Japan, a "Neutral" Arbiter in Israel/Palestine?
John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)
Over the past few days, a torrent of articles have speculated on whether or not Japan is going to host a summit between Israel's prime minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. On March 10, Japanese and Israeli news agencies confirmed that Israel's vice prime-minister, Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Quorei will indeed meet in Tokyo on April 12. However, official sources have yet to verify that their visit is in preparation for a possible get-together between Sharon and Abbas in Japan during late May or early June.
In a period characterized as "a moment of promise for peace in the Middle East," Japan seems eager to play an important role in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. In his comments to Kyodo News, Prime minister Koizumi indicated that he wants to convey "Japan's idea on the Middle East peace process to both leaders." To that end he has insisted that Japan is willing to support the process on an "independent" footing. Koizumi stressed that "Japan can provide support and cooperation in a different way from the US and Europe." The Associated Press, which has produced most of the articles speculating on the likelihood of a summit in Japan, offered the perspective that Japan's "neutrality" gave it credibility to arbitrate between the conflicting positions. This is likely the line of reasoning that the Japanese government hopes to convey.
Obviously there are a number of practical issues that need to be resolved before a "summit" can be held. First of all, Sharon's government has to survive a vote on the state budget. A failure to pass the budget in the Knesset could mean an end to Sharon's tenure as prime minister and put a halt to potential peace negotiations. There are also significant questions regarding Abbas' grip on power. Although the London Conference and public endorsements from international political figures, including US president Bush, have sought to attach an aura of legitimacy to Abbas' leadership, his support at home remains tenuous and his ability to sell an agreement to his people is in doubt.
In addition to these obstacles, Israel definitely has a number of reservations regarding the idea of Japan playing a more than economic role in the negotiations. Despite claims to the contrary, Japan is not viewed as a "neutral" arbiter. Among Israeli officials, Japan is perceived to be "pro-Arab." This was the case even before Japan rejected an Israeli request for Japanese mediation in Israel's conflict with Egypt back in November 1956. This perception strengthened as Japan consistently sided with Asian-African countries at the UN supporting the Arab position on Palestine and adhered to the economic boycott of Israel more stringently than any other industrialized state. In the wake of the 1973 Oil Crisis, the Japanese government reiterated its support for Palestinian self-determination by issuing the Nikaido Statement in November 1973, which ultimately removed Japan from the list of oil embargoed states. Japan's de facto recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1976, which was marked by the opening of the PLO office in Tokyo, and its receiving of Yasser Arafat in Tokyo in 1981 simply reinforced this opinion.
In my interviews with Israeli diplomats and policy makers, disappointment is the sentiment most expressed when describing Israel-Japan relations. While recognizing that Japan has the ability, personnel and power to do very great things if it wants to and desires to show that it is objective, these same officials complain of Japan's "addiction to the Arabs." Israel recognizes that Japan has and can play an important role in helping to finance the peace process and there is widespread understanding among Israeli officials that a viable peace means a functioning Palestinian economy and society, however, due to Japan's historic orientation, I doubt that Israel would want Japan to involve itself beyond a bankrolling function.
Israeli attitudes towards Japan may be changing as a result of the burgeoning trade relationship between Japan and Israel. Reports indicate that Japan is Israel's second largest trading partner in Asia. Furthermore, Israeli exports to Japan grew by thirty-two percent while imports from Japan jumped forty-four percent in 2004. Business journals, such as the Daily International Pharma Alert and Globes (Israel's Business Arena) indicate that Japanese are seeking opportunities to collaborate with Israel in the biotech area. This, in addition to Japan's recent commitment to double the amount of trade between the two countries from an annual worth of $1.8 billion to $3 billion in the near future may be having an impact on Israel.
Before Japan comes to be regarded as a "neutral" party in Israel, however, it will have to disengage from its UN centered policy. The majority of Japan's aid to the Palestinians is channeled through UN programs and it has long advocated that UN resolutions be observed. For instance, Japan has yet to back down on its commitment to the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 242, which calls for (albeit ambiguously) Israel's withdrawal to 1967 borders, a condition that Sharon rejects.
Japan can support peace and development in Israel/Palestine in ways that heavily implicated US and Europe cannot. However, unless Koizumi's suggestion of an "independent" position and his vision for peace in the Middle East means a distancing of Japan from the United Nations and a rejection of Japan's historic position on the conflict, it is hard to imagine Israel seeing Japan as a "neutral" party.