China’s Blunder in the Middle East
“When you live next to a monster, you have two choices: the monster eats you or you kill it.”
ChinaTalk spoke with her yesterday morning to get her initial reaction to this weekend’s surprise attack by Hamas terrorists.
In this interview we discuss:
Carice’s experience in the wake of the attack;
Why China leans away from Israel politically, and why that one day in a post-war region may have to change;
How Iran and Hamas could draw Israel into a multi-front war;
China’s Belt & Road Initiative and its appeal to Arab countries.
Check out the second half of the podcast for more coverage featuring an interview with Ofir Dayan, a researcher at the Israel-China Policy Center at INSS.
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What It’s Like on the Ground
Jordan Schneider: Where are you now, and what has your experience been the past few days?
Carice Witte: It’s very hard to convey the depth of horror and pain that my family, my country, and I have experienced over the last few days.
The last time so many Jews were killed in one day was the Holocaust.
We are devastated. We are torn to pieces. I personally am torn to pieces. We are hearing more and more stories of the utter deprivation carried out by Hamas against our children, mothers, grandmothers, and soldiers.
An entire base of women who worked in intelligence was mowed down — a bunch of twenty-year-old girls. My daughter was in a base just like that three years ago. She said to me, “Mom, that could have been me. We were not prepared for a physical attack. None of us were trained to shoot. We had nothing.” They were just sitting ducks, because Israel never expected this kind of invasion.
We have no strategic depth in Israel. When I would host Chinese experts, policy advisors, and government officials in Israel, I would take them around the country and have them walk to the border and see we have no strategic depth. The minute you cross our border, we are there. There’s no buffer zone.
Israel has worked religiously to keep the violence and the attacks on our country on the other side. This was a failure. This was a straight-out failure. We have gone from Saturday morning shock — the entire day just feeling like you’re getting punched in the stomach over and over and over.
Now we’re told we need to prepare our safe room for a potential attack by Hezbollah in the north with 150,000 missiles pointed at us.
Some of these are precision missiles. It wouldn’t be a hole in the building like you might have seen in Tel Aviv or part of a house. It would be a complete wipeout if it comes from the north. There’s an expectation there will be hundreds of thousands of casualties.
We are preparing our safe room. We’re told we have to get cash, water, dry goods, and IDs. It’s hard to fathom. We’re just not completely prepared, although we’re not unprepared. During COVID we were reminded by the military that we need to do this kind of preparation.
So, where am I? I’m preparing the safe room. I’m trying to focus on work. I’m trying to help my kids, who are all adults, but still suffering through this. They in turn are doing volunteer work to try to help anyone they can get through this in one piece and hopefully come out of it stronger and with a very new Middle East.
The View from Beijing
Jordan Schneider: What’s the Chinese interpretation of Hamas’s surprise attack?
Carice Witte: I’ve been in touch with scores of Chinese government and party policy advisors, experts, and academics over the last few days. Every single one of them, on a one-on-one basis, has offered heartfelt support, standing with Israel and supporting the people.
China’s government has interpreted this attack in a way that’s similar to how it has interpreted past terror attacks.
China’s response has always been generally to take the Palestinian side.
Politically, China officially stands 100% with the Palestinians and has done so for decades.
China is very happy to work with Israel economically — on a personal level with cultural, academic, and scientific cooperation. But politically, they’ve always been very clear: they have a 100% anti-Israel voting record in every international institution.
When I said this on CGTN, I was criticized by a Chinese scholar that this was too harsh, that I was too sharp. But this is not the time for concern about Israeli harshness and sharpness. This is a time where history will judge the decisions that are made by countries around the world. We know Brussels generally is not a great supporter of Israel. It generally is a critic of Israel — but they firmly stand with Israel right now.
The butchery that took place … no human could watch that without saying this is anything but barbaric and standing with the people who are suffering.
Many Chinese people, I understand, are getting a lot of misinformation and disinformation, which is common — but it means that government censorship is allowing that misinformation to become rampant on Weibo and other social media.
This causes a misreading. It’s making it look like, once again, the Palestinians are suffering from Israeli aggression. Well, this began with the most egregious, savage, and barbaric behavior against civilians. Israel is going to have to respond.
I ask the Chinese leadership, if a country near China crossed the border and murdered and took hostage an equal percentage of people, what would China do? We have seen China’s response to any kind of modest terror.
What Israel experienced throughout the years has been horrific. But it doesn’t compare to what we went through on Saturday, which is Simchat Torah. It’s a day of joy. It’s a holiday. It happens to be my birthday. Instead, this day will always be associated with a tragedy of enormous proportions.
China’s interpretation is very much seen through the lens of, from what I can tell, the standard competition with the United States — the fear of US strength and its ability to cultivate strong alliances. That rhetoric is guiding the interpretation of what has happened here.
