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Seeking influence, China hosts Mideast peace forum

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CHRISTOPHER BODEEN | June 18, 2013 10:56 AM EST | AP

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BEIJING — The Palestinian envoy to the United Nations praised China's growing involvement in the Mideast peace process, saying it enhances the efforts of other nations and should continue to expand.

Riyad Mansour made the comments Tuesday during a U.N. conference hosted by China that is promoting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two-day forum is part of Beijing's quest for greater diplomatic influence in a region of growing importance to its economy.

"We believe that China is a very important political force that can contribute in a constructive and positive way to all other efforts exerted by many other political actors," Mansour told reporters in Beijing.

The conference is part of a regular series of United Nations-sponsored discussions involving U.N. officials, diplomats, academics, and present and former members of the Palestinian and Israeli parliaments.

While it isn't expected to produce any concrete outcome, the meeting underscores China's attempt to balance its support for the Palestinian cause and heavy reliance on Saudi oil with its pursuit of Israeli high-tech imports and know-how in areas from paramilitary training to water management.

That search for balance was demonstrated last month when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu made state visits to China during the same week.

While Abbas' visit was brief and largely ceremonial, Netanyahu stayed for five days, including a visit to the commercial hub of Shanghai, and oversaw the signing of a raft of business deals to expand China and Israel's $8 billion two-way trade.

China launched its greater involvement in the Mideast with the appointment of a special envoy for the region in 2009, and has sought to maintain contact with most mainstream political groupings without actually becoming embroiled in talks.

That approach seems to satisfy Beijing's desire to seek a higher diplomatic profile without alienating any of the parties in the region, analysts say.

"It has been, however, very important for Beijing to be recognized, and respected, as one of the leading great global powers not only in the formal sense, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, but also as an active one," said Yitzhak Shichor, a China expert at Israel's University of Haifa.

Shichor said Beijing's hosting of the U.N. meeting may also be a response to Arab desires for China to counterbalance U.S. support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as an attempt to counter the harsh criticism China has come under for blocking U.S. efforts to mitigate the bloodshed in Syria.

China, however, would likely prefer to see the U.S., Russia, and others do the heavy diplomatic lifting, Shichor said. Beijing also remains constrained by a lack of detailed knowledge of the conflicts and is distrusted by Israel for its strong support for the Palestinians, he said.

"The Middle East is far not only in geographical terms but also in cultural, religious, ethnic and political terms," Shichor said.

In earlier remarks, China's top delegate to the forum, Assistant Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu, reiterated that China supports the "just cause of the Palestinian people and Palestinian-Israeli peace process."

He said the immediate priority is to stop construction of new Israeli settlements in the West Bank, end violence against civilians, lift the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, and "properly handle" the issue of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

China extended diplomatic recognition to the Palestinian Authority in 1988 – four years before recognizing Israel – and has consistently backed efforts to boost Palestine's status at the U.N.

However, it has also striven for closer ties with Israel, something Mansour said was to be welcomed, since that gives China the advantage of having good relations with both sides in the conflict "to contribute to the efforts by others especially at this particular moment."

Earlier Tuesday, Mansour and other forum participants met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials. He said they heard a "very positive articulation by the Chinese government and readiness and willingness to cooperate with all those who are influencing events in the Middle East with the objective of trying to find a solution to this conflict."