, President Xi Jinping put forward China's four-point proposal for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. We support the two-state solution and a Palestinian state, based on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. For China, this policy hasn't changed.
“Western media are saying that China is against Israel and supports Palestine. I don't buy that idea. In fact, we have maintained good relations with both countries, Israel and Palestine. We have great scientific and research cooperation with Israel...creating a more peaceful environment in the Middle East benefits the Israeli people as well.
“…So long as the two-state solution issue is not fundamentally resolved, the Israeli and Palestinian people will have no security or sense of security.
Yu Li: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is China's first Arab head of state this year. How do you see this and what are the expectations from this visit?
He Wenping: “Abbas' visit to China, I think, demonstrates clearly that China now attaches great importance to mediating existing conflicts in the Middle East, given our past experiences, such as [brokering] peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran...This reconciliation between so-called "old foes" is, in my opinion, a step in the right direction.
“Of course, this visit is about more than just peacemaking. It also focuses on how to develop the China-Palestine bilateral relationship. Abbas is an old friend of China.
“In addition, it shows how the China-Palestine relationship has a very strong foundation, and we foresee the signing of a number of cooperation agreements to further strengthen Sino-Palestinian overall cooperation. That would be a good outcome for President Abbas' visit.” (CGTN)
“The prolonged nature of the Palestinian issue reflects the lack of international justice”
According to former career diplomat and senior political advisor Wu Sike, the only just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue is to implement relevant UN resolutions.
Wu previously served as China's Special Envoy on the Middle East Issue until 2014, and before that as its ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He currently serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee of China's top political consultative body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Foreign Policy Consulting Committee.
Excerpted transcript of Wu Sike’s interview, published June 13, 2023 [not edited, only shortened similarities to other points in the newsletter. Same caveat]
Wu Sike: "China and Palestine have a long-standing relationship, with China being one of the earliest supporters of the Palestinian liberation cause. China was also among the first countries to recognize and establish relations with the State of Palestine upon its declaration. I personally witnessed the flag-raising ceremony at the Palestinian Embassy in China at that time.
"The Palestinian issue is not only a longstanding problem in the Middle East but also one of the most protracted international conflicts since World War II, with no resolution in sight. The prolonged nature of the Palestinian issue reflects the lack of international justice. Therefore, supporting the just cause of Palestinian independence and statehood has always been China's steadfast position.
“China has put forward proposals to promote the resolution of the Palestinian issue at different times. During President Abbas's visit to China in May 2013, President Xi Jinping presented four points on the Middle East issue, which embody China's traditional diplomatic policies and the concept of promoting peace. Since then, suggestions and implementation pathways have been proposed to realize these four points.
“Despite significant changes in the Middle East region that have impacted the Palestinian issue, China continues to firmly believe that the Palestinian issue is the core of the Middle East problem and a major issue affecting regional stability. Without a resolution to the Palestinian issue, security in the Middle East cannot be guaranteed.
“Whether in bilateral engagements with Palestine, interactions with the Arab world as a whole, or on international platforms like the United Nations, China consistently provides steadfast support to Palestine.
“China's stance not only embodies its friendship with Palestine and Arab countries but also upholds international justice and fairness as a permanent member of the United Nations. Supporting a just and comprehensive resolution of the Palestinian issue is, in essence, implementing relevant United Nations resolutions." (CGTN)
“The Middle East has been in a state of unipolarity since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 when America became the world's sole superpower. But the situation…is changing.
Li Shaoxian told the official newspaper of the Beijing Municipal Party Committee that "Beijing has the potential to become the new starting point for future Palestinian-Israeli relations."
Mr. Li is the director of the Chinese-Arab Research Institute at Ningxia University. In his previous position, he served as vice president of CICIR, a top think tank in Beijing affiliated with China's Ministry of State Security (MSS) and overseen by the Party's Central Committee.
Excerpts from Li's interview, published June 13, 2023. Note that in between his quotes there is commentary by the Beijing Daily Group (BDG):
“Li Shaoxian, director of the Chinese-Arab Research Institute at Ningxia University, told Chang'an Street Knowledge that Abbas' invitation to visit is a big-picture move and that China is thinking big 中国从大局考虑，大处着眼之举 [This is a mash-up of Xi quotations and Chinese martial arts novels. The second phrase is from Yanbei Xianren's 1878 book A Tale of Lovers and Heroes: "Think big but start small" 大处着眼，小处着手].
