Despite Support for Palestinians, as China Grows Stronger Japan Seeks Closer Ties With Israel

One factor drawing Japan and Israel together is the nuclear threat — from North Korea and Iran respectively

Japanese President Shinzo Abe meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 2015
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie Abie, arrived Tuesday for a two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with a business delegation.

This is Abe’s second time in Israel, after a visit in January 2015. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Japan in May 2014.

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Abe began his visit with meetings in Ramallah. He was then slated to tour a joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial park in Jericho established under Jordanian auspices with Japanese funding. After that, he’ll meet with Netanyahu; the Netanyahus and Abes will then have dinner together.

Netanyahu and Abe will discuss Israel’s new disclosures about Iran’s nuclear program, as well as North Korea’s nuclear program. Also on the agenda will be starting direct flights between Israel and Japan, based on an agreement in principle signed in 2016 but never implemented. Israel is also pressing Japan to change its travel warning for the region to improve bilateral tourism, or at least to separate Israel from the territories, as many other countries do.

There have been reports in Japan recently alleging Abe’s involvement in two cases of promoting cronies, and demonstrators in Tokyo have called for his resignation.

Israel and Japan have had diplomatic relations since 1952, but ties were never very close. The Japanese were heavily influenced by the Arab boycott on Israel, partly because of their dependence on Arab oil. According to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, almost 90 percent of Japan’s oil comes from the Middle East. Japanese companies were wary of conducting business with Israel, and Japan was one of the last countries to stop honoring the boycott. But ties thawed a bit after the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.

Another factor complicating the relationship is Japan’s pacifism, which prevented its involvement in security crises overseas and led to empathy with the Palestinians. But Abe’s more nationalist government, influenced by China’s growing power and the North Korean threat, has altered this policy a bit. Japan’s defense budget has grown, and legislation was passed to reduce restrictions on the army.

Meanwhile, oil prices have fallen, and with them, Arab influence. Israel has exploited these changes to improve intelligence, defense, commercial, technology and tourism ties.

One turning point cited by Israeli diplomats was the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Israel provided significant long-term assistance, helping children with post-traumatic stress and offering agricultural aid to areas where the ground was contaminated.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas during a welcome ceremony in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 1, 2018
MAJDI MOHAMMED/AFP

Abe has tried to end his country’s economic stagnation by signing trade agreements with various countries, including Israel, focusing on innovation and technology.

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“We haven’t exhausted the potential of relations with Japan. There’s a long road ahead of developing investments and tourism, for instance, but I’m very happy things have taken a big stape forward in recent years,” said Gilad Cohen, the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director general for Asia and the Pacific.

Since the exchange of prime ministerial visits in 2014-15, at least 10 ministers from both sides have visited. Israeli visitors included Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked, Transportation Minister Israel Katz, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Culture Minister Miri Regev.

Japanese investment in Israel rose twentyfold since the prime ministerial visits, according to Foreign Ministry data. Israel opened a second commercial interests section in Osaka, after the one in Tokyo.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stands with Jordan's King Abdullah II and and his son Crown Prince Hussein at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan, May 1, 2018.
\ MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

Netanyahu has stressed the personal aspect of his relationship with his Japanese counterpart, as he has with his Indian counterpart. Israel’s relationship with India is also significant for Japan, since the two countries are allies. Japan is India’s fourth-larg est foreign investor.

Another factor drawing Japan and Israel together is the nuclear threat — from North Korea and Iran, respectively. This creates issues of mutual concern like the threat of long-range and short-range missiles.

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On the Palestinian issue, Japan still tends to vote against Netanyahu’s policies in international institutions. Since 2003, Japan has been a major donor to the PA, having given $1.6 billion to date. It began funding the Jericho Agro Industrial Park in 2006.

Last Sunday, Economy Minister Eli Cohen met in Jordan with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Jordan’s minister for international cooperation, Imad Fakhoury. The four discussed Japan’s proposal to expand the Jericho project. It currently consists of nine businesses; Tokyo wants to expand it to 32 businesses that would employ some 5,000 workers.

The location, near the Allenby Bridge crossing to Jordan, allows the Palestinian businesses to export via Jordan to the rest of the Arab world. Consequently, the project is also known as the Corridor for Peace and Prosperity.

Jason Greenblatt, the U.S. envoy to the peace process, has been pressing Israel to upgrade and streamline operations at Allenby, and European countries have agreed to fund that effort. Japan also recently offered to host Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and American negotiators for a peace summit. That proposal might arise again during Abe’s visit.