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Commentary (March 22, 2005)

Japan's Growing Role in the Middle East Peace Process

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

As life and possibilities finally return to the long-dormant Middle East peace process, Japan is making a determined effort to ensure that Tokyo plays a key role in any settlement, demonstrating its larger and more effective role on the world stage. In its latest and boldest initiative, Tokyo has offered to host a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the end of May or in early June. Japan currently enjoys strong economic and political ties with both sides and is regarded by both as a reliable neutral party, an honest broker, impartial and disinterested in anything but peace.

Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath told Asia Times Online, "We are very positive towards Japanese involvement, and for a long time we have advocated a greater Japanese presence." Professor Ehud Harari, an expert on Japan-Israeli relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, commented, "Israel has welcomed a rising profile of Japanese engagement in Middle Eastern affairs."

After announcing on March 9 the proposed Tokyo summit, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi underscored Tokyo's strong commitment to assisting both sides as a neutral party, saying, "The momentum has been born to advance the Middle East peace process, and Japan is willing to support it on an independent position."

While Japan's image as an unbiased player is a highly prized commodity, its most vital asset is that both Israelis and Palestinians regard Tokyo as trustworthy, an increasingly rare status in the notoriously difficult negotiations.

At the moment, the leading international players are the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, which make up the quartet that devised the now virtually shredded "roadmap to peace", two states living side by side. However, each is hampered by either Israeli or Palestinian suspicions, creating an ideal opening for Japan. Professor Harari explained: "When the Palestinians distrusted the US and Israel distrusted the United Nations and the European Union, both sides held Japan's role in the International Working Groups, set up in the wake of the 1991 Madrid Conference, in very high regard." He added, "Japanese diplomats and officials from related ministries and agencies won Israeli and Arab respect for their enthusiasm, even-handedness, and professional and social skills."

Today, Japan's involvement is seen by both sides as an essential element in any successful outcome, a view particularly strong among Palestinians. Afif Safieh, the Palestinian envoy to the United Kingdom, told Asia Times Online, "It is my hope that we can create the momentum needed to achieve progress with the help of outside third parties like Japan. Without the assistance of outside parties, I think it will be difficult to advance the process. If we are left to ourselves, we will not get anywhere."

Japan is keen to be seen as playing a leading role in helping to resolve this high-profile dispute. Japanese involvement is considered a key component in Tokyo's efforts to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as it aspires to play a larger, more effective and beneficial role on the world stage. The Japanese Foreign Ministry vigorously denies that self-interest is the major motivating factor. One senior Japanese diplomat told Asia Times Online, "Japan is not doing it in order to gain a UN Security Council seat. Remember, the Palestinians do not have a [UN] vote." However, it is undeniable that playing a successful role in resolving the decades-long Middle East dispute would greatly boost Tokyo's chances of winning a seat on the most powerful UN body. The reform and reconfiguration of the 15-member Security Council - a snapshot of the world after World War II - is far from being decided.

Tripartite Tokyo summit likely
On March 9, the Israeli and Palestinian envoys to Japan met Koizumi separately at his office to formally accept invitations extended earlier for their leaders to visit Tokyo. After their individual audiences, both Israeli ambassador Eli Cohen, and his Palestinian counterpart, envoy Waleed Siam, responded positively to Koizumi's overtures.

Reflecting Jerusalem's current thinking, ambassador Cohen highlighted Japan's financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority and its good business relations with Israel, observing that they "can be fruitful to Japan's efforts to strengthen the peace between the two sides in the region". He also emphasized what are seen as some of Tokyo's advantages, describing it is "far away from the conflict and appreciated by both sides, Palestinians as well as the Israelis." Currently, Japan is providing the largest amount of on-the-ground financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

Cohen's remarks are of particular importance because he is considered a highly influential figure due to his close personal friendship with Sharon and the Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Siam, the Palestinian envoy to Japan, was also optimistic, remarking, "The personal initiative of the [Japanese] prime minister has brought it upon both parties to come to Japan and talk, and to find a solution, an equal solution." However, his remarks carry less weight than Cohen's because the Palestinian Authority only has a very limited representation in Tokyo.

An upbeat Koizumi explained why he wanted to see both men in person, "I myself want to convey Japan's idea on the Middle East peace process to both leaders."

haron is provisionally scheduled to visit Tokyo in late May or early June, a timeframe that would coincide with Abbas' itinerary. The Japanese Foreign Ministry was careful to stress that the primary purpose for inviting both leaders was not a possible tripartite summit, but an informed source has told Asia Times Online that the true objective is a trilateral summit that Koizumi would chair as mediator. Israeli and Palestinian officials are already busy making tentative preparations for the conference.

On March 10, it was confirmed that Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei would attend a meeting in Tokyo on April 12.