That is in itself tragic, because it will lead China to miscalculations on policy steps in this region.
Iran Is Not So Far Away
The Middle East has become very important to China.
China has accurately identified the Middle East as a weak link between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. China has focused on investment in the Middle East and bringing Middle Eastern countries into its orbit. Four of the six countries brought into BRICS this year are Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Part of the wind in Iran’s sails was that it is becoming more of a recognized player on the international stage. The US is also releasing at least $6 billion to Iran, which is fungible. Even if that money is only for humanitarian effort, it frees up a lot of other money for Iran to use to back Hamas. We know Hamas had many delegations visit Iran over the past many months.
It’s clearly the training, guidance, and masterminding of Iran behind this attack. Hamas was backed and guided by Iran, a country that is working closely with China.
China is aware of Iran’s threats to eviscerate Israel. The first statement that Xi Jinping comes out with is that a Palestinian state must be created alongside a Jewish state. What in this event indicates there is an interest in a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state? There is nothing in that attack that would lead to that kind of compromise.
Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people or the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has been running its own territory for years. There was no reason for them to be interested in Israel at all.
The goal of Hamas and its charter states is to take the entire land and turn it into an Islamic state. That is what the murderous efforts that took place on Saturday are meant to lead to.
Iran has orchestrated a multi-level, multifaceted plan that starts with Hamas drawing Israel on foot into Gaza. At that point, there’s an agreement that Hezbollah will begin to attack from the north.
While we have many of our military capabilities focused on the west in Gaza at that time, there are also Iranian militias made up of Taliban and Houthis in Iraq and Syria who can infiltrate from the north.
They can then open up two more fronts, which are the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, what some people refer to as the West Bank.
The final front is the Israeli-Arabs. We saw some of that take place in the recent past.
In the end, this four- or five-point attack is not about convincing Israel to make concessions. If Israel thought that concessions would lead to a peace and a live-and-let-live situation, we would have done it years ago.
Tightening the Belt and Road
Jordan Schneider: Over the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of coverage on China’s husbanding a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which looks a little interesting in retrospect. What is the broader motivation for that? Where will China stand when the dust settles?
Carice Witte: It looks like it’s all about America from the perspective of China. The Middle East is this weak link.
China has been the largest investor in the Middle East since 2016. The Digital Silk Road has been very successful here. The investment by China into Middle Eastern countries that can provide payments through oil, etc. has grown exponentially. I think the third largest BRI investment country a couple of years ago was Iraq. Because they can pay for whatever they need in oil.
We know that there’s a huge amount of Chinese technology. Huawei has blanketed most of the Middle East — except Israel.
Arab countries don’t have the same security concerns that Israel has with respect to privacy and control over their telecoms. For us, it’s existential. For the Arabs, it’s just another thing. They believe they can balance the US off China and vice versa.
We’ve seen clearly Saudi Arabia and UAE’s ability to get benefits from both sides. This is especially the case with Saudi Arabia, playing one off the other quite successfully because Saudi Arabia has a lot to offer: it has a lot of money and oil resources, so it’s in a very different position.
Having Saudi Arabia in China’s camp is a major goal. Pulling it away from the US is an anchor for China’s position here.
Prior to COVID, there were yearly gatherings hosted by China, talks between Israelis and Palestinians. But they were all with non-official players, which didn’t really lead to much, except China got a little bit of propaganda showing they were helping the Palestinian cause as of late.
With the success of the Saudi-Iran rapprochement — where they invested a few months of effort — it was the Qataris and maybe Oman who had done the heavy lifting along with Iraq. But China came in toward the end, definitely made a contribution, and that success far outweighed their expectations. They did not realize that they were going to get so much play from that achievement.
This success led the Chinese to pick up the phone for the first time ever to have China’s former foreign minister, Qin Gang 秦刚, called up the Israeli foreign minister and the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority and said, “We’re happy to mediate and bring this problem to the United Nations.”
Of course, it’s well known that Israel is despised in the United Nations — never gets a fair shake — and bringing anything about Israel into the United Nations is anathema for Israel and equal to failure. Nonetheless, China made that offer.
China’s interest in establishing the Global Security Initiative is also a non-starter for Israel. The initiative’s concept of indivisible security treats the security needs of Palestinians and Israelis as equal. It doesn’t speak to the problem. We are the subject of Palestinian terror on a permanent, ongoing basis.
Yes, the media in China portrays Israel as the aggressor — but in fact we are the victims of terror over and over. The reason we have to have all of these checkpoints is because we keep getting blown up.
China wants to sideline the US, keep Saudi Arabia in its orbit, and strengthen the axis of countries under China’s umbrella of “Global South” countries. China wants some stronger countries like Saudi Arabia in that camp.
