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Japan and Israel in the post-Abe era: Opportunities and pitfalls

New premier Yoshihide Suga has an opportunity to build on Shinzo Abe’s legacy, as well as make a few needed changes to the Asian nation’s Middle East policy.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Kinue Tokudome and Ted Gover

Thirty years ago, Japan was a bulwark of the Arab boycott of Israel, and its bookstores were replete with bestseller conspiratorial knockoffs of The Protocols of Zion, which blamed Jews for every economic downturn and geopolitical crisis.

Thankfully, those days are long gone, and a great deal of credit for many positive changes goes to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shinzo Abe, who just retired his prime minister’s post due to ill health. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s new prime minister, has an opportunity to build on Abe’s legacy, as well as make a few needed changes to Japan’s Middle East policy.

Under Abe’s leadership, Japan transformed its relationship with Israel and the Jewish world. He expanded economic and geopolitical engagement with the Jewish state. Abe’s historic speech at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum increased the level of understanding and trust between Japan and Jewish communities across the globe. His friendship and policies have set the stage for an expanded and more balanced role for Japan in the Middle East.

It remains to be seen whether the Suga will build on Abe’s trail-blazing approach, which was often at odds with Japan’s official policy and voting patterns at the United Nations. From Israeli settlements to Gaza tensions to the Golan Heights, Japan’s diplomatic posture at United Nations rarely supported Israel. The glaring distance between Abe’s forward-thinking engagement of Israel and the foreign ministry’s outdated approach to the Middle East must be closed given the geopolitical stakes and new realities of the region.

Suga’s new administration has an opportunity to make corrections. The timing is right.

In recent months, the dynamics of the Middle East have changed. Amid the backdrop of Iran’s continued belligerence and the Palestinians’ intransigence, Israel has forged historic normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain. These consequential agreements are unleashing the unlimited potential between Arabs and Jews, which could also bode well for future business partners. For Japan to do so, it must revisit some of its calcified and outdated policies that date back to the 1970s.

For example, why does the Japanese Foreign Ministry continue to label the Golan Heights, which Israel treats as part of its sovereign territory, as occupied Syrian territory? With war criminal Bashar Assad still holding power, shouldn’t Tokyo at least treat the Golan as a disputed territory?

Is it correct in 2020 for Japanese diplomats to continue to speak out at the U.N. Human Rights Council condemning Israel for protecting its recognized international borders from terrorist attacks targeting peaceful Israeli communities?

After all, Japan 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 and territorial waters by China and Russia.

Another area deserving a refocus is the foreign ministry’s aid policies.

For nearly three decades, Japan has played an important role in Israel through its economic and social development aid to the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza. Since 1993, Japan has generously contributed more than $1.7 billion to Palestinian programs and projects, assistance and health services.

Without question, these important initiatives have helped improve the quality of life for many Palestinians.

While the government of Japan is to be commended for its generous aid, its upgraded contribution of $22.4 million to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) should urgently be reviewed. Some of these funds are used to promote hatred and denial of the Palestinians’ Jewish neighbors. Palestinian children are taught to praise terrorists and “martyrdom,” and maps in textbooks fail to ever show the State of Israel.

As one of the major donor nations to UNRWA, Japan should do its own independent analysis of the Palestinian curriculum and leverage its financial largess to help transform an educational system from preaching war to teaching peace and mutual respect.

Israeli and Japanese businesses alike are greatly expanding cooperation. After the coronavirus pandemic, tourism will greatly expand between the two nations. But such positive and dynamic developments should also be reflected in Japan’s voting record on Israel on the international stage.

Finally, the recent distressing human-rights disasters wrought by the Chinese government on its own people and China’s strategic agreement with Iran are a reminder that today’s Japan and Israel have more in common than worries about North Korea and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Japan and Israel are democracies struggling to make their way in very challenging neighborhoods. The values underpinning both countries point a mutually beneficial future—if leaders like Suga are prepared to make some bold moves.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a frequent visitor to Japan. Kinue Tokudome is an author and creator of the website, Ted Gover teaches at Claremont Graduate University and is an adviser to the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Asian Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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