Tokyo in Shock: Netanyahu Called Off Japan Visit He Asked for Days Ahead of Trip

Netanyahu sought visit to boost his campaign ■ With Israel's Foreign Ministry on strike, Japanese mobilized to help ■ Prime Minister Abe cleared his schedule ■ So what made Netanyahu cancel the visit? Two theories

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Netanyahu and Japan's Abe meet in Jerusalem, 2015.
Netanyahu and Japan's Abe meet in Jerusalem, 2015.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

A month ago I wrote here about the way the Prime Minister’s Bureau organized what seemed like a superfluous election trip for Netanyahu to India, for a meeting with his friend and colleague Narendra Modi. The idea of the visit was born after the disbanding of the Knesset, at the end of May. The prime minister wanted to arrive in New Delhi at a date as close as possible to the redo election in Israel. The Indians acquiesced: September 9.

Netanyahu also organized a campaign-related jaunt to Ukraine for August 18, as part of his untiring efforts to bring back to Likud some of its voters who were seen to be deserting to Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – about two Knesset seats’ worth, according to estimates.

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Now we will tell the tale of the trip that didn’t take place: to Japan. That trip was also born in the PMO immediately after the disbanding of the Knesset. The prime minister’s staff asked their counterparts in Tokyo for a meeting with Shinzo Abe. The Japanese were aware of the reasons, but they are a polite and civilized nation. The date was set for July 29. Prime Minister Abe cleared his schedule.

The plan was that on the way to Tokyo the prime minister and his entourage would make an intermediate stop in Seoul, where they would sign a bilateral free trade agreement with the Koreans, something that has been sitting on the shelf since the days of Ehud Olmert’s government. But in advance of the trip, there was a strike at Israel’s Foreign Ministry. As with other embassies around the world, the Israeli Embassy in Japan, which was naturally supposed to be involved in organizing the premier’s visit, was not doing any work. The Japanese mobilized to help. They took upon themselves tasks that, during ordinary times, are carried out by the representatives of the visiting country. For example, a search for rooms in a Tokyo luxury hotel, not an easy order at the height of the tourist season.

About 85 rooms were reserved, but after most of the preparations had been completed, 10 days before D-Day, the announcement came from Jerusalem: The visit had been canceled. Just like that, as though nothing had happened. Tokyo was in shock. Shock, accompanied by anger and humiliation.

An Israeli source who was in the know told me about two theories regarding the reason for the cancellation, such a short time before the scheduled meeting.

The first: Two days after July 29, the slates of all Knesset candidates had to be submitted to the Central Elections Committee. With similar timing, on the eve of the election this past April, Netanyahu canceled an “important security” visit with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, in order to personally conduct the battle for the inclusion of Itamar Ben Gvir on the slate of the Union of Right Wing Parties. Maybe this time around, he also wanted to be here at the critical time.

The second: The South Koreans made it clear to Netanyahu that the trade accord wouldn’t be signed. They did not feel any obligation to serve as a mere backdrop for the Likud election campaign. In addition: On July 13 President Rivlin took off for an official visit to Seoul. It would have been very peculiar for Israel’s two leading statesmen to visit the same country 10 days apart. That reasoning was relayed to the Prime Minister’s Bureau, the message was understood and it was decided to cancel.

The Japanese Embassy preferred not to comment.

I directed two questions to the Prime Minister's Bureau: What was the reason for the cancellation? And, was the State of Israel forced to pay for the hotel rooms reserved by the Japanese?

In response, sources who took part in the planning of the trip, said that, A. No hotel was found, so the state did not have to pay; B. The trip was not canceled, only postponed, because of the distance.

>> Click here for Yossi Verter's full column

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