“Li emphasized that the Palestinian problem 巴勒斯坦问题 has always been the core problem 核心问题 of the Middle East. In recent years, in particular, it has been severely marginalized, and the cycle of violence between Israel and Palestine is constantly threatening Middle Eastern peace and stability.
After the new Israeli government came to power, it vigorously pursued a number of policies to squeeze the living space of the Palestinians. Although the Palestinians and Israel have not broken out into a larger-scale conflict, the non-stop friction has made the prospects for peace talks between them increasingly bleak.
“US Secretary of State Blinken paid a visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this month. Some analysts previously predicted that Blinken's visit would put pressure on Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel. The reality is that the Saudis did not comply 照办.
“According to reports, Saudi Foreign Minister Al-Saud stated on the 8th [of June] that normalizing Saudi-Israeli relations would bring significant benefits to the region, but that if the Palestinians do not see a path to peace, any benefits of normalization with Israel would be "limited."
“In light of this, Li Shaoxian believes that China's recent actions demonstrate the country's willingness to play an active role in mediating peace and facilitating talks 劝和促谈 between Israel and Palestine.
"The regional landscape has shifted dramatically in the last six years," he said. And this change is primarily the result of both internal and external forces.
“The US's all-powerful hand was still looming over 一手遮天 the Middle East six years ago. The region has been in a state of unipolarity 单极主导的局面 since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 when America became the world's sole superpower. But this situation, which has persisted for more than 30 years, is changing.
“For one thing, Arab countries such as Iran [sic] and Saudi Arabia have clearly demonstrated in recent years a greater sense of autonomy. For another, China has advocated for the joint development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), thereby providing more opportunities for regional economic development.
“According to Li Shaoxian, the Quartet, which consists of the United Nations, the United States, Russia, and the European Union, has long served as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but in recent years, this mechanism has existed only in name 形同虚设.
“In January 2020, then-President Trump unveiled his "new peace plan for the Middle East" [Peace to Prosperity], claiming it would be a "win-win" for both Israel and the Palestinians. The truth is that the plan was completely biased in favor of Israel and amounted to a reversal of the "two-state solution," that is, for a Palestinian State to exist side-by-side in lasting peace with Israel. The US repeatedly prevented the Security Council from issuing a statement in 2021 to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“In sharp contrast to the United States, which has been biased in favor of Israel and has not played a significant role in promoting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, China has been relentless in its efforts to resolve the Middle East conflict.
“Under the mediation of China, long-time adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia announced in March in Beijing that they would restore diplomatic relations. At the same time, Zhai Jun, Special Envoy of the Chinese Government on the Middle East, visited Israel and met with the country's foreign minister to discuss the Palestinian issue. He then traveled to Palestine, where his delegation met with Abbas at the presidential palace [the Mukataa in Ramallah].
“[BDG's] Chang'anjie Street Knowledge's WeChat account has reported that this had been Zhai Jun's third visit to Palestine and Israel in two years, and the Palestinian issue has always been the core of the bilateral discussions. The recent improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations has also triggered a "wave of reconciliation" throughout the Middle East.
“According to a recent survey published on the Saudi Arab News’ website after Beijing achieved a diplomatic breakthrough in March, 80% of Palestinian respondents support China's role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“According to Li Shaoxian, Abbas' visit will focus on two main areas: promoting the peace process and assisting Palestinians in overcoming economic difficulties.
“The Palestinian-Israeli peace talks have been stalled since 2014 due to issues such as Jewish settlements. Li said that it would be a top priority to restart the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and promote negotiations between the two states.
[As China's Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Geng Shuang, stated in his June 2nd speech:] "Becoming a refugee is not a choice for more than 5 million Palestinians, and it should not be the fate of future generations of Palestinians." In his remarks, Geng emphasized that the international community must always prioritize the Palestinian issue and advance the two-state solution with greater urgency.
