With Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow for a brief meeting with President Vladimir Putin on the day the Syrian National Dialogue Congress begins in Sochi, it is time to examine why China is the most suitable peace arbiter for Palestine, while Russia remains the strongest arbiter for the Korean peninsula.
Palestine has rejected any future role for the US in the long deadlocked so-called peace talks between “Israel” and Palestine. As a consequence, many commentators and more importantly many Palestinian diplomats are calling upon Russia to effectively take the place of the US as the de-facto neutral superpower to be a broker of peace.
In a technical and diplomatic sense, Russia, like China, is a strong candidate for a potentially neutral power broker, but because Russia and China have come to their positions in very different ways, each state offers a very different kind of neutrality.
Moscow’s relation with the “Israeli” issue has gone through three distinct stages. In 1948, Zionists in Palestine unilaterally declared themselves a state and continued their ethnic cleansing of Palestine which began in earnest during 1947 with the Nakba. By 1949, an exasperated United Nations washed its hands of the issue (or so many thought) but recognised the sovereignty of “Israel”.
Among those who recognised this new entity was the Soviet Union and its close communist allies. At the time, Stalin had hoped to influence Jewish opinion and push it towards a left-leaning/socialist direction. In many ways there is both a logic and irony to this.
While many of the original Bolshevik movers and shakers were disproportionally of Jewish background in comparison to the rest of the Russian population, Stalin ultimately purged most of these individuals from power. Trotsky was the most notable Bolshevik of Jewish background to be purged. Stalin however, also attempted to solve the wider so-called “Jewish question” by creating the Autonomous Jewish Oblast, in an attempt to create a sanctuary for European Jewry in the Soviet Union. All a European Jew would theoretically have to do is accept the Soviet model and take Soviet citizenship in order to live in the Oblast which still exists, but with only a smaller practicing Jewish population.
However, Moscow soon became disenchanted with the fact that “Israel” did not become a Soviet ally. Indeed, when Israel aligned with the declining imperial powers of Britain and France to invade Egypt, the Soviet Union became a staunch ally of Arab nationalists throughout the region.
In this sense, the relationship between Moscow and the Zionists of Palestine is similar to Moscow’s relationship with Middle Eastern Kurds. At the end of the Great Patriotic War, Moscow favoured Kurdish nationalism in the region as a way to weaken monarchical and imperial governments. Most notably, the USSR established the communist Kurdish enclave called the Republic of Mahabad in 1946, although a year later, the territory reverted back to the Iranian Empire.
Even into the 1960s, the USSR supported Iraqi leader Abd al-Karim Qasim, who himself was seen by many, including the US as overly pro-Kurdish. When the Ba’ath Party first came to power during the 1963 Ramadan Revolution killing Qasim in the process, it was thought the CIA helped the Ba’athists to take control. By the late 1960s however, the Soviet Union became a staunch ally of Ba’athist Iraq as well as Ba’athist Syria and a close partner of non-aligned Nasserist Egypt.
Likewise, in the 1960s, 1970s, and most of the 1980s, the Soviet Union was openly pro-Palestinian, even helping to pass UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 which condemned Zionism as a form of racism.
However, by the 1990s, the USSR’s position had shifted. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow voted to repeal the terms of UNGA Resolution 3379 in 1991.
Today, Russia maintains good diplomatic relations with Palestine. At the 2017 recent UN General Assembly opening, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even commented that a just solution for Palestine’s grievances is long overdue.
At the same time, Russia has historically good relations with “Israel”. The current Russian President and current Israeli Premier have a good personal relationship. Additionally, many Russian businessmen of Jewish background own property in “Israel” as do many ordinary Russians. Therefore, Russia’s neutrality on the issue has been arrived at because of the unique experience of the Soviet Union supporting Arab liberation movements while the long history of Jews in Russia has led Russia’s leaders to seek and achieve good ties with Tel Aviv.
By contrast, China’s example is very different. Until 1971, the People’s Republic of China was not represented at the UN and thus the China of today had no hand in any of the issues relating to the UN’s views on “Israel” or the many Arab-Israeli conflicts prior to 1971.
As a communist state, China supported Palestine at the UN throughout the post-1971 period. Today, China’s international policy is generally free of ideology. China conducts good business and diplomatic relations with all nations on a case-by-case basis. Any nation which respects China, China will in turn respect and conduct bilateral relations accordingly. This means that while at the UN China continues to vote in favour and speak in favour of Palestine, Beijing maintains normal, healthy business and diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.
However, when it comes to being a fully neutral arbitrator of the conflict, China is in a stronger position than Russia. Russia’s Muslim and Jewish minorities are all vocal about their opposing positions on the Palestine issue. In a state like modern Russia built on multi-confessional tolerance with an emphasis on the importance of Orthodox Christianity, the social dynamics of Russia leave Moscow somewhat compromised. If Moscow listened to Russian Muslim leaders like Ramzan Kadyrov and adopted a fully pro-Palestinian position, this would anger the often wealthy Russian businessmen of Jewish background and/or of Jewish faith. Likewise if Russia based its Palestine policy on the wishes of Russian Jews or Russians in Israel, this could anger Russian Muslims. This is not to say that compromise in such a situation is impossible, but in this sense Russia like any nation with both an influential Muslim and Jewish minority, is itself compromised on the issue.
China by contrast is the world’s largest atheist state. Its population who identify as Muslims is less than 2% of the entire population and not at all influential on ruling Communist party policy. The number of self-described Jews in China is close to non-existent in practical terms. In this way, because China is further from the Levant and has fewer historic or cultural connections to the peoples or religions of the region, its position as a neutral power is far less encumbered than that of Russia.
Inversely, many of these same reasons explain why Russia is a more natural peace broker for the Korean peninsula than China. While China remains the DPRK’s number one trading partner, the state of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Pyongyang is at its poorest ever. It has been said that Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping do not much care for each other and as a result, Kim Jong-un is the first North Korean leader not to meet a Chinese head of state.
Historically, Maoism and Juche were rival ideologies which speaks to the wider fact that for centuries, the great rulers of Korea and of China had often been rivals and as such, fought many wars with one another. Such a fractious history does not exist between Russia and the Korean people. Indeed, Japan’s formal occupation of Korea occurred only five years after Russia’s disheartening loss to Japan during the war fought between 1904 and 1905.
Thus, neutrality in its broadest sense is most easily realised among a power that has no direct experience or attachment in the area of dispute.
While Russia most certainly has a constructive role to play in Palestine, ultimately China is the more neutral of the two neutral powers.