Spring has come to Beijing: flowers are in bloom and willow twigs dance in the breeze. Simon Peres, the 90-year-old president of Israel, arrived here on April 8th for a high-profile state visit to China.
Peres is a longtime friend of China, but this was his first visit as head of state. He held wide-ranging discussions with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders on political, economic, scientific, educational and cultural topics. Regional issues, particularly the fraught peace talks between Israel and Palestine, were also on the agenda.
According to well-informed sources, President Xi noted that the peace talks between Israel and Palestine are at a crucial moment and face both opportunities and challenges. It is important that Israeli keeps the big, strategic picture in mind and demonstrates the political courage to make substantial progress in the talks. China, Xi promised, will continue to play a constructive role.
President Peres reassured China that Israel is prepared to work with Palestine and the international community to overcome the significant obstacles and advance the peace talks. He encouraged China to continue to play its important role in encouraging progress in the talks.
The presidential visit comes at a pivotal moment in the Israeli-Palestinian talks. According to the understanding brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the two sides should have an agreement by April 29th. But the talks, facilitated on the ground by Martin Indyk, US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, went nowhere even on the eve of Peres’ visit to Beijing. The two sides were not able to bridge their differences on some key issues.
The question of Palestine is an enormous challenge for the Arab world. Years of conflict has kept ethnic, religious and sectarian tensions alive, and spread them throughout the Middle East, creating potential instability to the region at large.
Both sides understand the imperative and urgency of ending the conflict soon. President Peres once said that without peace in the region, Israel’s own peace is in danger. In fact, not just the two parties, but the broader international community all agree that a negotiated, political settlement is the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. China endorses this view and has used every opportunity to encourage talks.
I have seen some ludicrous media commentary claiming that while John Kerry and the White House “are frustrated by the lack of progress in the peace talks, China is working hard to augment its influence with both Israel and Palestine”. Clearly, as shown by President Xi’s remarks, China has no interest in the collapse of the talks. But according to the twisted logic of these commentators, if Xi is able to bring about a breakthrough in the peace talks through his personal diplomacy with Peres, then he will have magnified Beijing’s influence even if the ongoing talks will continue to be dominated by Washington.
This argument is colored by a zero-sum perspective on international relations. For years, China and the US have worked in parallel, through different channels, to promote talks and reconciliation between Israel and Palestine, both when the negotiation was making progress and when it was in stalemate.
In May 2013, soon after taking office, President Xi Jinping received both the president of Palestine and the prime minister of Israel in Beijing. In the official talks, Xi highlighted four overarching principles for resolving the question of Palestine: an independent Palestine living in peace with Israel must remain the goal; peaceful negotiation is the only viable way to achieve reconciliation; the principle of “land for peace” is the cornerstone of the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP); and international support is vital to progress in the peace talks. These four principles underscore China’s strong commitment to peace in the Middle East as well as progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
In December 2013, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited the region. At a seminar on Israeli-Palestinian peace in Jerusalem, he stressed that China has always attached great importance to Middle East issues and regarded the question of Palestine as at the heart of the issue. He also underscored China’s ongoing efforts to move the MEPP forward.
In early March 2014, I travelled again to the region as China’s Special Envoy for the Middle East. I used the analogy that the last stretch of a race is often the most difficult. The closer one is to the finish line, the more determination and perseverance he must show. I emphasised that China will continue to give a persistent, sincere push to the peace talks.
No one should underestimate the challenges that lie ahead in the negotiation. Israel has recently announced new settlements in East Jerusalem and refused to honor the agreement to release the last group of Palestinian prisoners. In reaction, Palestine has made a formal application to join some UN agencies. Israeli sees this move as “provocative,” and warns that if the US gives up its mediation, Palestine will pay a steep price.
Peace is obviously in the interests of both sides. It is what the people in Israel and Palestine want, and is important for both peace and development in the Middle East and also global security. In the current environment, China hopes the international community will help build momentum for the MEPP. China understands its own responsibility as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The US has made painstaking efforts to restart and sustain the latest round of peace talks, but it needs to do more. And the Israelis and Palestinians themselves need to demonstrate strategic vision and courage, think more about the difficulties facing the other side, and work with the world to make early, substantive progress in their peace talks.