“On the economic and trade front, the China-Palestine Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is also being negotiated. In 2019, China and Palestine began the first round of FTA negotiations, agreeing on the terms and scope of the documents. Both China and the Palestinians believe that signing the FTA will strengthen bilateral economic and trade relations and benefit both countries' businesses and people.
“According to data, bilateral trade between China and Palestine reached $158 million in 2022, a 23.2% increase year on year [Compare this to $21.08 billion in trade between China and Israel (including Hong Kong), according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, or $25.45 billion based on Chinese numbers, a year-on-year increase of 11.6% - They use a different accounting system].
“ “China and Israel have a Comprehensive Innovation Partnership, and the two countries are also negotiating FTAs. And as a mutual friend of Palestine and Israel, China can have an impact on both sides while remaining impartial, giving it an advantage.”
“According to Li Shaoxian, the historic reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing has raised international expectations for China to play an active role in mediating peace, facilitating talks, and addressing the world's most pressing challenges [lit. "hot-spots" 热点]. Beijing has the potential to become the new starting point for future Palestinian-Israeli relations 新起点.” (BDG’s Chang’an Street Knowledge)
“Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other countries are promoting reconciliation with Iran for their own reasons. However, this does not change the fact that these countries are inseparably linked to the US in terms of security”
The Chinese military's propaganda arm's official WeChat account: "Iran leads the Middle East maritime alliance, and the US is anxious!" In response, Li Shaoxian of Ningxia University says, "chill."
Li’s bio is provided in the above entry.
Context: In March, Saudi Arabia and Iran ended seven years of hostility under a China-mediated deal, stressing the need for regional stability and economic cooperation (Reuters).
Full translation, published June 6th (bolded text in the original):
According to Iranian media reports, Iranian Navy Commander Shahram Irani stated on June 2 that Iran intends to form a new naval alliance with Gulf region countries along the northern Indian Ocean littoral, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and Iraq. According to reports, India and Pakistan are also interested in joining.
[Note that, contrary to reports by Anadolu Agency and others, there is no mention of China's role in this new grouping. Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the PRC Foreign Ministry, also equivocated with general words of support.]
In response, the United States stated that the move "defies reason."
What message is Iran sending to the rest of the world by advocating the formation of a new naval alliance?
Not yet confirmed
According to the report, the Iranian naval commander mentioned forming a naval alliance in an interview, which has yet to be confirmed by the countries involved.
Military observer Li Shaoxian says that, based on current information, Iran may have only made a unilateral proposal.
Li Shaoxian: “Although Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have improved, forming a joint naval alliance is not realistic at this stage. Such naval alliance would include arch-rivals 冤家 such as Pakistan and India, so it can only be interpreted as an Iranian wish or proposal.”
With an eye to confronting the US
Iran's relations with several Gulf Arab countries have recently improved significantly.
According to Li Shaoxian, Iran's proposal to form a naval alliance against the backdrop of the Middle East's "wave of reconciliation" is aimed at the US. It also reflects the Gulf States' growing strategic autonomy of their diplomacy.
Li Shaoxian: “Iran's desire to form a naval alliance is aimed squarely at the United States, as its message is filled with enmity…This statement did not occur in a vacuum 空穴来风 but appeared in the context of two developments: on March 10, Saudi Arabia normalized relations with Iran, and the Gulf countries are exploring the possibility of forming a security framework for the region.”
Extraterritorial forces in the Gulf region are a major source of regional instability, so the countries involved are eager to take on responsibility for regional security.”
Middle Eastern countries are "leaving the chat" as well
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on May 31 claiming that the UAE had withdrawn from the US-led Middle East Maritime Security Alliance two months prior.
According to Li Shaoxian, the UAE's withdrawal is yet another sign that US influence in the Middle East is waning.
Li emphasized that the UAE's withdrawal does not imply "abandoning the US." The Gulf countries have yet to fully break free from America's influence and dominance over security and defense issues.
Li Shaoxian: “Because US policy has shifted, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other countries are promoting reconciliation with Iran for their own reasons. However, this does not change the fact that these countries are inseparably linked to the US in terms of security.” (CNR Military)
Playing in the Background
Discourse Power is written by Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, and a Tikvah Fund’s Krauthammer Fellow. Any views expressed in this newsletter, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author. Follow Tuvia on Twitter @GeringTuvia