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How Trump’s declaration inflames a Middle East already ablaze

Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a turning point in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, the issue is much bigger than Palestine as Donald Trump may have just lit the match that will set off the powder keg of the Arab World.

by Eric Draitser

Part 4 - Beijing, Moscow, and competing interests in Palestine

China and Russia have, each in its own way, begun asserting themselves in the Middle East. Naturally, Russia’s military intervention in the war in Syria has made Moscow a belligerent in the region, with all the baggage that comes with that role. In contrast, Beijing has begun asserting itself economically, which is fairly typical of the Chinese strategy for power projection. These differing approaches, each capitalizing on the strengths of the respective countries, further complicate the picture in Palestine.

In response to the move by Trump, China’s foreign ministry spokesman reaffirmed that China “support[s] the just cause of the Palestinian people to restore their legitimate national rights and stand behind Palestine in building an independent, full-sovereignty state along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.” This was, of course, a reiteration of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s address to the Arab League in 2016, in which he proclaimed that Beijing supports East Jerusalem as the capital of a sovereign Palestinian state.

Rhetoric aside, it should be remembered that Palestinian President Abbas’ visit to China over the summer resulted in Xi making a new four-point proposal for Palestine, which not only reiterated China’s stance on East Jerusalem, but also offered financial support in the form of Chinese companies investing in Palestine to develop industrial parks and solar power plants.

China sees in the Middle East a linchpin of its Belt and Road Initiatives, which attempt to develop land-based access for Chinese goods to Europe and elsewhere in the global economy. China has offered $15 billion in investment for large-scale projects in the Middle East, but does China have the political stomach for wading into the minefield of Middle East politics?

Would China also jeopardize its chances to build the Red-Med railway in Israel — the plan to connect the Red Sea Israeli port of Eilat with the Mediterranean port of Ashdod — which could be seen as arguably the most geopolitically important project China has in the entire Middle East?

This rail project would effectively offer China an alternative to the Suez Canal, which today is one of the most important commercial shipping chokepoints in the world, and one on which China relies heavily. For China, the big prize at the center of all its Belt and Road initiatives is unfettered, mostly land-based access to the European market. The Red-Med railway provides that. Would Beijing risk it in order to take a stand for Palestine? This remains to be seen.

And then there’s Russia. While the Kremlin’s gamble on intervention in Syria has paid off in terms of winning the war for Assad’s government and securing Russia’s place as patron and protector of Syria, it has also made Russia hated in much of the Middle East, especially among Sunni power brokers, from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar to Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine itself. The Russians have put themselves in a strategically complex scenario wherein they have more influence with one side (Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and the Shia alliance) while also losing, or at least significantly weakening, their ability to play all sides.

Add to that the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have a warm, friendly relationship that both have worked very hard to cultivate, obviously for self-interested reasons. Netanyahu needs Putin as leverage against Washington to continue to ensure that the Americans not only remain loyal to Israel, but that they increase their backing as a means of undermining Putin. For his part, Putin needs Netanyahu and the Israelis both as a political chess piece against Washington, and because of the significant cultural ties between Russia and Israel, in the form of Russian-Jewish emigres who account for a significant proportion of Israel’s population.

Russia needs to maintain a good relationship with Israel to placate not only internal forces inside Russia, but also to maintain influence in Israeli politics.

It’s also critical to note that — while Russia has intervened in Syria and has generally been seen as more pro-Iranian, pro-Shiite than its western counterparts — the Kremlin still eyes the Shia warily, and views Iran as part friend and part enemy.

As Khaled Yacoub Oweis of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told Deutsche Welle earlier this year, “Russia supposedly gave the green light when Israel attacked pro-Iranian military targets. In one way or another, Putin has warned the Iranians about tangling with Israel.” Such is the balancing act Putin maintains in the Middle East where, despite Russia’s involvement in Syria, Moscow remains close to Israel and, at least tangentially, the United States.

And of course, there are also economic factors at play in the Israel-Russia calculus. Russia’s only two significant exports remain energy and military hardware, both of which factor into Israel’s position.

Being leaders in military technology and innovation, the Israelis see partnership with the Russians as a lucrative investment. Similarly, the Russians want Israeli know-how on surveillance and security, counter-terrorism, drone technology, app development, and much more. The Russians don’t see any such potential with any of their Arab partners.

As for energy, the Russians are keenly aware that the Israelis want to exploit Eastern Mediterranean gas reserves (i.e., Leviathan field), which could potentially make them into exporters to Europe. This would significantly weaken Russia’s position at a time when Europe is looking for ways to diversify away from reliance on Russian gas. This complicates the relationship further. Needless to say, a cost-benefit analysis for Russia is likely the outcome, and if I were a betting man I’d say that Moscow, on balance, sees little benefit from direct support for Palestinians.

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