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Israel-Hamas Conflict Raises Questions Over China’s Long-term Plans for Middle East

The conflict between Israel and Hamas will potentially have a major impact across the Middle East, and will be another factor for both China and the United States to consider in their long-term thinking.

Analysts said Israel had been disappointed by China’s response to the attacks by Hamas that killed hundreds of people, mainly civilians, but questioned whether this would have a serious impact on relations in the longer-term.

The attacks coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war, and were the deadliest assault on Israel since then.

But many diplomatic observers have questioned whether it was also an attempt to derail an initiative to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Last month both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated that the two countries were close to a historic deal following months of mediation efforts by the US, which has long been seeking this outcome.

But after the start of the latest fighting, which has so far left at least 1,600 dead on both sides, Saudi Arabia expressed its support for the Palestinians, in keeping with its traditional policy, and suggested Israel shoulder its share of the blame for the fighting.

Wang Jin, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at China’s Northwest University, said: “As time goes, the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel may be an event that is hard to be completely stopped.”

Wang also said that despite being potentially put off because of the temporarily stalled Saudi-Israeli normalisation, the US-backed India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) was likely to resume once the conflict ends.

The plan was announced during the Group of 20 Summit in New Delhi last month and would involve both Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as India and several European countries.

It has been seen as a way for Washington to show it is still committed to the region, where Beijing has been increasing its foothold, most notably in brokering a deal to restore diplomatic relations between the Saudis and Iranians earlier this year.

Jodie Wen, a postdoctoral fellow specialising in Middle East studies and a China Forum expert at Tsinghua University’s Centre for International Security and Strategy, said Saudi Arabia will be more uneasy about establishing ties with Israel at present, adding “it would hardly be tenable for it as it’s a leader of the Arab world”. She also said this would have a longer-term impact on US plans to reengage with the region.

The current crisis may also hit China’s relationship with Israel. Beijing has long tried to adopt a balanced position, by supporting Palestinian statehood while also maintaining strong economic ties with Israel.

Galia Lavi, a specialist in the Belt and Road Initiative and China-Israel relations at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said Israel had been disappointed by China’s “lax response” to the Hamas attacks.

Beijing’s initial response to the attacks did not mention the militant group by name, instead calling for de-escalation, for civilians to be protected and for a two-state solution to be implemented.

“At times of need, true friends are revealed. While the US provided Israel with verbal and practical support and is currently sending an aircraft carrier to the region to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from escalating the situation, China has not even expressed sympathy. This is very unfortunate,” Lavi said.

But Israel has positioned itself as a player in both the US and Chinese-backed infrastructure plans, and she said that while the conflict might see belt and road projects being stopped in the short-term, she did not think it would affect the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor in the longer term.

Wang from Northwest University agreed that Israel’s criticism of China may have some negative implications for the belt and road projects, but he did not expect existing schemes to be seriously affected.

“Projects like the Haifa Port, they may be affected and be suspended for now, but the impact would be very small.”

The Bayport terminal in Haifa, a strategic gateway to the Mediterranean, was built and operated by the state-owned Shanghai International Port Group, triggering security concerns from the US.

Wen from Tsinghua University agreed that the impact of the conflict on the Belt and Road Initiative will be relatively small as most infrastructure projects that China helps to build in the Middle East are in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

She also said that China was likely to continue its efforts to act as a peacebroker in the region. It had offered to act as mediator between the Israelis and Palestinian Authority when the head of the latter, Mahmoud Abbas, visited Beijing earlier this year.

It had also been expected to repeat the offer during a visit by Netanyahu – earlier reported to be taking place later this month, but now unlikely to go ahead.

Wen said Beijing may even attempt to mediate in the current conflict in Gaza, adding: “If China successfully mediates on this issue, or if it will be able to achieve some phased results, such as a ceasefire, it will once again prove that China has great influence in this region.”

Source : TheStar