The agenda for the meeting has not been completed, but a well-placed source said, "Everything depends on how events unfold on the ground over the coming month. If Abbas can keep the activities of Palestinian militants under check and he continues to display a sincere commitment to Israeli security concerns, then this meeting will probably give Japan its opportunity to become a key player." However, the source, speaking on condition of anonymity, cautioned, "In the Middle East a lot can happen in a month, I think the Japanese understand this and are dampening down expectations until they can confirm things."

Japan's Middle East plans
If peace does emerge, the Japanese Foreign Ministry already has a set of comprehensive and phased policies on how to implement its multi-pronged Palestinian assistance proposals, the primary thrust of which is economic. It is difficult to summarize the highly detailed plans, but they fall into four broad categories:

1) Helping revive the Palestinian economy with financial aid to lift Palestinian living standards;
2) Improving Palestinian administrative and organizational structures by training Palestinian officials;
3) Improving the general Palestinian environment by repairing and upgrading sewage disposal, water supply, waste collection, street cleaning, and other services;
4) Supporting peace-building and conflict-prevention measures.

Asia Times Online can also reveal that over the past year a top Japanese diplomat has made numerous trips to the Palestinian territories to see what concrete measures Japan can rapidly implement on the ground in order to quickly improve the environment for Palestinians. A speedy implementation of these measures would markedly boost any nascent peace agreement.

One of the main problems with past accords is that ordinary Palestinians did not see any tangible improvements in their daily lives, thus sapping the vital support needed to sustain momentum. A senior Japanese diplomat, who did not wish to be identified, said, "We have to try to revive the Palestinian economy. There is an enormous gap between the two sides, narrowing it will be a key factor if we are to be successful."

Provisional estimates for 2004 show that Japan was the major financial contributor to the Palestinian Authority, something greatly appreciated by ordinary Palestinians. Its economic ties with Israel have also been on an upward curve.

Dr John de Boer, a Japan-studies fellow at the Stanford Institute for International Studies, noted, "Reports indicate that Japan is Israel's second-largest trading partner in Asia." He added, "Israeli exports to Japan grew by 32% while imports from Japan jumped 44% in 2004. 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."

Professor Harari is positive about Japanese proposals and hopes they can be expanded to include an Israeli element. He suggested, "In addition to propping up the Palestinian Authority, help to empower Palestinian organizations of civil society, by means tailor-made for each organization, and providing democracy-oriented leadership training in which both young Israelis and Palestinians participate."

Strong regional support for Japan
Another power card in Tokyo's arsenal is the fact that it is highly regarded in the Arab world, enjoying strong economic and political ties with all countries in the region. For example, Japan is one of the largest providers of financial assistance to Jordan, a key player in any peace deal. Saker Malkawi, deputy head of the Jordanian Embassy in London, summed up regional sentiment, "I think that Japan has an important role to play in the peace process." He added, "On both the public and political front Japan is viewed very favorably. Ordinary Jordanians have a great respect for Japan. It's a popular country and a friend of Jordan and the Middle East."

Although the dispatch of Japanese troops on a humanitarian mission to Iraq upset some in the region, skillful diplomacy by Tokyo has managed to limit the fallout. Even Iran, which is the most vocal opponent of Japanese involvement in Iraq, has maintained good ties with Tokyo and even sounds mildly positive about Japanese involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On the subject, Dr Seyed Mohammad Hossein Adeli, Tehran's United Kingdom ambassador and its former ambassador to Japan, told Asia Times Online, "In situations of crisis, we wish whichever country that wants to mediate in a situation of international crisis good luck."

The United States also supports Japanese efforts. One America diplomat commented, "We are very pleased by the Japanese initiatives. I wish other nations would follow their example."

Breakdown and breakthrough divide thin
Despite these positive signs, not all experts believe Japan is well positioned to make a significant contribution. Dr de Boer of Stanford said: "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'."

He explains, "Israel recognizes that Japan has played 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."

Harari is far more upbeat, believing Japan-Israeli relations are in great shape. He argues, "Since the late 1980s, and especially after the 1991 Gulf War and Madrid Peace Conference, and the 1993 Oslo Accords, Japan's relations with Israel have improved beyond recognition."

However, while Japan's star is rising in Jerusalem, the general public knows little of its growing influence. A prominent Israeli broadcaster, who did not wish to be identified, observed, "In all honesty, Japan's involvement in the peace process is not really something most ordinary Israelis give any thought to. It is just not covered in the Israeli media. But on an international level, things are quite different. In diplomatic circles Japan is increasingly being seen as a key player. The significant factor in its favor is that Japan is trusted by both sides."

One seasoned diplomat believes Japan's contribution will probably be significant, but cautioned, "In the Middle East, the difference between breakdown and breakthrough is wafer thin."

Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 17 March 2005,, and is republished with permission.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications