Russia, China See Eye-to-Eye on Approach to End Israeli-Palestinian Fighting

Russia and China have expressed a convergence in their views toward adopting the best approach to prevent fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, as the two partnered powers seek a greater stake in the long-running Middle East conflict.

Russian Foreign Ministry special representative for Middle East settlement Vladimir Safronkov and Chinese special envoy for the Middle East Zhai Jun shared a telephone call Tuesday in which they asserted they "have similar views on the current situation in the zone of the Palestinian-Israeli crisis," according to the Russian side.

"They reiterated the importance of building up international assistance in the interests of improving the humanitarian situation on the Palestinian territories," the statement added. "In this context, they noted the necessity of creating favorable conditions for the resumption of a direct negotiating process between the parties, which will make it possible to avoid recurrences of military confrontation and stabilize the regional situation in general."

The two sides also "agreed to continue to closely coordinate efforts in the Middle East direction of foreign policy, which fully corresponds to the spirit of strategic partnership between the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China."

The conversation was the latest in a series of bilateral affirmations of the growing ties between Moscow and Beijing, who last month celebrated the 20th anniversary of their Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Treaty that has now been extended. This month, they look forward to their fourth consecutive annual strategic exercises together, which for the first time will take place in China, one of many joint military drills to come.

On the policy level, the two major powers are also looking to find common ground, and have begun coordinating on various issues, including the embattled Iran nuclear deal, a worsening conflict in Afghanistan and a dire humanitarian situation in Syria.

Most recently, they're looking for new solutions to the seemingly intractable Israel-Palestinian conflict.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) greets Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) during their bilateral meeting on November 13, 2019 on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Brasilia, Brazil. Moscow and Beijing have long been skeptical of Washington's designs in the Middle East, and seek to provide an alternative to U.S. influence. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Despite being at odds for much of the Cold War, Moscow and Beijing both have a long history of backing Palestinian movements claiming territories held by Israel. Today, Russia and China both have robust ties with Israel, while retaining good relations with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.

The United States, which has traditionally been at the center of past Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, has an unwavering alliance with Israel, and far more troubled ties with the Palestinian side. This dynamic deteriorated significantly under former U.S. President Donald Trump, who aligned his administration closely with Israel, going as far as to recognize Jerusalem as its capital in defiance of an international consensus regarding the sacred city as disputed.

His successor, President Joe Biden, has made inroads to repair the U.S. relationship with Palestinians and has sought regional support from fellow Arab states in doing so. This effort was tested in May after an explosive 11-day war erupted between Israeli forces and Palestinian factions led by the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip.

The conflict ended with a ceasefire brokered by Egypt, with U.S. support, but occasional Israeli airstrikes have continued in the weeks since in response to allegations of incendiary balloons being released from the Palestinian enclave.

The post-truce strikes were conducted even amid a change of government in Israel as longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was succeeded by his former defense chief Naftali Bennett.

The Biden administration has sought to engage its new Israeli counterpart on a range of issues, especially including Iran and the Palestinian issue.

Also on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with Israeli National Security Adviser-designate Eyal Hulata and Senior Foreign Policy Advisor Shimrit Meir "to discuss the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship."

"They discussed Israel's security; strategic challenges, including Iran; and the need to take steps related to the Palestinian people that are critical to advancing freedom, security, and prosperity for all," a State Department readout said.

The two also discussed mutual concerns regarding attacks they link to Iran in the Gulf of Oman, as well as their mutual backing for efforts first launched under Trump and Netanyahu to normalize Israel's relations with the Arab World. The deals, known collectively as the Abraham Accords, attracted agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, making these countries the first four to establish ties with Israel since Egypt and Jordan signed peace deals in 1979 and 1994, respectively.

But Palestinian officials both aligned with the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza have derided these deals as a betrayal of the historic pan-Arab support that fueled three regional wars in past decades.

Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on the current dissatisfaction among Palestinians, Russia has intensified its efforts to unify the fragmented political landscape among them with an underlying goal of establishing direct talks with Israeli officials.

Last week, Russia special presidential Russian presidential envoy for the Middle East and African countries and Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov discussed Moscow's role via telephone with Palestinian National Initiative co-founder Mustafa Barghouti.

"The sides discussed the current situation on Palestinian territories with a focus on the task of the restoration of Palestinian national unity on the political platform of the Palestine Liberation Organization as a major condition for establishing a sustainable Palestinian-Israeli negotiating process on the generally recognized basis of international law," a Russian Foreign Ministry readout said.

