BEIJING (AFP) – China called for a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians at a conference in Beijing Tuesday, as the rising global power seeks greater diplomatic influence in the Middle East.
"We need to redouble efforts to promote peace talks," assistant foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu said at the United Nations International Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace, an event attended by diplomats, UN delegates, academics, and figures from the Palestinian and Israeli parliaments.
"The international community should be fully aware of the importance and urgency of settling the Palestinian question and make every effort to promote the resumption of peace talks," he added, on the first day of the two-day conference.
Beijing has traditionally remained distant from Middle East affairs, although it has begun to take a more active diplomatic role in recent years, wielding its UN veto to scuttle some Western-backed proposals on Syria.
It now appears to be positioning itself closer to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which has long been strongly influenced by Washington.
Daniel Ben-Simon, a former Israeli parliamentarian who is a member of the Labor Party, said the growing influence of Beijing within Israeli-Palestinian affairs could bring a new dimension to relations in the region.
"They (Israelis) have been listening until now to the Americans. There has been one boss in the peace process. No other country has had a word -- a strong word -- like the Americans," he told AFP on the sidelines of the conference.
"If the Chinese get involved, that will be very, very interesting because Israel and China are working together very closely economically."
Ben-Simon also said China could build on its economic interests to develop "political influence" in the region.
But he said he was unclear if Beijing's key aim was to take Washington's place at the summit table.
"That is the question. Is there competition between these two superpowers?" he said.
China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has voiced support for the Palestinian push for full state membership in the United Nations.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu made state visits to Beijing during the same week last month.
Bassam al-Salhi, a representative of Abbas, said on a visit to Beijing last November that China could play a "special role" in the Middle East.
"The importance of this conference is that all the international community support Palestinian inalienable rights," al-Salhi, the head of the Palestinian delegation to the conference, told AFP Tuesday. "China is (a) very important country to take its role in the peace process."
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been frozen since 2010, causing US Secretary of State John Kerry to admonish both Netanyahu and Abbas to make the "tough decisions" needed to restart them.
China generally opposes what it calls intervention in the internal affairs of other nations.
In 2012, Israel imported $5.32 billion (3.8 billion euros) in goods from China and exported $2.74 billion, according to official figures.
China is also a major importer of Middle East oil, a key resource to power its expanding economy.