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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (December 21, 2004)

Japan Seeks Bigger Middle East Role

Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

As signs of life slowly return to the long-comatose Middle East peace process, Tokyo is working hard to make a positive contribution to regional stability. Because it is a close ally of the United States and for decades has also enjoyed an excellent relationship with the Arab world, Japan occupies a unique position, one it increasingly wants to utilize with both Palestinians and Israelis.

Demonstrating regard for Japan and its diplomatic and financial credentials, King Abdullah II of Jordan met with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Monday in Tokyo, and Koizumi announced a grant of US$40 million for Jordan to help implement development projects next year for the nation's large Palestinian refugee population. Koizumi also reaffirmed his commitment to the Middle East peace process, a shredded "roadmap" that may be reconstructed after the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and forthcoming elections for a new Palestinian Authority.

Both the Palestinians and Israelis view Japan's efforts very favorably. Nabil Shaath, the minister of foreign affairs for the Palestinian Authority, told Asia Times Online, "As Palestinians, we are very much for global Japanese participation and I think the Japanese themselves are very willing to fulfill this role."

In a separate interview with Asia Times Online, Israel's new ambassador to the United Kingdom, Zvi Heifetz, was also warm to the idea of Japan's involvement in the peace process. "I think the Japanese contribution is completely sincere, they really want to help," he said.

However, Japanese involvement in the Middle East is not without its perils. Tokyo's dispatch of troops to Iraq has tarnished its once-gleaming regional credentials, and the recent decision to extend that deployment for one year is domestically unpopular, sending Koizumi's poll ratings tumbling to their lowest level since he came to power in April 2001. And despite its humanitarian mission, the troop deployment and extension have not won international points for Japan except with the US and the UK.

In a determined effort to restore its Middle East reputation and reassure its own public, Tokyo has been offering financial aid to the Palestinians and moderate Arab states, as well as engaging in other related diplomatic activities. Its actions also are motivated by a strong desire to raise its global profile, adding momentum to its bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

This year, Japan already has pledged US$10 million to the newly created World Bank trust fund to support the Palestinian Authority, $10 million for the Greater Middle East Initiative education projects and almost $5 million in aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The Japanese Foreign Ministry also has hosted a three-day Israel-Palestine confidence-building conference in Tokyo, which provided leading figures from both sides an opportunity for face-to-face discussions, far away from regional pressures.

King Abdullah II's visit this week is part of Japan's efforts to promote Middle East peace. Jordan has a large Palestinian population and is the main recipient of Japan's aid to countries in the Middle East. In 2003, Tokyo gave the kingdom a grant of $100 million to help overcome economic and social problems resulting from the Iraq war - the conflict made cross-border trade impossible, as did the first Gulf War. Since 1974 Tokyo has provided Jordan with $1.8 billion in soft loans, in addition to an integrated economic aid package worth $400 million over the past three years.

Japan aims to revive Palestinian economy
The main thrust of Japanese energies has been its attempts to revive the battered Palestinian economy, a move Israel views positively. Describing Japanese efforts, Ambassador Heifetz said, "I would welcome any support that it can give to the Palestinian Authority to help their economic recovery. I think that if their economy recovers and order is established, then this will create a better atmosphere for negotiations."

Palestinians also are highly appreciative of Japanese assistance, said Hanna Siniora, chairman of the European Palestinian Chamber of Commerce. "Japan has been one of the major contributors to the Palestinian Authority and we sincerely hope that we will be able to help develop our business links to Japan and Southeast Asia." He added, "We are very grateful for the assistance the Japanese have given and are giving to the Palestinian people. They are very supportive of the Palestinian economy and a range of other activities. They are actually hosting one of the multilateral committees that concerns the environment of our region."

Even those who are skeptical about the effectiveness of Japan's current Middle East strategy concede Japan has made a substantial contribution. Dr John de Boer, a Japan-studies fellow at the Stanford Institute for International Studies, told Asia Times Online that between 1993 and August 2002, Japan was the single largest donor of aid to the Palestinian Authority, much of its assistance going to build a much-needed social-services infrastructure. "Unfortunately, since August 2002, much of what was built with Japanese money has been destroyed as a result of Israeli 'incursions'," he said.