Once More Unto the Breach
One of the reasons Israel let down its guard is because Hamas had been behaving incrementally, more like a responsible actor. Israel wanted to believe the fantasy — like everyone else — that there’s hope for peace, hope for progress. Israel let down its guard.
That, along with the infighting that we had over the last nine months, distracted too many people. For that, as well as for other reasons that will come out later, we dropped the ball. Our security people dropped the ball.
Israel and the rest of the world are now aware of who we are dealing with. There is no other possibility.
When you live next to a monster, you have two choices: the monster eats you or you kill it. It’s a terrible thing, but you can’t live next to a monster who’s constantly coming and trying to destroy you. So that will happen.
When US warships pulled into the Mediterranean, it was a very strong message, and not only to Hezbollah. It shows what they might expect. Americans were killed and probably kidnapped and taken hostage, which gives America the ability to get involved, should that be useful.
It also speaks to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. If you’re like Israel or are working with Israel, you have an opportunity to gain the kind of security umbrella that Israel has. That, in my opinion, you want to talk about.
I see a new Middle East that none of us could have predicted.
The immediate neighborhood will be reshaped around the results of this war. That normalization follows with Saudi Arabia. Other Arab countries see the benefits and join in.
At that point, China will have to rethink its approach to Israel because, until now, Israel was a very useful card. If you throw Israel under the bus, the idea was you’re going to get support from the fifty-six Muslim states and certainly the twenty-two in the Arab League.
But if many countries in the Arab League normalize working with Israel and change their views toward it, you can’t do that anymore. You’re going to have to work with Israel to gain the support of those countries. That throws a bit of a stick in the spokes of the Iran-China relationship.
One aspect of this conflict that is not being mentioned — an underlying critical factor — is the civil war within Islam. That is basically Iran versus Saudi Arabia, Sunni versus Shia.
Iran is looking to establish an Islamist leadership and take the global Muslim population into a more extremist direction. Saudi Arabia and Morocco are working towards a more moderate Islam.
We’re in the crosshairs, as usual. Israelis are on the front lines. How this ends up is going to impact many parts of the world.
People need to be aware and support Israel’s efforts — not only because we were butchered, but also because we’re on the front lines, working for a world order of stability and of moderation desired by most countries
Brief selections from our interview with Ofir Dayan, a researcher at the Israel-China Policy Center at INSS.
Ofir Dayan: If I had to choose one word to describe what Israel and its citizens have experienced over the last three-plus days, it would be "surreal." The events that have unfolded are scenarios that we never thought possible and, in many ways, represent the worst nightmares of the Israeli people.
The past three days have served as a wake-up call for Israelis. Almost a thousand of our citizens have been killed, and over a hundred—including civilians, children, and the elderly—have been kidnapped into Gaza. It's crucial to understand how confident we were in the strength of our army and how underestimated Hamas was in comparison. There has been a significant misconception about the balance of power, and many Israelis, myself included, are still in disbelief days after the onset of the conflict.
We've witnessed extremely graphic scenes that we never thought would take place on Israeli soil. The sheer number of people kidnapped and killed by Hamas is staggering. Adding to the shock and trauma, we've observed ISIS-style acts committed by Hamas.
Given that these events have occurred in 2023, everything has been recorded and disseminated via social media. As a result, people are exposed to the grim reality in real-time.
The scale of the tragedy is such that every Israeli knows at least one individual directly impacted by the fighting—be it a murdered person, a hostage in Gaza, or someone missing.
Jordan: To give a sense of the scale, proportionally this attack is equivalent to 7,500 dying in the UK, 35,000 in the US, or 160,000 in China. Truly, every single family (mine included) is only one degree away from horrific tragedies.
Ryan Haas from Brookings tweeted that he expects China's cautious response to Hamas' attack in Israel to expose the limitations of China's influence in the region. He noted that historically, Beijing has been cautious about taking sides and does not expect that stance to change. Thoughts?
Ofir Dayan: While the United States has been extremely involved in recent events over the last three days, China has been less active. A few years ago, China even offered to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians and reiterated the offer last year. Israelis are aware of these efforts and China sees itself as a potential mediator in the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict.
A survey conducted a few months ago showed that young Arabs in the Middle East prefer China over the U.S. as a mediator. However, in situations like the current one, a country that views itself as a possible mediator should be more engaged rather than remaining neutral and condemning both sides. China's current approach also lacks nuance, particularly when you consider the Israeli perspective.
While the U.S. has been sending military assistance, which is highly unusual, it has also been showing solidarity in other ways, such as lighting up the White House in blue and white. This level of solidarity is not visible from China.
For more, check out the podcast.
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