By Diana Farah
Yasukazu Hamada, Japanese Defense Minister, met his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Gantz in Tokyo on August 30 as part of an ongoing effort to strengthen defense cooperation between the two countries, particularly in the field of equipment and military technology.
Hamada and Gantz signed a memorandum on defense exchanges and agreed to continue working together to achieve regional peace and stability. However, the development calls into question Tokyo’s ability to maintain its reputation for impartiality in the face of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Japan has long been hailed as an even-handed broker of a future agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. In 2019, a joint Arab News Japan-YouGov survey found that 56% of Arabs view Japan as the most credible potential candidate to act as a peace broker in the Middle East.
During his trip to Tokyo, Gantz also met with Yoshimasa Hayashi, Japan’s foreign minister, who reiterated his government’s support for a two-state solution to resolve the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. .
However, Japanese analyst Koichiro Tanaka, a professor at Keio University in Tokyo, believes that the expansion of the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements signed between Israel and several Arab states in 2020, relieved Japan of this role. of mediator.
“Japan feels relieved of the pressure that existed trying to balance its Middle East policy with its energy security,” Tanaka told Arab News Japan.
Realizing the need to maintain allies in its own standoff with China, Japan’s main foreign policy goal has been “to appease Washington”, Tanaka said. With that comes the expectation of “making friends” with Israel.
“Japan’s role as mediator never materialized due to US reluctance and Israel’s rejection of such a role,” Tanaka said.
The Abraham Accords were the first public expressions of normalization between Arab states and Israel since 1994. When the accords were first announced, Tomoyuki Yoshida, Japan’s former foreign press secretary, called it of “positive development” which could “ease tensions and stabilize the region”. .”
Nonetheless, Yoshida said Japan continued to support a “two-state solution” in which Israel and a future independent Palestinian state would “live side by side in peace and security.”
With the signing of its new defense agreement with Israel, is Tokyo still in a neutral mediating position on the Palestinian question?
Waleed Siam, the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to Tokyo, told Arab News Japan that the Japanese government is “mainly supportive” of both sides.
“Japan has a long history with Israel, but I think Japan could always be part of neutrality by helping both sides achieve settlements,” he said.
Siam said the Palestinians, and the Arab world in general, have great respect for Japan, noting that Tokyo “has always supported the Palestinians to the highest degree, through many United Nations organizations.
“Japan is committed to assisting the State of Palestine and has always abided by the UN resolution, refusing to recognize East Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and has never recognized Israel’s illegal settlements,” Siam said.
Asked if Japan should have first reassured the Palestinian side of its current neutrality before concluding its security deal with Israel, Siam said Tokyo had the ‘right to do whatever it wants’ .
“Japan has nothing to guarantee, as it stands very firm on its belief with the international community and the UN resolution,” Siam said. “He supports a two-state solution and the Palestinian right to independence.”
He added: “Even during the Trump era, when the former US president pressured everyone to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Japan stood strong at the UN and voted against it. .
However, Siam believes that any country signing an agreement with Israel should also emphasize respect for international law and human rights.
“I call on Japan to use this kind of deep friendship with Israel to pressure Israelis to abide by international law,” Siam said. “If the international community does not stand united and pressure Israel for a two-state solution, there will never be peace.”
Israel has long been the “biggest obstacle” to finalizing a major agribusiness park and logistics initiative in Jericho, proposed by Japan, called the “Corridor for Peace”, Siam said. Japan, he argues, could use its deep relationship with Israel to help finalize the project.
During the 11-day war in Gaza in May 2021, Japan insisted that all UN resolutions and international laws be observed, reiterating its “clear, respectful and supportive” position in the conflict, Siam said. .
Japan has long presented itself as the country most capable of brokering a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
In a 2019 interview with Arab News, Japan’s then foreign minister Taro Kono said it was vital for Tokyo to “play a bigger political role” in the region because “Japan is religiously and ethnically very neutral”.
Kono said Japan could also serve as an “honest broker in the Middle East, as we don’t have a colonial history or a negative footprint in the region.”
Speaking about Japan’s support for Palestine, Kono said Japan had “heavily invested in the West Bank”, working with Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians to establish and develop an industrial park in Jericho.
“I think we should all play a role in advancing the peace process and we would be very happy to be involved in this process,” Kono added.
With Japan’s growing tensions with China and North Korea, the country has expanded its military cooperation beyond its traditional ally, the United States, to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe. .
He is particularly concerned about Beijing’s military actions in the East and South China Seas. Israel has already traded weapons with China and is the second largest foreign arms supplier after Russia.
China has accumulated a vast arsenal of advanced military equipment and technology. The United States has firmly opposed Israel’s arms trade with China. However, Israel has largely ignored Washington’s objections.
Some observers believe that Israel’s close trade relationship with China may be the reason Japan has chosen to strengthen defense cooperation with Israel.
Indeed, Japanese military strategists have sought ways to ease their defensive dependence on the United States, potentially viewing Israel as a source of weapons and technology to bolster Tokyo’s military might in the region.