The Israeli government says it is unfair to blame Israel for all the economic woes of the Palestinians. It believes neighboring Arab countries could, if they wished to, do a great deal more to assist. Ambassador Heifetz said Japan's eagerness to help clearly illustrates this point. He told Asia Times Online, "The Japanese are proposing financial assistance and pledging their support. In contrast, it is very strange that the Arab countries are not more engaged in the process. I believe they could be both instrumental and helpful in assisting the Palestinian Authority in the process of economic recovery."

Palestinians want more Japanese input
The Palestinians regard Japan so highly that they have been calling for greater involvement from Tokyo and its inclusion in the highest level of negotiations. Foreign Minister Shaath explained to Asia Times Online: "Structurally, we really wanted Japan to be a member of the quartet [the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations that developed the roadmap for peace]. In fact, we advocated a quintet. But there was resistance from the Americans for including Japan."

He added, "I think Japan deserves very much to be a member of the quartet. Japan has now been invited to be a member of the task force around the quartet. Japan has also been a founding member of the HLC [High-Level Committee] providing economic support for the Palestinians and the peace process."

Shaath also highlighted Japanese diplomatic efforts in other areas. "Japan has contributed significantly to the so-called people-to-people programs, bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for dialogue in Japan," he said. In July Tokyo hosted an Israel-Palestine confidence-building forum. The three-day Foreign Ministry-sponsored event brought together former Israeli finance minister Dan Meridor and the Palestinian Authority minister for negotiation affairs, Saeb Erakat, for face-to-face discussions.

Recently, prominent Japanese lawmakers have been demanding that Japan play a more active role in resolving the conflict. Yukio Hatoyama, the foreign-affairs spokesman for the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan and its former leader, has called for Tokyo to get directly involved in the forthcoming Palestinian Authority election. On Monday he demanded, "Japan must dispatch an election-monitoring team."

Troops in Iraq tarnish Japan's image
While the Palestinian leadership supports the idea of greater Japanese participation, the country's image in the wider Arab world has suffered since it dispatched about 550 troops to Iraq last January, despite the mission being a strictly humanitarian one, focusing on reconstruction.

Many in the Middle East say Japan compromised its neutrality by openly supporting US President George W Bush's controversial Iraq policy and subsequently sending troops to that country. Dr Mamdouh Salameh, author of the highly influential report "Oil and Gas Development in Iran and Its Implications for Japan", sums up a view common across the Middle East. He told Asia Times Online, "I strongly believe that Japan can make a meaningful contribution to Middle East peace, but only if it does not toe too closely the American policy line.

"Japan is an economic superpower, and this fact should translate into great political power. Nevertheless, Japan's foreign policy is perceived in the Arab world as no more than an extension of US foreign policy. Only when it follows an independent foreign policy will it be able to exercise its global influence," Salameh said.

An alternative Arab view sees Japan as a victim, being forced to deploy troops against its will. Dr Buthaina Shaaban, a Syrian cabinet minister, told Asia Times Online in an interview this year (see Japan to polish its tarnished Middle East image, May 5), "I think the people of the Middle East are very politically savvy and they understand that probably Japan has perhaps been subjected to pressure. So people will forgive Japan for that."

Koizumi polls hurt by Iraq deployment extension
While many in the Middle East are forgiving, the Japanese electorate has not been so kind. The initial troop dispatch was immensely unpopular and partly blamed for the embarrassing loss suffered by Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party in this July's Upper House election. The recent decision to extend the mission has been even more unpopular, sending Koizumi's approval ratings into a nosedive.

A Mainichi newspaper poll taken immediately after the extension decision last week showed Koizumi's ratings plummet to their lowest level since he took office in April 2001. Only 37% said they supported his cabinet, while 45% said they did not. When specifically asked about the dispatch extension, 62% said they were against it, while only 3% were in favor. The survey also showed a massive 84% stating they didn't think Koizumi had offered enough information for justifying the continuation of the mission. An NHK poll produced similar results, also finding 62% of those surveyed opposing the extension, with just 28% in favor.

Dr Salameh, who is familiar with both Japan and the Middle East, said many Japanese want the country to chart a more independent Middle East policy, as it has done in the past. "Japan has shown in recent times that it can take decisions against American 'objections'," he said, "as it did when a consortium of Japanese companies reached agreement with Iran to develop the huge Azadegan oilfield despite strong opposition and threats from the United States. It can do the same by withdrawing its forces from Iraq."

