Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso will later today begin his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, during which he will announce his country's intention to renew its financial assistance to Mahmoud Abbas' government and to participate in joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian projects.

Prior to arriving in Israel, Aso is visiting Jordan, where he will unveil an aid program for Palestinian and Iraqi refugees who now live in the Hashemite Kingdom.

Japan has shown increased involvement in the Middle East over the past two years, which is reflected in closer relations with Israel. The most significant of several senior Japanese official visits took place a little over a year ago, but led to no real results due to the fact that former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's arrived in the country the day the Second Lebanon War broke out. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni visited Japan a few months ago, as did President Shimon Peres when he was vice premier.

Aso will be meeting this trip with Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

According to senior diplomats, Japan, formerly the second-largest donor to the Palestinian Authority after the United States, has determined that one of the goals of Aso's visit will be the announcement of the renewal of direct aid to the PA, which was frozen during the period of the Hamas and unity governments, and of $20 million in emergency assistance that will immediately be transferred to the Abbas government. Japan also wants to announce its intention to promote a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian agricultural project.

The Japanese foreign ministry sees Jordan's role as pivotal to stability in the region, and this is leading Tokyo to seek closer economic and security cooperation with Jordan, and to provide assistance to refugees.

Another goal of Aso's visit is to strengthen economic ties with Israel. Tokyo wants to encourage Japanese businesspeople to invest in Israel and to get Japanese tourists to visit here.

Israeli officials are said to believe that since Japan's economy is based on Middle Eastern oil reserves, Japan is taking these steps to help ensure an atmosphere of tranquillity in the region.

However, the Japanese media view the visit as being timed to coincide with the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now struggling for his political survival. Aso is seen as likely to succeed Abe if the latter is forced to step down, and the foreign minister's efforts to distance himself from domestic politics by making a Middle Eastern visit may increase his chances to win the post.