Middle East | Note to Abbas: Wake up, China is reshaping the Middle East

Note to Abbas: Wake up, China is reshaping the Middle East

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The president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was in Rome in the week-end to try to get the Pope, almost the ultimate super soft power, to support his cause. This diplomatic effort came after a new terrorist attack in Israel, when a truck rammed innocent bystanders, followed by a rally in Gaza to support it. These are all signs of the extreme weakness of some Palestinians and of madness in applauding terrorism.

There is madness in a very technical sense, as in losing touch with reality, because the whole regional situation has shifted, and not only because of the war in Syria or Iraq.

The Chinese plan for a new Silk Road in fact is creating completely new dynamics in the Middle East that are already changing the balance of power in the region.

The present balance of power is the historical legacy of the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the fall of the Roman Empire in the east.

The Turks then posed for the first time since the height of the Roman Empire’s power a monopoly on the lucrative trade with the Indies and the Far East. The ambition was so real that the sultan took on the title of Roman emperor and proceeded to move west by pushing for a conquest of the Mediterranean. The effort effectively ended only in 1683, when Turkish forces were defeated around Vienna. But in the 230 years between the conquests of Constantinople and Vienna the whole world changed, unbeknownst to the Mediterranean players.

Blocked in their traditional trade routes in the eastern Mediterranean, Spain and Portugal first tried to go around the Turkish blockade. They discovered America and established the first direct trade route to Europe without intermediaries, be they from the Middle East or Central Asia. The route moved through South India, the Philippines, Mexico, and Spain. It was much longer than the old one through the Middle East and Central Asia, but it was for the first time ever without middlemen. It gave traders full direct control over everything, brought immense wealth, and changed the politics and economics of the world, as we know.

It also brought in time the fall of the mighty Turkish and Persian Empires. Bypassed by the American route, their economies became in time marginal to the new Euro Atlantic-centered dynamic.

The collapse of the Turkish Empire at the end of World War I was the last price paid by the sultan. Since then, the borders of the Middle East have been drawn and redrawn. Turkey tried to create a new identity for itself, by shedding the old Ottoman multiethnic identity and donning a new nationalist garb that excluded Armenians, Greeks, and in time Kurds, et cetera. Turkey changed its nature, and so did the region with the rise of “national” states dominated by Arabs that were previously only subjects of the sultan.

The region at first enjoyed extra attention from the global powers because it was the price-setter for the production of oil, a key raw material; and later because it was the alleged center of Islamic terrorism. But it has been marginal in the industrial and economic dynamics that continued to be concentrated in Europe and America and that, in past 30 years, moved towards Asia.

Now, with the worldwide development of even greater sources of gas and new energy-saving technologies, the centrality of the Middle East in the production of oil has sharply declined and so has its political importance in global affairs.

Yet the end of the old imperial Turkish monopoly in the region, the new rise of Asian economies in the Far East (China is only one of them), and the development of new train technologies has recreated space for the redevelopment of the old Silk Road.

China is the first to realize it, but surely will not be the last. Shipping goods from China, India, or even Thailand by train to Europe through the Middle East is faster, cheaper, and more efficient than doing it by boat, going through Africa and ending up in Rotterdam.

This creates a huge opportunity for development in the region, which can rediscover its old tradition of being the traders of the world, a job more important and far more rewarding than just digging up raw materials. With trade comes industry, growth, and reshaping of the local economies.

This however needs political certainty. Wars, but also acrimonies smoldering under the ashes, make everything more difficult. The centerpiece in this is Israel, the industrial and technological powerhouse of the region, and the soundest democracy.

Thus Israel, as the politically most stable place, needs to be integrated to bring welfare to all. A major obstacle to this integration is the failure of Palestinians to recognize its existence. Of course, this is political fiction. Palestinians know Israel exists, but they do not want to admit it in order to not give up a bargaining chip. With this withholding of political recognition, the possibility lurks that Israel might be beaten and thus erased again from the map.

This might have been a possibility decades ago, but the objective pressure of China and Asia moving through the new Silk Road, the shrinking political leverage coming from oil extraction, and the growing political and industrial force of Israel makes the old Palestinian position insignificant. The political recognition of Israel by Palestinians is no longer a bargaining chip.

Everybody, including Palestinians, is lining up to deal with Israel because nobody wants to change more political borders in the region. There is already too much chaos, and there is too much interest in and out of the region to even dream of the possibility that Israel is no longer there.

What  was a bargaining chip for the Palestinians 50 years ago has now become a huge drag on their movement and a blinder thwarting their political vision. In fact, the bargaining chip of the Palestinians is not to daydream of a time when Israel will no longer be, but to work for a time when they can bank on decades of close contact with Israel to help Israeli integration in the region. This integration is already happening with or without the Palestinians.

The threat of extreme Islam is drawing all people in the region, Arab or not, into close collaboration with Israel, the one country with longer experience with this. Palestinians then can choose to join in this effort or be completely bypassed. They long lost their biggest source of leverage, that of galvanizing and uniting the Muslim masses against Israel. In fact, the recent collaboration between Turkey, Russian, and Iran in Syria bodes well for a time when also Iranians will drop their lingering political support of the Palestinians.

Then, for their own political survival, they have to recognize the existence of Israel. In fact, the sooner they do it, the more political bargaining power they will get. The later they do so, the less they will get. This may surely be unpleasant, and shatter some delusions, but it is the hard reality.

Recognition of Israel does not mean that Palestinians or anybody else have to agree with policies and decisions by any given Israeli government. But if Palestinians are unhappy with the stronger clout of religious radicals in Israel or with the expansion of Israeli colonies in the West Bank, they will have a better chance of fighting them if they recognize the political existence of Israel and drop and oppose the nonsensical programs educating their youths to hate Israel.

Actually now and more so in the next decades, the future of Palestinians is only in protecting Israel. It may be fair or unfair, but it is the reality.

In 1453, the Turkish sultan could have cut a generous deal with Venetian and Genoese merchants for trade with the Indies. If he had done that, perhaps the season of seafaring to the west and the discovery of America would have been delayed and certainly would not have had the massive political impact it had.

Now times run faster, and we do not need to wait two centuries to reap the fruits of misjudgment. Thus the window of opportunity for Palestinians is getting smaller almost by the day, no matter how unpleasant this may be.

Francesco Sisci
Francesco Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. He is the contributor for Il Sole 24ore, and a frequent commentator on international affairs for CCTV and Phoenix TV.
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