Dr de Boer, the Japan-studies fellow at the Stanford Institute for International Studies, also said Japan needs to be more assertive if it wants to achieve any concrete results. He explained, "Japan has made political demands to the Israeli government before. Most recently it pressed hard for the Israeli government to transfer millions of dollars of tax money owed to the Palestinian Authority that it had withheld since September 2002, [and] a significant portion of this money was recently transferred. Today, Japan needs to press the Israeli government toward dismantling the separation wall" that Israel is building.

He added, "As the UN report ['The Impact of Israel's Separation Barrier on Affected West Bank Communities'] conservatively estimates, the separation wall will have tremendous and disastrous consequences upon Palestinian society and its economy, and no matter how much money the Japanese government pumps in, it is hard to imagine a viable Palestinian state with a separation wall."

Zalman Shoval, a close adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said such views ignore his country's legitimate security concerns and attach far too much blame to Israel and the US while completely ignoring the failings of the Arab world. Shoval said, "It's much easier, of course, to blame US imperialism or Israel's occupation of the territories for all the ills of the region, conveniently forgetting that there was a time when there hadn't been any occupation, rather than putting the finger on the real reasons such as economic and political stagnation, and technological backwardness and the culture of violence engendered by a totalitarian interpretation of Islam in some parts of the Arab and Islamic world."

Cautious optimism about prospects for peace
While the various parties remain bitterly divided over the causes of the decades-old conflict, there is almost universal agreement that the prospects for advancing the peace process are good and that Japan has a significant role to play. Since President Bush's re-election, his administration has strongly emphasized the need to move the moribund negotiations forward.

US Treasury Secretary John Snow recently told Asia Times Online, "Dealing with this issue is probably the central issue that can bring the world closer together. I know that the president is committed to doing what he can to make that happen."

He added, "I think now that there is an opportunity for following on with the ideas from the roadmap [the quartet-drafted Middle East peace plan], creating two states, respectful of each other, and a peaceful Middle East. The Israel-Palestine issue is a nexus. I know the president wants to do what he can do to help the peace process along. We look forward to the Palestinians choosing their new leadership structure."

Others also viewed the death of Arafat and Sharon's unilateral Gaza disengagement plan as positive signs. Ambassador Heifetz summed up this sentiment: "The re-election of President Bush, the departure of Mr Arafat and the disengagement plan create a positive atmosphere. I am very optimistic, but also realistic, so I must warn that nothing will happen overnight."

Middle East peace advantageous for Japan
The current alignment of circumstances creates a genuine opportunity for Japan to make a substantive contribution to helping resolve this long-running dispute. It also offers Tokyo a chance to display both its growing diplomatic influence and to utilize its unique regional status as a respected neutral party. Some also believe that it is in Japan's long-term economic interest to be actively involved in a just and lasting resolution of the bitter conflict.

"Japan needs Middle East oil, and this should be the key to bolstering its position there through investments in the oil sectors of the Middle East," Dr Salameh observed. "That will be possible when Japan can persuade the Arab people that it can use its huge economic weight to support the European Union's efforts to achieve peace in that troubled area of the world."

For ordinary Israelis and Palestinians alike, Japan is seen as a trusted and unbiased party, exactly the kind of intermediary needed to help push the difficult negotiations forward.

Mordechay Cristal, a member of the Israeli delegation to the Permanent Status Peace Talks at Camp David and Taba, said even-handed international involvement by countries such as Japan will be a key element in a successful outcome, something people in the region yearn for. He told Asia Times Online, "In the medium term, in five, six years, I believe we could reach a framework agreement for permanent status. Why? Because I talk and share with my colleagues, the Palestinians, Arabs, people of my generation in Israel. We are all willing to fight for a better future."

When recently discussing the situation in the Middle East, Koizumi said his policies in the region were "in accord with the spirit of Japan's 'desire to occupy an honored place in the international society', as stated in the Preamble of the Constitution of Japan". If Japan succeeds in helping to achieve a lasting Middle East peace, many feel it will have earned the right to a permanent seat of the UN Security Council.

Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 17 December 2004,, and is republished with permission.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications