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The U.S. wants China to play a larger role in the Middle East

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

China's clout is growing in the Middle East, where the U.S. wants Beijing's help to stop the war in Gaza from turning into a larger regional conflict.

Why it matters: Beijing's leverage with Tehran, a key backer of Hamas and Houthi rebels in Yemen, means China could play a unique role as regional peacemaker.

The U.S. is concerned about China's sway in the region, but needs that influence now as Washington's efforts to reduce violence haven't worked.

Driving the news: National security adviser Jake Sullivan met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi Friday and Saturday in Thailand to discuss the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.

The meeting's goal is to "maintain strategic communication and responsibly manage the relationship" in keeping with the commitments made at APEC in November, the White House said in a statement on Thursday evening.

What's happening: Key shipping routes through the Red Sea have been brought to a standstill in recent weeks by attacks on ships by Houthi rebels in Yemen in protest of Israel's ongoing military operation against Hamas in Gaza.

The Houthis are continuing the attacks despite U.S.-led coalition strikes, raising fears of a broader conflict even more.

Beijing has a close relationship with Iran, which is shut off from much of the global economy due to U.S. sanctions and is dependent on trade links and oil sales to China.

That's why the U.S. is leaning on Beijing to press Iran to urge Hamas and the Houthis to cease their attacks.

"China has influence over Tehran; they have influence in Iran. And they have the ability to have conversations with Iranian leaders that—that we can't," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday at a media briefing.

"What we've said repeatedly is: We would welcome a constructive role by China, using the influence and the access that we know they have, to try to help stem the flow of weapons and munitions to the Houthis."

Background: The Chinese government has increasingly sought to portray itself as a Middle East peacemaker and a superior alternative to the U.S. overall as a regional partner.

China helped arrange a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia last year, a move that Sullivan said at the time was "not fundamentally averse to U.S. interests."

After the Oct. 7 attacks and the outbreak of war between Israel and Gaza, China offered to help broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but has not taken substantive steps towards doing so.

What to watch: Chinese officials have asked Iran several times in recent weeks to push the Houthis to stop attacking ships, or else face consequences in the trade relationship with Beijing, Reuters reported on Friday.

If Houthi attacks continue, moves by Beijing to restrict some business ties to Iran would show that China is really putting its money where its mouth is on Middle East peace-making.


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It's not enforceable. It doesn't say if Israel is committing genocide. What's ICJ's Gaza ruling for?

Even though the ruling is not enforceable, it is more than just symbolic.

, 01/27/24

A panel of 17 judges at the Hague-based International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Israel to implement a series of measures aimed at averting genocide in the Gaza Strip.

The order is part of a wider case brought by South Africa at the U.N.'s highest court into whether Israel is already committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza as it fights the war against Hamas.

Even though the ruling is not enforceable, and the actual legal case as to whether Israel is guilty of genocide is expected to take several years to wend its way through the court, the order is more than just symbolic.

Here's what the ICJ's order, which Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs Riyadh Maliki has described as a ruling in "favor of humanity and international law," means for the Israel-Hamas war.

What impact will the ICJ ruling have on Gaza?

Perhaps not a lot immediately in terms of a material change to conditions on the ground.

South Africa had asked the court to issue an emergency order to compel Israel to commit to a cease-fire in Gaza. It didn't do that. Instead, it ordered Israel to undertake actions to prevent the killing and harming of civilians in Gaza, such as refraining from killing members of a group and not imposing conditions that could prevent women from giving birth. It ordered Israel to prevent and punish public comments that incite genocide.

Still, even if the ICJ had demanded that Israel halt its military campaign, the court has no formal way to implement this order -- and Israel has made it clear that it only intends to stop fighting when Hamas is defeated, and Israel gets all of its hostages back. "We will continue to do what is necessary to defend our country and defend our people," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday, speaking after the court's ruling.

Meanwhile, Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti said that because of the scale of destruction and ongoing fighting in Gaza, "Israel cannot implement ICJ decisions without an immediate and permanent ceasefire."

What pressure does this put on the U.S.?

There are some big potential implications for the U.S., long Israel's staunchest military and diplomatic ally. The U.S. is facing increasing pressure to twist Israel's arm and stop a war that has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, mainly civilians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

For a start, because the ICJ has no real mechanism to enforce its decisions, the matter could be pushed to a vote in the U.N. Security Council, where members can order economic sanctions or military action.

If a U.N. Security Council vote does happen, "the Biden administration will once again face the choice of protecting Israel politically by casting a veto, and by that, further isolate the United States, or allowing the Security Council to act and pay a domestic political cost for 'not standing by Israel,'" said Trita Parsi, the co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

Nancy Okail, president and CEO of the Center for International Policy think tank in Washington, D.C., said that the ruling from the ICJ "is more than a legal technicality; it's about safeguarding human rights on a global scale."

So far, the White House hasn't said much about the ICJ's ruling − even whether it respects the decision.

Okail said this sends the wrong message.

"If we support the creation of a global community based on shared rules rather than simply might makes right, it is absolutely essential that all countries, including the United States, acknowledge the legitimacy of this ruling and take necessary steps in response," said Okail, in emailed comments.

What happens now?

The ICJ has ordered Israel to report, within a month, back to the court detailing what it's doing to uphold all the measures within its power to prevent acts of genocide in Gaza. Israel has not said whether it will comply with this.

In fact, after the ruling some of Israel's most senior officials such as its Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Foreign Minister Israel Katz expressed disappointment, as well as a tone of defiance.

"The state of Israel does not need to be lectured on morality in order to distinguish between terrorists and the civilian population in Gaza," Gallant posted to social media. "The IDF and security agencies will continue operating to dismantle the military and governing capabilities of the Hamas terrorist organization."

Katz said Israel was committed to international law that existed "independently of any ICJ proceedings."

Attention now turns to reports in recent days suggesting President Joe Biden plans to dispatch CIA Director William J. Burns to the Middle East to help broker a deal between Hamas and Israel that would involve the release of all remaining hostages held in Gaza and the longest cessation of hostilities since the war began last year.

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