How China can help in the Middle East

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 May, 2013, 7:47am

President Xi Jinping has made all the right noises about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It will have zero impact, though. Still, both sides to the conflict are happy to play along as their leaders make their pilgrimage to Beijing to meet the new Chinese leader. Why?

It's a welcome signal to China to play a greater role in the Middle East and elsewhere. Every great power in the past half century has to show lip-service interest in resolving this basically irresolvable conflict. Now it's China's turn. Indeed, oil interests in post-war Iraq have drawn China deeper into the region, and it's pretty difficult to avoid taking a more active stance on the Palestinian issue. Besides, China has nominally supported the Palestinian cause since Mao Zedong .

Some news agencies, including this newspaper, have taken to calling Xi's peace suggestions a four-point plan. But what he said amounts to no more than general observations. The key elements for a lasting peace settlement are known to all the parties involved. As Xi said, the "two states solution" involves withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967-war borders, including Jerusalem, or at least its eastern part. It requires land to be given up for peace, which presumably means dismantling most if not all Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. All this is a hard sell for the hawkish-religious right, which dominates the Israeli political establishment. It involves a principle of equality between the two sides when you can hardly find two more unequal peoples.

You may argue Western powers have withdrawn from their colonial conquests. But many Israelis refer to the West Bank by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria, implying it is part of Greater Israel, not "occupied".

Still China can play a constructive role. It has good relations with Israel, with expanding trade and hi-tech exchanges. Both nations' leaders are hardcore realists who care nothing about each other's human rights records. Beijing can help Palestinians in the West Bank - which is developing into a semi-autonomous economy - and poverty-stricken Gaza with infrastructure, construction, telecommunications and other civilian aids.

With moderate goals, Beijing can do some good as a friend to both sides.