The other day Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that a wave of Islamism, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism was washing over Western Europe. Meanwhile, shortly before the troubled relationship between Jerusalem and Washington hit a new low, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Israel as part of a trip to the Middle East.
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The main goal was to improve economic relations with Israel – without making this conditional on progress in the peace process, a different approach than the one taken in Western Europe.
During Abe’s visit to Israel in 2006, reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were kidnapped and the Second Lebanon War began. This time the security situation darkened too.
The day Abe landed, foreign media reported that Israel had attacked a convoy of senior Hezbollah and Iranian operatives on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Then the last day of the visit was cut short when the Islamic State released a video showing its two Japanese hostages.
Despite the security incidents, Abe tried to convey that peace and stability in the Middle East could only happen if poverty were eradicated, as he said after discussing the hostage crisis at a press conference in Jerusalem. He said Japan would do everything it could to promote prosperity.
But in the case of ties with Israel, Japan, which boasts the world’s third-largest economy, is keen to get as much as it gives. As officials in Abe’s delegation said, Japan greatly admires Israeli innovation and creativity.
During the visit, the two sides signed an agreement to expand scientific cooperation, and Abe said he hoped a bilateral investment treaty would be inked by the end of the year. Such a deal would help boost trade between the two countries beyond the $1.9 billion of 2014, a 9.3 percent increase from 2013.
“Abe’s visit had three goals: to raise Japan’s profile in the Middle East, to show that Japan viewed Israel as an important country per se rather than a satellite of the United States, and to promote trade and scientific cooperation,” said Prof. Ehud Harari, an expert on Japan and a Hebrew University professor emeritus who teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
He said the visit was important for Abe’s image back home. It meshes well with the innovation drive that plays a major role in Abenomics, the prime minster’s plan for lifting Japan out of the doldrums that have lasted more than two decades.
Contrary to the prevailing image, innovation is a weak point for the Japanese economy, particularly when considering scientific technology and medical research.
“Japan’s advantage was in the large companies, but the large companies are cumbersome and their ability to innovate is limited,” Harari said. “The small Israeli startups are the ones that bring the breakthroughs. Israel is seen in Japan as innovative, as a technological superpower. The book ‘Start-Up Nation’ is on the desk of every manager in Japan.”
The desire for closer relations with Israel is a sharp turnaround considering the history of the Arab boycott. Only after the 1991 Madrid Conference did large Japanese companies begin selling their products in Israel. Until recently, some Japanese firms were still reluctant to do business in Israel; Abe brought along a delegation of managers to bash what remained of that mindset.
Still, it’s not that the Japanese are ignoring the peace process. One of Abe’s goals is to make Japan’s foreign policy more proactive, and involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered an international status symbol — the Japanese once even asked to join the Quartet but were turned down.
But the members of the Japanese delegation said their prime minister had no intention of making the economic issue conditional on progress in the peace process. According to Japanese officials, Abe discussed peace with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but tightening economic relations played no role in those talks.
It also seems Abe is less put off by Netanyahu’s nationalist, aggressive image because Abe has taken similar criticism from Japan’s neighbors and some parts of Japanese society. Members of the Japanese delegation added that one goal of the visit was to build trust between Abe and Netanyahu, the way Abe built trust with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, another leader who has been accused of nationalism.
Still, in the political arena where Netanyahu is becoming increasingly isolated, the channel that Abe is opening isn’t expected to solve Bibi’s problems. (Note Israelis’ indifference to a visit by the leader of the world’s third-largest economy.) But at least the Abe channel will give Netanyahu some satisfaction.