Israel-Gaza war risks Middle East peace gains and tests US, China diplomacy

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Renewed fighting in Gaza may undermine the hard-earned gains in fostering peace in the Middle East. It may also hamper the region’s desire to transition from being a security minefield to a contributor in addressing global issues like climate change. The conflict will also stretch the diplomatic capacity of great powers, notably the United States and China.

Before the October 7 attack by Hamas, peace was gaining momentum. The US had promoted normalisation between Israel and several Arab countries and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco established official ties with Israel.
Iraq, Oman and China played crucial roles in the Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement, with a domino effect on proxy wars throughout the region, from Lebanon and Palestine to Syria and Yemen. In September, Saudi Arabia invited Yemen’s Houthi negotiators to Riyadh to discuss a ceasefire with the help of Omani mediators. Russia is mediating between Turkey and Syria.
There was a sense of optimism that a new dawn was rising. Islamic State was defeated. Syria was readmitted to the Arab League. The international community, including Damascus’ Arab neighbours, and Iran, Russia and China, pledged support for the country’s post-civil-war reconstruction.

Countries in the region were setting aside squabbles and weaning themselves off a long-standing fixation with security issues. Wealthy Gulf states have been translating their financial heft into diplomatic muscle on global concerns.

Riyadh hosted the G20 Summit in 2020 and rolled out the “ Middle East Green Initiative” the year after – announcing a desire to be a force in regional and global forums on climate change and sustainability. Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE became members of the China-led Brics club of emerging economies, expanding it from the bloc featuring Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
In August, leaders from 40 countries gathered in Jeddah to discuss a road map for peace in Ukraine. Last month, Saudi Arabia welcomed foreign leaders attending the first Asean-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit. Finally, the US was shepherding a landmark deal that could have normalised ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and would have been a major diplomatic coup that would reverberate throughout the Muslim world. That is now on hold after war erupted in Gaza.
The US position in the Israel-Palestine conflict continues to bear on its relations with Arab and Muslim countries. It is as true in the Middle East and North Africa as in South and Southeast Asia. Washington supports Israel’s right to defend itself but does not want to be seen as condoning air strikes against non-military targets in Gaza.
As displacement, destruction and civilian casualties mount amid Israel’s ground offensive, growing international rallies in solidarity with Palestinians may put America’s relations with Arab and Muslim countries in a bind. The sorry plight of the Palestinians have revived calls for a permanent solution to one of the region’s most intractable disputes. Many will be looking at Washington’s stance on the issue.

So far, the Israel-Palestine conflict has not affected US relations with Southeast Asia, a crucial theatre where Washington and Beijing are vying for influence. But this may change as Israel’s ground operations advance and if other regional actors get involved, escalating the conflict.

As America is seen as Israel’s main backer, protests have also been staged in front of US embassies in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, and Malaysia, among others. Both nations, along with Brunei, do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
The Philippines, with a significant Muslim population in its restive south, has also seen pro-Palestinian protests, something that Manila, which has official ties with Israel, cannot simply ignore.

US and China’s stance on the crisis obviously matters and will affect their standing in the Muslim community. Perceptions of bias may undermine Washington’s efforts to broker peace and create more space for other mediators. A broader conflict may unravel laudable US advances in promoting peace and stability in the region.

Its previous actions have coloured the US’ role in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian strife. In 2017, the Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This was followed by the transfer of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem a year later. Washington also acknowledged the Golan Heights, an area captured from Syria during the 1967 war, as Israeli territory.


Israel attacks Palestine’s Jenin amid one of the biggest West Bank operations in 20 years

Israel attacks Palestine’s Jenin amid one of the biggest West Bank operations in 20 years

It ruled that Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank are not necessarily illegal, raising fears that it may not stand in the way of the eventual complete annexation of the area by Israel.

All this casts doubt on US credibility from a Palestinian standpoint. Recognition of an Israeli fait accompli may also resonate in other conflicts, sending unwanted signals and setting dangerous precedents.

But while the US has little leverage over Palestinian authorities, it wields a strong influence on Israel. This can be used to mitigate civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure, limit the use of force, open humanitarian corridors, and possibly discourage a massive and prolonged ground assault that will only lead to more tragedies. Whether Washington will fully exercise that influence, and whether Israel will listen, remains to be seen.


Where China stands on the Israel-Gaza war

Where China stands on the Israel-Gaza war

As with the Russia-Ukraine war, China has avoided pinning the blame on any party, has called for a ceasefire and dialogue, and reiterated its long-standing support for a two-state solution.

But the passage of time, population movements and altered facts on the ground may pose difficulties in redrawing boundaries and going back to pre-1967.

Self-determination, security guarantees and delineating territories are critical in solving the decades-old Palestine question. It will take much political will from both sides and sustained support from key actors to end the cycle of violence and retribution that will only perpetuate regional instability – putting everyone in peril.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation.

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