BRINGING PEACE TO THE MIDDLE EAST – FROM THE JORDAN RIVER TO THE MEDITERRANIAN
After 75 years of disastrous failure to achieve anything like a peaceful two-state solution, there is no longer any prospect of a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians without trusted, full throated intervention and mediation by respected and trusted global leaders.
There are potentially five such powers which could contribute and potentially deliver (and even enforce) the desired two-state outcome. They are the United States of America, China, Russia, India and Saudi Arabia. Good relations, impartiality, credibility, and trust are indispensable.
The Biden administration has vowed unequivocal support for Israel and has ordered a major US troop and naval presence to the Eastern Mediterranean in the wake of the 7th of October Hamas attack. When Washington rushed its defences to support Israel, Beijing instead called on the parties to return to the negotiating table. Russia and China pushed for a ceasefire, although the US, UK, France, and Japan voted against a ceasefire proposal at the UN Security Council.
The Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza was destroyed in a missile strike on 17 October, only the day before US President Biden arrived in Israel. The blast killed 471 Palestinians and hundreds were wounded. The Palestinians immediately accused Israel of targeting the facility, while Israel blamed the blast on a rocket fired by the Islamic Jihad militant group.
In a press conference immediately after his arrival in Israel, Biden claimed that the attack “was done by the other team”. The President could not have chosen a less diplomatic statement. It was disastrous. The hospital catastrophe, together with Biden’s blatant bias led to the immediate cancellation of a planned summit between Biden, the Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas, Egyptian President El-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Abbas even refused to hold a phone call with Biden. If the US could have previously claimed to have had any credibility among the parties in the Middle East, it was utterly shredded.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov observed that the US could and should have published satellite images of Gaza, taken during the deadly strike on the hospital adding that Washington “must surely be monitoring this area with its satellites”.
Since establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, China has supported a two-state solution and offered itself as a mediator. It has doubled down on this effort since it brokered normalisation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March 2023. China’s economic and technological ties with Israel have deepened and Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is supportive of Israel’s closeness with Beijing. China has also supported normalisation efforts between Israel and Saudi Arabia and China has also been instrumental in bringing both Saudi Arabia and Iran into BRICS.
China is a strong promoter of a ceasefire and an end to hostilities, while Washington shows strong support for Israel’s fight against Hamas.
Although Moscow has long maintained close relations with Hamas, Russian diplomats are also endeavouring to restart the peace process and to promote a two-state solution. Although Moscow has deepened its cooperation with Iran, there is no evidence suggesting that Russia played any role in instigating Hamas’ recent actions.
Russia-Israeli relations remain rich and robust and the two countries have extensive trade while Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have good personal chemistry. Moscow does not want to see Iran and Israel drift into full-scale war. For all of Russia’s catering to pro-Palestinian sentiments, it does not want to break with Israel nor does it seek to go all in with Tehran. However, with Washington coming down hard on Israel’s side, Russia could drift further into Iran’s orbit.
India recognised the state of Israel in 1950 and in 1992 India granted full diplomatic recognition to Israel, including the opening of the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi. At the same time, India has maintained strong support for Palestine. In 1974, India was the first non-Arab country to recognise the PLO as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and India was the first non-Arab country to recognise the state of Palestine when it was proclaimed in 1988.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Tel Aviv in July 2017 although he did not stop in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Netanyahu reciprocated the visit in January 2018 and there is no question that Modi’s government has been more public in its engagement with Israel. Before Modi’s historic visit to Israel in 2017, India reiterated its support for a two-state solution and called for a sovereign, independent, united, and viable Palestine, living within secure and recognised borders, coexisting peacefully with Israel.
When violence broke out at the compound of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in May 2021, India’s reaction was nuanced. It condemned both Hamas and Israel for the escalation of violence, reflecting India’s continued effort to deepen ties with Israel, but without abandoning the Palestinian cause – a diplomatic strategy which New Delhi continues to pursue.
However, after Hamas launched its attack against Israel on 7 October, Modi sharply upbraided Hamas’ horrific actions saying, “We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour”. He later added that “India strongly and unequivocally condemns terrorism in all of its forms and manifestations”. Having condemned Hamas, how will India negotiate its ongoing diplomatic ties with the Arab world? The simple answer is that New Delhi’s sole guiding principle is ruthless pragmatism. Given the scope of the Indo-Israeli relationship, which now encompasses growing trade, security, and defence cooperation as well as joint infrastructure projects, and Modi’s personal affinity with Netanyahu, it is unlikely that India will easily adopt a more nuanced position on the Israel-Gaza war.
The Saudis position themselves between all of the world powers, aiming to agree nuclear security with America, fix the world oil price with the Russians, and develop new technologies with the Chinese. The Gulf states can be expected to play a more decisive role in making peace attainable in the region, combining relations with Israel and helping to mould a successful Palestinian alternative instead of the terror of Hamas in Gaza and elsewhere.
For decades, the US has been the primary powerbroker in the Middle East but, more recently China has assumed the role of a mediator. In March China facilitated reconciliation between historic adversaries, Iran and Saudi Arabia and China’s growing influence could provide a unique opportunity to revitalise the peace process.
The theme of the recent BRICS Summit was “Inclusive Multilateralism”. Four of the five major powers named in this paper are (or soon will be) members of BRICS. America is not among them. Only days ago, Biden reminded the world that America is “The Indispensable Nation”. However, no sooner had the President warned that the Gaza war had the potential to ensnare the whole region in conflict, instead of urging restraint, the US proceeded to deploy two aircraft carriers, a nuclear-powered guided missile submarine and a marine expeditionary force to the Middle East.
It is difficult, if not impossible to imagine a peaceful resolution to the conflict in which the two states can coexist in peace without the intervention and bona fide mediation of major powers who are credible and trusted by both Israel and the Palestinian people. Russia has its hands full in the Ukrainian conflict. The US cannot pretend to have credibility or trust among the Palestinians. The role of mediator must fall to China, together with Saudi Arabia and India.
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