The two were also said to have acknowledged the importance of the Middle East Quartet, which includes both Russia and the U.S. alongside the European Union and the United Nations, and the need for "direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis geared towards settling the conflict on the basis of a two-state solution, which envisages the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders co-existing with Israel in peace and security."

Two days earlier, Chinese permanent representative to the U.N. Geng Shuang weighed in on the conflict during an open debate held at the Security Council.

Geng said that, despite the truce having held for two months, "the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories remains unstable." He expressed concern regarding "unilateral actions by Israel," including the demolition and confiscation of Palestinian homes, an issue that has prompted tepid frustration even from the United States.

"China urges all parties to exercise maximum restraint and avoid any action that might heighten tension," Geng said. "Israel must earnestly comply with relevant UN resolutions, stop demolishing Palestinian homes and evicting Palestinian inhabitants, discontinue its settlement expansion, put an end to the violence, threats and provocations towards the Muslims, and effectively maintain and respect the historical status quo of the holy sites in Jerusalem."

He then referenced a three-part plan put forth earlier in July by Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the Fourth Palestine-Israel Peace Symposium held by China via virtual link.

The first point entailed greater powers for the Palestinian National Authority, whose rule has devolved since a 2007 split between the ruling West Bank-based Fatah and Gaza-based Hamas. The initiative also involved supporting greater unity among the Palestinian factions and encouraging a resumption of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in points that echoed those of Russia.

Wang would reiterate this formula days later during a trip to Egypt, the second stop in a journey that also included Syria and Algeria.

"Lasting peace cannot be achieved without justice being its foundation," Wang said. "The establishment of an independent Palestinian state should not be delayed indefinitely, and the legitimate and lawful rights of the Arab people should not be ignored for long. The 'two-state solution' is the only realistic path to resolving the Palestinian question. All parties concerned with the Palestinian question and the international community should make practical efforts to promote the 'two-state solution' on the basis of UN resolutions."

And to encourage the realization of the third point of the Chinese framework for peace, Wang said that "Palestinian and Israeli negotiators are welcomed to conduct direct talks in China."

"In the meanwhile," he added, "China calls for the holding of an international peace conference led by the UN with the participation of the permanent members of the UN Security Council and all stakeholders in the Middle East peace process to seek a comprehensive, lasting and just settlement of the Palestinian question and to enable Palestine and Israel to co-exist in peace."

Palestinian, protest, flags, Israeli, soldiers
Israeli soldiers deploy to disperse Palestinian protesters lifting national flags as they approach a previously-evacuated Israeli army camp that was taken over by settlers, at Tayasir checkpoint east of Tubas in the north of the occupied West Bank, on July 31. Unrest continues more than two months after a truce that ended a deadly flare-up in May. JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/Getty Images

But on the ground, tensions continue to simmer.

Renewed unrest erupted once again in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah as Israel's Supreme Court attempted to offer a compromise ruling on the housing dispute that served as the starting point for May's rapid series of escalations. But neither Palestinians living there nor the Israeli company seeking to evict them accepted terms through which Palestinian families would stay if they recognized and paid rent to the Israeli owner.

On Sunday, Hamas spokesperson Mohammed Hamada praised the Palestinian refusal to accept.

"We hail Palestinian residents of Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood for standing steadfast and resilient in the face of the Israeli occupation attempts to Judaise Jerusalem and forcefully displace the indigenous Palestinian population from the holy city," Hamada said. "By continuing its aggression and suppression against Palestinian Jerusalemites and activists in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, the Israeli occupation is insisting on playing with fire."

He said Palestinian resistance factions such as Hamas were prepared to once again take action in the face of perceived Israeli provocations.

"Refusing to give in and surrender, the Palestinian people will continue fighting Israeli schemes with all their might," Hamada said. "The Palestinian resistance is ready to respond to the Israeli occupation aggression."

On Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz issued a warning of his own as he toured the Israel Defense Forces' Gaza Division.

"Israel is ready for any scenario - an agreement or an escalation," Gantz said in a tweet. "We will continue to work to ensure long-term peace, that the citizens of Gaza enjoy economic well-being and that all the boys return home. Alongside this, we are also preparing operationally with hundreds of new targets to protect southerners and remove any threatening factor."