Japan in the Middle East: Not to be underestimated
John de Boer (University of Tokyo)
As cameras and journalists gathered in Camp David to document how President Bush received the celebrated Japanese 'Lion heart', history was in the making as Japanese diplomats quietly maneuvered behind the scenes. Koizumi's face-to-face with President Bush over the weekend resulted in little more than a friendly tossing of the ball, however, his subordinates were engaged in matters of life and death trying to bring a solution to the very conflict that made Camp David famous.
On June 29th, the two major English language daily newspapers in Israel, Ha'aretz and the Jerusalem Post, reported that Japan's Ambassador to Lebanon, Mr. Nauto Amaki, and the visiting director-general of the Japanese foreign ministry had met with the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. This radical Shi'ite organization based in Southern Lebanon is classified by the U.S. and the Israeli governments as a terrorist organization responsible for the lives of more than twenty U.S. Marines who were killed in a bomb blast during the early 1980's while stationed in Beirut. Deadly battles between Hezbollah and Israeli forces continue today, with Israel sending F-16 fighter jets to bomb Hezbollah strongholds and Hezbollah guerrillas responding with hand held rocket launchers. The conflict for Hezbollah is about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Lebanese land, and for Israel it is one of security.
Originally, the meeting between the ambassador, the foreign ministry official and Nasrallah was reported in an interview published in the Lebanese daily, Al-Mustaqbal on June 28th. However, to my knowledge, not one word was mentioned about this meeting in the major Japanese or Western newspapers.
Why is it important for, at minimum, the Japanese public to know about this meeting? Because, this meeting represents the crucial role that Japan has and can continue to play in promoting peace in the world. At the end of the day this can mean saving lives, ending destruction, building a future for those directly involved, and for Japan, creating a countless number of opportunities for all types of exchange including ensuring the free flow of oil.
Having classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the United States refuses to negotiate directly. Until 1988, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Arafat had a similar label, which ruled out direct U.S. involvement, thereby making it impossible for serious peace negotiations to advance. Under these circumstances, it was Japan that acted as the diplomatic conduit between the PLO and the industrialized world, in particular with the United States. The first PLO office established in the industrialized world was in Japan. From there many important declarations were made and negotiations were held. Today, the PLO is recognized as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and although peace has not yet been achieved, there is no denying that progress has been made.
Southern Lebanon has been a constant battleground, but positive change has also taken place there and Japan has played an important role. In 1998, the then Japanese Foreign Minister, Mr. Komura, proposed a plan of withdrawal for Israeli forces that had occupied this area since 1982. In 1999, Israel withdrew its forces from most of the area. However, clashes between Hezbollah guerillas and Israeli defense forces continue, with abductions, destruction and death occurring on a frequent, if not daily basis.
The visit by Japanese diplomats to the Hezbollah leader was made with the objective of stopping the fighting and ultimately resolving the core causes of the conflict. Hezbollah is knowingly backed by Iran, a government with which Japan possesses good channels of communication. As such, Japan is well placed to play a key role in bringing the warring parties together so that they can negotiate a settlement, the benefits of which, will not be limited to those directly involved but will extend far beyond.
To some of us, the criteria used by mainstream media to classify events as newsworthy or marginal remains a mystery, for this unreported meeting will contribute its lot to the making of history.