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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #150: January 20, 2005

Japan has Vested Interest in Peace between Israel and Palestine

John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)

Japan became the first country to send a high level delegation to Israel and Palestine following the Palestinian elections of January 9, 2005, when Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) garnered sixty-two percent of the popular vote. Japan's foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura visited with Israeli and Palestinian leaders just one week later (January 16-18), punctuating Japan's commitment to playing an active part in restarting peace negotiations between the two. Media reports covering Manchimura's visit were sparse and gave few details, however, from the little information available it is possible to state that Japan's government recognizes that it has a stake in resolving the Israel/Palestinian conflict.

Not only did Japan send its foreign minister to establish a political presence in Israel/Palestine during what is considered to be a period of "hope" and "opportunity." The foreign minister also took with him $60 million in aid to support Abbas' Palestinian National Authority (PNA). In doing so, Japan matched its largest annual aid allocation to the PNA totaling $90 million for 2004 (the largest since 1996). Politically, Machimura put his government's full weight behind Abu Mazen's leadership. On Palestinian TV and radio he spoke about insisting on a "just," "comprehensive" and "real" peace, knowing full well that each of these terms possess special significance for the Palestinian people. At minimum, the political and financial backing provided by the Japanese government should help sustain Abbas and revive a number of key services that the PNA has been unable to provide over the past several years.

With the Israeli leadership, Machimura seems to have also struck the right note. While Japan's relationship with the Israeli government has never been smooth, his commitment to almost doubling the amount of trade between the two countries from an annual worth of $1.8 billion to $3 billion is significant, particularly for an Israeli economy that has been struggling for a long time. The foreign minister also condemned the violence perpetrated by suicide bombers and armed groups on the Palestinian side that led to the death of several Israeli soldiers during his stay.

Demonstrating that Japan's commitment to peace in the Middle East is not limited to financial aid and political backing, two days prior to Machimura's arrival in the region, the Japanese government renewed the Self-Defense Force (SDF) peacekeeping mission on the Golan Heights (UNDOF) for another six months. The message that the Japanese government was likely trying to get across to Israelis, Palestinians and for that matter the entire Middle East was that Japan's support for a peace process is comprehensive and immediate. Although there is clear recognition that Japan will not and cannot attempt to urge both parties to the negotiation table alone, Japan has provided a large number of incentives for both sides to take that step.

Japan has much at stake in the Middle East Peace Process. Since 1991, Japan has made a deliberate attempt to involve itself in what is likely the most high profile and prolonged conflict that the world has ever seen since World War II. Japan was originally not invited to attend the Madrid Peace Conference, held shortly after the 1991 Gulf War. However, after much insistence and lobbying, it was allowed to participate and ended up playing a key role. Japan's input was particularly beneficial on the Multilateral Track where Japan chaired the Environment Working Group, formulated the Environmental Code of Conduct and helped establish a Middle East Mediterranean Travel and Tourism Association, the first institution assembled as part of the "Peace Process."

Japan's motivation for getting and staying involved is three fold. First, it lies in the Japanese government's desire to rid itself of the image it was pinned with following its initial refusal to send troops to aid the US led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War. Japan seeks to secure an impression that it is a global "humanitarian" power worthy of permanent representation at the United Nations Security Council. Japan is urgently trying to prevent its reputation in the Middle East, which has been very positive up until late, from getting tarnished by its participation in the occupation of Iraq. Originally conceptualized as a "humanitarian mission," Japan has been unable to make a positive impact in Iraq and is increasingly being viewed as a pawn of US foreign policy. While the Japanese government insists that it is trying to promote modes of "modernization without Westernization" (see Media Reviews #145 and #144) in Iraq, growing instability, violence and turmoil has placed Japan between a rock and a hard place: unable to disengage due to the fear of US wrath and unable to fully engage due to the fear that its soldiers will be killed. Japan is hoping that a very public contribution to peace between Israel and Palestine will play well with Arabs and Muslims around the globe. Government officials are eager to realize that the latest public demonstration of solidarity with the situation in Palestine and the extension of badly needed aid will moderate public opinion toward its occupying presence in Iraq.

A second motivation and concern that Japan seeks to address is the issue of Israel's arms trade with what are increasingly being perceived in Japan as "threatening" neighbors. While not mentioning any names, Machimura was quoted in the press as having requested Israel to stop its arms sales to the Far East. Beyond any doubt, Japan's main worry rests with Israeli arms transfers to China, which have been growing substantially as of late despite US concerns and warnings against such deals. Similar requests have been made by Japan to the European Union, which most recently lifted the ban on arms sales to China. In response to Machimura's request, the Xinhua News Agency reported on January 17 that Japan is seeking to expand its defensive cooperation with Israel. While this allegation may be suspect, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Japan and Israel would seek to meet their goal of nearly doubling bi-lateral trade in part through arms sales. Japan is extremely interested in studying the only functional anti-ballistic missile defense system (Arrow), deployed in Israel, as it prepares to engage in developing a more extensive system with the US. Good relations with Israel could give Japan more leverage over potential arms transfers to the Far East and thereby, limit the types and amount of weapons systems acquired by China. Investing in Israel may help Japan turn around its image among Israeli leaders as pro-Arab country and win over Israeli allegiance and friendship.

Japan's contribution to a potential peace between the people of Israel and Palestine is guided by national interest. In addition to two factors mentioned above, a stable Middle East, which has the resolution of the Israel/Palestinian conflict as a prerequisite, is an absolute priority for a heavily oil dependent Japan. Resource poor Japan continues to rely on the Middle East as the main supplier of its oil needs and Japan has a vested interested in maintaining a steady and secure supply of oil.

As this article has demonstrated, the Israel/Palestinian conflict is both directly and indirectly linked to Japan's well being and national prestige. As such, it is likely that we will witness a continued engagement of Japan's political, financial and military capital toward the goal of jump-starting peace negotiations, promoting stability in the Middle East and if possible, achieving a just peace for both sides.

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