A Japanese Sun in the Middle East

Israel's attitude to the Land of the Rising Sun is liable to recall its attitude toward Europe: more nudniks who want to play with the big boys and and who get underfoot.

While here the term "disengagement" arouses associations of blood, sweat, oil and Ninja nails on the highway, abroad - and apparently it doesn't really make a difference where on the globe - it is seen as one of the important moves on the international agenda: an expression of tremendous courage by a determined leader, an event that any of his colleagues would be happy to become part of, for the sake of history and personal prestige.

Take Japan, for example. The special Japanese envoy to the Middle East, Ambassador Tatsuo Arima, visited here last week. In a conversation with Haaretz, Arima revealed that Japan is expanding its cooperation with the Palestinians, and is working on compiling an aid package that it will officially announce in mid-August, shortly before the disengagement is carried out. The package will include the renovation and paving of major roads, the construction of sewage systems, and the most sensitive item of all - reconstruction of the ruined airport in Gaza.

The Japanese efforts to help the Palestinians are combined with their vigorous wooing of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Since Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura visited here in January, Sharon has received at least four invitations for an official visit to Japan. Prime Minister Junichoro Koizumi personally took on the task. When Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Tokyo in April, Koizumi asked him to deliver Sharon another invitation. The delay in the reply from Jerusalem did not discourage Koizumi, who decided to take action, and in an unusual step, exchanged the sushi and sashimi for a plate of hummus in the home of Israeli ambassador Eli Cohen. The Ynet correspondent in Tokyo described Koizumi's enthusiasm: "Oyshi, Oyshi" (delicious in Japanese), he cried between a spoonful of kube soup and a bite of falafel balls. In his enthusiasm, Koizumi did not forget, of course, to mention the reason for his coming: his great admiration for Sharon, whom "he would be happy to welcome at any time he decides to come to Japan."

An Israeli diplomatic source describes the Japanese attitude toward Israel as no less than "a 180-degree shift": In October, the chair of the Israel-Japan Friendship Society, MK Ehud Rassabi, said that relations between the two countries had reached "an unprecedented low."

Commentators identified the causes as the outbreak of the second intifada, the events of 9/11, and the Japanese involvement in the Iraqi war, which aroused fear of an Islamic act of revenge. During a visit to Israel three years ago, the former secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Taku Yamazaki, invited Sharon to visit Japan. However, three days after he returned to Tokyo and reported his initiative to the decision makers, Yamazaki was forced to cancel the invitation. In 2003, President Moshe Katsav was invited for an official visit. But the Japanese got cold feet once again, and the visit was canceled. It is believed that Japan was worried about the reputation of the emperor, "the father of the pacifist nation," if he were to be photographed with Israel's president. Koizumi himself condemned Israel in an exceptional and harsh manner after the assassination of Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi in March and April of 2004.

No longer: In spite of the fact that oil continues to define its Middle Eastern policy, Japan, which lacks energy sources, has recently gone all out to balance its policy and improve relations with Israel. Some attribute this to the disengagement - Sharon's "great decisions" and "courage" are a central motif in the lexicon of Arima. "Achieving peace and stability in the Middle East is the reason for our involvement," say the Japanese.

Others believe that pacifism and philanthropy are not the only motives. Koizumi's Japan is demanding a new status in the international arena. According to American philosopher Robert Kagan, in the existing world order, "the United States cooks the meal, and Europe washes the dishes." Japan's role, add the cynics, is to pay for the culinary event. But Japan is tired of the status of global sucker. It wants to exchange its "checkbook policy," which meets with ingratitude, for recognition and honor. It is currently entirely preoccupied with fulfilling a supreme goal: obtaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Japan believes that being involved in the disengagement will give it international stature, which UN representatives in New York will not be able to ignore.

Israel's attitude to the Land of the Rising Sun is liable to recall its attitude toward Europe: more nudniks who want to play with the big boys and and who get underfoot. Whether or not Japan uses it as a jump-off point to the desired seat on the Security Council - it would seem that Israel has nothing to lose from Japanese activeness. On the contrary, Israel is likely to benefit from it.