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July 30, 2018 1:48 pm

Japan Has an Important Role in the Middle East — But Its Mixed Signals Are Confusing

avatar by Abraham Cooper and Ted Gover

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Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem, Monday, Dec. 25, 2017. Photo: Screenshot.

For 25 years, Japan has played an important role in the Middle East, primarily through its support of the economic and social development of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Since 1993, Japan has generously contributed $1.7 billion to the Palestinians via programs that promote public and health services, economic growth, agriculture, education, and refugee assistance. These important aid initiatives have helped improve the quality of life for many Palestinians for over two decades.

In addition, over the past few years — under the leadership and initiatives of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — Japan’s economic and geopolitical engagement has increased exponentially to the benefit of the security and economic interests of both Israel and Japan. The prime minister’s historic speech at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial has also helped increase the level of trust between Japan and Jewish communities across the globe, setting the stage for an even greater and more balanced role for Japan vis-a-vis the Middle East.

Yet Prime Minister Abe’s friendly outreach to Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent years, while a welcome development, contrasts sharply with Japan’s official policy on Israel at the United Nations. On different fronts — such as settlements, border disputes, and the ongoing confrontation in Gaza — Japan’s public diplomatic posture has been more in line with those regimes that do not share its values, nor those of Israel.

The marked difference between Mr. Abe’s positive engagement of Israel and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ shortsighted and at times hostile political positions toward the Jewish state are confounding. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Foreign Ministry didn’t get the memo from the prime minister’s office on Mr. Abe’s new forward-thinking engagement with the Jewish state.

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It’s important to note that the Foreign Ministry’s positions on Israel are also in conflict with the fact that Japan and Israel have shared interests and values as sister democracies and free market economies. Take, for example, both countries’ growing commercial relationship. Although starting out from a low base, ties between Japanese and Israeli companies have flourished in recent years, particularly in the hi-tech, cyber security, health, and tourism sectors.

Japan and Israel also share geopolitical interests, as they face common threats and adversaries. While North Korean crimes of kidnapping Japanese nationals and missile launches over Japan’s territory are widely known, Pyongyang has also opposed Israel for decades in numerous ways, by providing aircraft and personnel against Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as well as selling arms, chemical and biological weapons, and nuclear technology to Israel’s enemies, including Syria and Iran.

Taking these geopolitical and security realities into consideration, it is concerning that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo all too frequently fails to take into consideration Israel’s daily challenges as a sovereign country surrounded by hostile neighboring states and terrorist entities.

Tokyo, it seems, ought to be in a position to understand and relate to Israel’s precarious geopolitical situation, as well as seismic changes on the ground in the region. For example, should Japan continue to treat the Golan Heights as territory that ought to belong to mass murderer Bashar Assad, as opposed to disputed territory? Is it right for Japanese diplomats to speak out at the deeply biased UN Human Rights Council condemning Israel for protecting its recognized international border from non-stop terrorist attacks aimed at peaceful Israeli communities?

After all, Japan’s Foreign Ministry rightly believes in the sanctity of its own territories and waters, including those in which it has overlapping claims such as the Dokdo/Takeshima with Korea, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands with China, and the Southern Kuriles/Northern Territories with Russia. Japan’s leaders are also understandably concerned about frequent violations of its air space by Chinese and Russian bombers, as well as Chinese submarine intrusions into Okinawan waters.

It bears mentioning that the Foreign Ministry’s increasingly predictable stances towards Israel at the UN do another disservice — to the Japanese taxpayer.

While the government of Japan is to be commended for its generous international aid for decades, its March 2018 $23.5 million aid package to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been transferred to an entity whose Hamas-controlled teachers have been teaching Palestinian children with curricula that praise “martyrdom” (i.e. terrorism) and deny Israel’s very existence. And in advance of the bloodiest riots at the Gaza-Israel border on May 15 of this year, educators at UNRWA-affiliated schools announced that classes would be cancelled on May 15 and 16 to encourage Palestinian school children to join the Hamas-ordered violent confrontations at the border.

For the Japanese people, kites are a symbol of hope, fun, and beauty. Yet, many kites that may have been purchased with Japanese aid have now been co-opted to serve Hamas terrorism. Young Palestinians are taught how to load incendiary materials on the kites and fly them into Israel. To date, three forests in Southern Israel have been destroyed and the equivalent of 5,000 soccer fields have been torched.

The people of Japan, even as they continue to back peace around the world, must also come to recognize that some recipients of their largesse, like the terrorist Hamas organization, do not share their values.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to build upon Mr. Abe’s breakthrough achievements with Israel and make up for lost time. While Mr. Abe has admirably worked hard and courageously to bring the Japanese and Jewish peoples closer together, his administration has been ill served by Japan’s Foreign Ministry, whose negative political posturing against the Jewish state is unfair, outdated, and ultimately will hurt Japanese business opportunities — including a leading Japanese firm’s bid on a mega-project in Jerusalem that would benefit Jews and Arabs alike.

Although disagreements and policy differences are inevitable between friends and partners, it’s time for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to take Mr. Abe’s lead and adopt a more pragmatic and equitable approach to Israel and its neighbors.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Ted Gover serves as an Adviser on Asian Affairs to the Center. A different version of this article was published by The Asia Times.

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