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Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, who arrived yesterday in Israel, won't get to meet personally with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on this trip. She was told that she'll only get to see him if at the last minute she drops her plans to meet with Yasser Arafat. When she asked why Sharon behaved differently with German Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer, she was told, "this time it's a scheduling problem." So she wouldn't be insulted. So she wouldn't be told that as far as Sharon is concerned, Japan isn't in the same league as Germany and she isn't in the same league as Fischer.

Israel's attitude toward Japan is reminiscent of its attitude toward Europe: more nudniks who want to play in the big leagues and as a result end up under foot. But that's about where the comparison ends. The polite smiles Kawaguchi encounters in Israel reflect reservations and suspicions reserved entirely for the Japanese decision makers.

Oil, which was at the heart of Japan's traditional Middle East policy, is still a key issue in that policy. That's why Israel is naturally worried about a pro-Arab Japanese policy. Israel also wonders if the foreign minister's visit isn't meant to enable Japan to pay off the Arabs in Israeli currency for Tokyo's support for the American campaign in Iraq.

Jerusalem is also concerned that since the outbreak of the intifada, many of the Japanese businesses here have shuttered their doors and Japanese investment has disappeared as if it never took place. Their disappearance is interpreted here, inter alia, as part of the message the Japanese authorities put out, that the area is dangerous and therefore it's best to suspend activities.

Japan specialists Ben Ami Shiloni and Ehud Harari, both professors at Hebrew University, say the reality is much more complex. First, despite the key role oil has played in Japanese considerations (some 80 percent of Japan's oil comes from the Middle East), it's a lot less important than in the past. For the past 20 years, Japan has been building massive oil reserves and diversifying its energy sources.

Moreover, the Japanese place enormous importance on Israeli high tech. Prof. Shiloni says that's Israel's sex-appeal for the Japanese. We haven't lost it, he says. Indeed, the opposite might be true.

Since the end of the 1980s, Japan has been consistently trying to balance its Middle East policies and to substantially improve its relations with Israel. Junichiro Koizumi's government represents a new kind of Japanese right - pro-American, and some might add "pro-Zionist" in Japanese terms: Kawaguchi's visit to Israel is the second in the last 10 months. She might not admit it, but it's possible that the energy she is demonstrating in the peace process has to do with a warm corner of her heart for Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, where she spent some time as a volunteer in her youth.

During her last visit, she presented the "Japanese road map," which was a staged program that created a link between Japanese aid to the Palestinians and their progress toward a cessation of terror, reforms in the Palestinian Authority, etc. Since 1993, Japan has donated some $600 million to the PA. During her current visit she will be proposing a new package to the Palestinians. A senior official in the Japanese Foreign Ministry explains that the Japanese aid works to Israel's benefit: "At the height of the crisis between Abu Mazen and Arafat, Kawaguchi called Arafat and pleaded with him to back down. We want to believe that phone call was one of the factors that influenced the chairman."

Moreover, the Japan of Koizumi and Kawaguchi is not deluding itself. It is aware of the limits of the power of money. That's why it is seeking a new role for itself in the international arena. No more unappreciated checkbook diplomacy, but an assertive foreign policy that will redefine Japan's national interests and free it of the shackles of the pacifist constitution imposed on it after World War II.

That's how to understand the deployment of 600 Japanese soldiers in East Timor, the logistical support it is giving the Americans in the war on terror, the surprise visit Koizumi paid to Pyongyang in September, and the presence of a Japanese destroyer in the Indian Ocean during the Iraqi crisis.

Japan also wants to drive deeper stakes in the Middle East. It wants a significant political role and proposes offering its experience in shaping a new democracy and rehabilitating civilian systems.

In an article published after her last visit to Israel, Kawaguchi said Japan's ambition was to provide a rare commodity to the region: Hope. Such a quest, when it comes from the second largest economy in the world, deserves Israel's sympathetic attention.