Opinion: Japan has important role in Middle East but must clarify it

The Japanese Foreign Ministry often seems at odds with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to improve ties with Israel.

By Abraham Cooper and Ted Gover 

For 25 years, Japan has played an important role in the Middle East, primarily through its support of the economic and social development of the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza.

Since 1993, Japan has generously contributed US$1.7 billion to the Palestinians via programs that promote public and health services, economic growth, agriculture and education and help refugees.

These important aid initiatives have helped improve the quality of life for many Palestinians for more than two decades.

In addition, over the past few years under the leadership and initiatives of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the country’s economic and geopolitical engagement has increased exponentially to the benefit of the security and economic interests of both Japan and Israel. The prime minister’s historic speech at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial has also helped increase the level of trust between Japan and Jewish communities across the globe, setting the stage for an even greater and more balanced role for Japan in the Middle East.

Yet Prime Minister Abe’s friendly outreach to Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent years, while a welcome development, contrasts sharply with Japan’s official policy on Israel at the United Nations. On different fronts – from settlements to border disputes to the ongoing confrontation in Gaza – Japan’s public diplomatic posture has been more in line with those regimes that do not share its values, nor those of Israel.

The marked difference between Abe’s positive engagement of Israel and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ shortsighted and at times hostile political positions toward the Jewish state is confounding. One would be forgiven for thinking that the Foreign Ministry didn’t get the memo from the Prime Minister’s Office on Abe’s new forward-thinking engagement with the Jewish state.

The marked difference between Abe’s positive engagement of Israel and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ shortsighted and at times hostile political positions toward the Jewish state is confounding.

Japan and Israel – shared interests and values

It’s important to note that the Foreign Ministry’s positions on Israel are also in conflict with the fact that Japan and Israel have shared interests and values as sister democracies and free market economies. Take, for example, both countries’ growing commercial relationship. Although starting out from a low base, ties between Japanese and Israeli companies have flourished in recent years, particularly in the high-tech, cybersecurity, health and tourism sectors.

Japan and Israel also share geopolitical interests as they face common threats and adversaries. While North Korean crimes of kidnapping Japanese nationals and missile launches over its territory are widely known, Pyongyang has also opposed Israel for decades in numerous ways.

Taking these geopolitical and security realities into consideration, it is concerning that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo all too frequently fails to take into consideration Israel’s daily challenges as a sovereign country surrounded by hostile neighboring states and terrorist entities.

Tokyo, it seems, ought to be in a position to understand and relate to Israel’s precarious geopolitical situation and seismic changes on the ground in the region. Should, for example, Japan continue to treat the Golan Heights, which Israel treats as part of its sovereign territory, as territory that should belong to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as opposed to disputed territory?

Is it correct for Japanese diplomats to speak out at the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning Israel for protecting its recognized international borders from terrorist attacks aimed at peaceful Israeli communities? It was the Human Rights Council’s predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission’s, 1996 Special Rapporteur on Comfort Women who made recommendations that Japan dismissed out of hand and whose report Japan sought to amend as recently as 2014. And yet Japan felt compelled to protest against Israel’s defense of its recognized international border.

After all, Japan’s Foreign Ministry rightly believes in the sanctity of its own territories and waters, including those in which it has overlapping claims such as the Dokdo/Takeshima with South Korea, the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands with China and the Southern Kuriles/Northern Territories with Russia. Japan’s leaders are also understandably concerned about frequent incursions of its airspace by Chinese and Russian bombers as well as Chinese submarine intrusions in Okinawan waters.

A disservice to the Japanese people

It bears saying that the Foreign Ministry’s increasingly predictable stances toward Israel at the UN do another disservice – to the Japanese taxpayer.

While the government of Japan is to be commended for its generous international aid for decades, its $23.5 million aid package in March to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been transferred to an entity whose Hamas-controlled teachers have allegedly been teaching Palestinian children with curricula that praise “martyrdom” (read terrorism) and do not even show the State of Israel on a single map in any of its books.

The people of Japan, even as they continue to back peace around the world, must also come to recognize that some recipients of their largesse, such as Hamas, do not share their values.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to build upon Abe’s breakthrough achievements with Israel and make up for lost time. While Abe has admirably worked hard and courageously to bring the Japanese and Jewish peoples closer together, his administration has been ill-served by a Foreign Ministry whose negative political posturing against the Jewish state are unfair, are outdated and ultimately will hurt Japanese business opportunities, including a leading Japanese firm’s bid on a mega-project in Jerusalem that would benefit Jews and Arabs alike.

Although disagreements and policy differences are inevitable between friends and partners, it’s time that Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs takes Abe’s lead and adopts a more pragmatic and equitable approach to Israel and its neighbors.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Ted Gover serves as adviser to the Center.