Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

From Tokyo to Tel Aviv

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By Yehonathan Tommer


Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s four-day visit to Japan in late February re-emphasised the increasingly warm and intimate ties developing between Israel and Japan in recent years. The growing warmth reflects interlocking economic synergies reinforced by more than a decade of practical Japanese support for the US-led Middle East peacemaking process.

In their joint statement, the two governments noted that their meetings had been “constructive and forward looking.” They expressed “satisfaction with the steady progress of bilateral ties” and underscored a “determination to further strengthen cordial bonds through enhanced dialogue and cooperation at all levels.”

The two governments resolved to form a joint working group to submit a report recommending further action and to explore joint scientific and technological activities at a projected meeting in Tokyo this year. They also resolved to utilise Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations to broaden people-to-people cultural exchanges between their two countries.

The joint Japanese-Israeli statement on deepening bilateral ties reflects an “understanding and agreement on all major issues of concern to Israel,” says Yitzhak Shoham, director of the Foreign Ministry’s East Asian division. It emphasises that “economic relations are a driving force for strengthening partnership,” and sets clear guidelines for upgrading ties, joint business ventures and scientific, technological and space cooperation, as well as for cooperation in trade and investment, industry, tourism and environment. Direct flights between Tokyo and Tel Aviv are also envisaged.

Olmert was accompanied by 20 leading Israeli industrialists and business people who held “serious discussions” with 80 Japanese counterparts at a day-long Japan-Israel business forum. Many expressed interest in doing business with their Israeli counterparts.

The current trade balance at US$2.9 billion distinctly favours Japan. In 2007, Israeli imports from Japan totalled US$2.1 billion for which automobile imports accounted for US$1 billion. Israeli exports to Japan totaled US$800 million.

Israel anticipates a flurry of commercial expansion, especially in hi-tech ventures, components and manufacturing and production where Israeli R&D and technology know-how has an edge and can be incorporated into Japanese products. This type of partnership is already common between Israeli businessmen and their Indian and Chinese counterparts.


Understanding Israeli dilemmas

“A decade or more ago, Japanese leaders did not see the Middle East in all its full perspectives,” says Shoham. “It wasn’t easy to win their sympathetic ear to our problems. Today this is quite different. During Olmert’s visit the Japanese expressed an understanding for the volatile situation in Gaza and our response to terrorist attacks on Israel’s civilian population. At the same, they expressed a genuine concern for the civilian suffering and Palestinian humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.”

Fewer than 10,000 Japanese tourists and students visit Israel annually. “The man in-the street knows little about Israel and generally accepts the mass media image of it as a dangerous place,” says Hebrew University Japanese scholar Nissim Otzmazgin. “Senior Japanese officials who shape Tokyo’s foreign and economic policies, however, pay attention and are closely informed of developments in Israel and the region.”

In a frank question-answer interview with Haaretz a week before the Israeli visit, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda responded in detail to the paper’s probe of Japan’s attitude to radical Islam, Hamas, Palestinian terrorism and Israeli responses to it, as well as Japan’s role in the peace negotiations renewed in the Annapolis framework last November.

Japanese understanding of Israeli dilemmas was uppermost. There were no direct disagreements and no condemnation of Israeli policies, apart from a broad cautioning against actions which aggravate humanitarian conditions or increase Palestinian suffering in the territories. On the contrary, Israel and the Palestinian Authority were urged to press on with negotiations for a final status agreement.

Only the PA, led by Abu Mazen and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, is a partner for talks with Israel, says the Japanese Prime Minister, reaffirming the Quartet’s three conditions for engaging with Hamas: recognition of Israel, acceptance of all previously signed agreements with the PLO, and dismantlement of all terrorist infrastructures.

Like his Indian and Chinese counterparts, Japan’s special Middle East envoy, Tatsuoi Arima, has no influential role and does not have powers to act like the Quartet envoy Tony Blair. Arima visits the region periodically, meets with senior officials, passes on messages and reports back to his government. “No attempt is made by these Asian envoys to interfere in the process,” says Shoham.

Japan also supports the American and Israeli stand against nuclear proliferation and the Iranian nuclear enrichment program and backs all United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing international economic sanctions against Iran. “The Japanese are concerned and closely follow developments,” Shoham said. “We have no doubts that they will implement the sanctions.”


Tokyo’s Economic and Political Incentives

The Japanese economy has been treading water for the past two decades. Products which were once famed for their sophistication, progressiveness and efficiency are being manufactured and sold cheaper around the world by South Korean, Chinese and Indian power houses. Japanese businessmen have realised that to regain their export edge over Asian competitors they must become innovative and produce new types of advanced products especially in the fields of hi-tech manufacturing where American and Israeli intellectual and scientific knowhow is preeminent, says Hebrew University expert Prof. Ben-Ami Shillony. He adds that Israel is admiringly seen as a ‘technological superpower’. In the future, he foresees “increasing Japanese-Israeli R&D partnerships in developing and manufacturing advanced medical equipment, bio and nano technologies and their applications, computers and communications.”

Close economic ties with Israel, Tokyo believes, can also help Japan retain its political influence in American corridors of power as an insurance policy against rival US interests in the Pacific in the event of any future Japanese tensions with China or North Korea, adds Shillony.

Since the 1993 Oslo Accords Japan has become the single biggest donor (through the UN and other organisations) to Palestinian social and economic development projects. As an active facilitator in the Middle East peacemaking process and participant in UN and multinational peace-keeping forces, Japan contributes a small force on the Golan Heights, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, says Shillony, “Japan is building its case for a seat among the permanent five on the UN Security Council.”


Facilitating Palestinian and regional development

Japanese perceptions of the Middle East conflict and the necessity for a two-state solution correspond to American and European views. This is a far cry from its one-sided, pro-Arab positions two decades ago. Tokyo is also the single biggest international donor to Palestinian development with financial assistance allocated by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for building schools, hospitals and medical assistance and establishing governing institutions in the West Bank. Economic development strengthens political stability which, in Japan’s view, facilitates efforts to negotiate a diplomatic solution.

Since 1993, Japan has donated more than US$900 million for Palestinian development. It is currently sponsoring the creation of an agro-industrial park in the Jericho area. This is one of at least nine ambitious regional development projects partnering Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan in the Jordan Valley-Dead Sea-Arava Corridor.

The 12 hectare agro-industrial park, near the town of Jericho, will be under Palestinian Authority municipal jurisdiction and will include a packing station. Road access to the King Hussein (Allenby) Bridge crossing to Jordan is to be further expanded and refurbished, including a new airstrip and terminal to be built on the Jordanian side to air freight Palestinian agricultural produce to the Persian Gulf states, said Dani Ronen, the Israeli project director. “Palestinian entrepreneurs will be invited to invest in related industries, manufacturing and R&D to help create thousands of new jobs for local Palestinians.”

The project has reached its advanced planning stage. The Japanese are involved in the meticulous details and are pushing hard for groundbreaking in 2009, said Ronen.

Not all the knots have been unravelled, said Bashar Juma, the Palestinian project director. Lawsuits claiming compensation for expropriation of private Palestinian land are awaiting cabinet approval in Ramallah. The airport site is also undecided. The Palestinians prefer a central location accessible to most West Bank farmers, further north on the Jordanian side opposite the presently closed Dahaniya Bridge river crossing, which would require expansion and modernisation.

Israeli security considerations affecting access and freedom of movement are also at issue, says Juma. “Foreign ministry officials, though, tend to be more flexible on Palestinian positions than their defence ministry counterparts.”

The four governments, represented by their experts, receive progress reports at regular three monthly meetings. The latest round occurred in Jericho in April.


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