Japan and the Middle East: Part Four – Japan bets on Middle East peace
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas left Tokyo on Tuesday 17 May after a high-profile three-day visit during which Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged US$100 million in new aid to the Palestinians. This is a significant donation given that Japan is already one of the biggest financial backers of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and indicates Tokyo's determination to play a significant role in the Middle East peace process. Koizumi also announced an offer to host a three-way summit involving the Palestinian president and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as his intention to visit the Palestinian Territories in the near future.
At a joint press conference with Abbas, Koizumi declared, "Japan will give all the support it can give." Abbas said the Palestinians "deeply appreciate Japan's financial support and great contribution". Japanese news agency Kyodo quoted Abbas as saying, "I hold expectations that Japan will continue its support for Palestine, not only financially, but also politically by playing a role that would contribute to the Middle East peace process."
A senior Japanese diplomat commented, "These substantial new funds clearly demonstrate Japan's firm commitment to the Middle East peace process. In accordance with international agreements, we want to help establish an independent Palestinian state co-existing in peace with a secure Israel." He added, "Peaceful coexistence between the two peoples lies at the core of Japanese policy and resources are allocated on this principle."
The new aid is for improving the lives of ordinary Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and reviving the moribund Palestinian economy. Japan hopes the money will be spent rebuilding basic infrastructure such as housing, roads and sewage. Tokyo also announced its intention to resume direct assistance to the PA for the first time since 2000.
This new Palestinian aid package has three main objectives: (i) To strengthen Tokyo's chances of playing a key role in any Middle East peace agreement; (ii) To add momentum to its bid for a permanent United Nations Security Council seat, which Abbas publicly supports; and (iii) To restore Tokyo's once glittering Middle East reputation, which took a pounding after Koizumi dispatched troops on a humanitarian mission to Iraq.
A significant portion of Japan's oil comes from the Middle East, and Tokyo is determined to maintain good relations with all countries in the region, despite its close ties to the US and support for President George W Bush's Iraq policy. This dual strategy has been surprisingly successful, allowing Tokyo to strike a major oil deal with Iran despite it being part of the US's "axis of evil" and a bitter opponent of the Iraq invasion.
The $100 million in aid comes on top of the $60 million in special assistance Japan gave the Palestinians last November, after the death of former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. That donation brought Tokyo's total assistance for fiscal 2004 to $90 million. Since the Oslo accords of 1993 it has pledged about $760 million in development assistance to the PA and is also a major aid donor to neighboring countries such as Jordan. Since 1974 Tokyo has provided Amman with more than $1.8 billion in soft loans, as well as an integrated economic aid package worth over $400 million in recent years.
Israel wary of international initiatives
Abbas' visit marks his first trip to Tokyo since assuming the Palestinian presidency. His election as leader in January and the expected unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza, now rescheduled for mid-August, have injected new momentum into Japanese Middle East initiatives.
However, despite Tokyo's substantial financial contributions, some Israeli experts believe the current public mood in Israel is highly suspicious of any outside assistance, "even if it is American and especially if it is not American". This climate may hinder Japanese efforts to become more closely involved in the peace process.
Dr Mark Heller, director of research at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, described the Israeli attitude to international assistance offers: "There is a general high level of, almost abstract rejection of, the entire idea or at least a very great degree of skepticism and cynicism about it."
A senior Japanese diplomat closely involved with Tokyo's Middle East policy brushed aside such views. He commented, "We expect the Sharon disengagement plan will create genuine new momentum in the peace process and a new mood amongst the people on both sides. If we can revive the Palestinian economy and improve living standards, we will help create a whole new dynamic."
Optimism about disengagement is not universally shared. Fred Halliday, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and author of several books on the Middle East, is dismissive of the entire idea, believing disengagement will not fundamentally alter the equation. He said, "The Sharon plan is a fake. Let's be clear on this, it is a fake. There is no commitment from Sharon for meeting the minimum demands of the Palestinian people."
Tokyo hopes to host trilateral summit
Tokyo's assessment is certainly more positive, and in recent years it has invested considerable diplomatic time and energy as well as substantial financial resources into developing its own Middle East peace strategy.
Abbas' visit was originally envisaged as part of a more ambitious trilateral meeting with Ariel Sharon. However, despite a concerted effort, Tokyo was unable to arrange it. Undaunted, both leaders were invited to Tokyo separately. Sharon is expected to visit Japan in June.
Koizumi repeated his hope to mediate a tripartite meeting with Abbas and Sharon to discuss the peace process. He signaled his intention to raise the subject with Sharon when he visits Japan. However, he set no specific date for the proposed three-way talks. He said Abbas had already agreed to participate. The Palestinian leader told the media, "I am always ready to meet [with Sharon]."
As part of its Middle East initiatives, Tokyo has already hosted two Israeli-Palestinian working-level meetings since 2003. The objective is to generate trust between lawmakers and policy experts from each side. The third meeting is scheduled to be held this summer.
As a sign of the importance Tokyo attached to its peace efforts, Abbas' visit was given extensive media coverage. He appeared on numerous TV news programs and gave prominent media interviews.
Besides his audience with Koizumi, Abbas met with several other senior figures, including Sadako Ogata, president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Nobutaka Machimura, the Japanese foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, and Crown Prince Naruhito.
During his visit, the Palestinian leader repeatedly emphasized his commitment to the peace process and Palestinian democracy. He told the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, "July 17 parliamentary elections will go ahead as planned." It had been thought they might be delayed because of fears of possible gains by the radical Islamist group Hamas.
Abbas stressed that to achieve a comprehensive and lasting peace, Israel must completely withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, cease the expansion of Jewish settlements, and halt the construction of the controversial West Bank security barrier, which Abbas denounced as an "Apartheid wall".
Before departing Tokyo on Tuesday afternoon for a three-day visit to Beijing, Abbas indicated that the existing Palestinian diplomatic mission in Tokyo might be upgraded to a full-fledged embassy. Currently, due to limited resources, the PA only has a very restricted presence in Tokyo.
Abbas also invited Koizumi to pay a visit to the Palestinian Territories in the near future. The prime minister immediately responded by saying he would go at the earliest possible opportunity, indicating Tokyo's belief that it will play a significant role in helping resolve the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. A different version of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 18 May 2005, http://www.atimes.com, and is republished with permission.