Will Japan be the New Broker of Peace in the Middle East?

Published February 14th, 2018 - 10:39 GMT
A solidarity protest with #Gaza, Tokyo 2014 (Photos: AFP - Kazuhiro Nogi)
A solidarity protest with #Gaza, Tokyo 2014 (Photos: AFP - Kazuhiro Nogi)


by Eleanor Beevor

On Feb. 5 Nabil Shaath, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, announced that Japan had begun the process of recognizing Palestine’s right to independent statehood.

According to Shaath, the Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono would begin to collect signatures from Japanese Members of Parliament supporting Palestinian statehood, and would also be increasing Japan’s diplomatic presence in Ramallah. Japan has also pledged to increase funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency in charge of aid distribution to Palestinian refugees.

This came in the wake of President Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would effectively halve their donation to UNRWA, not long after Trump’s highly controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.


The U.S.’ Losing Leadership

Trump’s justification for the cut on Twitter was that America had no incentive to aid Palestinians since they were “no longer willing to talk peace,” and that Palestinians had shown “no appreciation or respect” for America and its donations. He insisted that UNRWA needed to make “reforms” before the aid was reinstated, but did not specify what those were.

Japan is far from alone in having responded sharply to Trump’s provocations in the Middle East. For better or for worse, UNRWA is now a vehicle through which states declare their position on Palestine.

While the agency is still in financial trouble following the American cut, other nations have made impressive pledges to try and fill the gap. The Belgian government recently pledged €19 million  ($23.5 million) to UNRWA over the next three years, and a number of other EU member states fast-tracked multi-million dollar donations to plug the immediate shortfall.


Palestinian refugees collect aid parcels in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, on January 28. (AFP)


Japan’s donation to UNRWA is not unexpected. Dr Yara Hawari, a Policy Fellow at Al Shabaka, the Palestinian policy think-tank, told Al Bawaba:

Japan is UNRWA's 7th largest donor out of a total of 57 countries. Reports that they will boost this aid is not surprising, particularly as the Commissioner General of UNRWA, Pierre Krahenbuhl, visited Japan earlier this year following the US funding cut threats, where he met with government officials and Japanese press. He praised Japan for their financial support of UNRWA and urged the country to continue investing in the agency and its mandate.”

However, in a political climate where the American President seems determined to push Palestine into peace talks in the weakest possible position, other nations now have an opportunity to expand their diplomatic influence in the Middle East by assuming a greater role in instigating a peace process.


Japan on the Rise

Japan appears to be looking to do just this. “Japan's move to recognize Palestinian statehood is in line with its regional neighbors, most of whom also recognize Palestinian statehood. However, we could also understand it as an attempt to break free from the US' domination of the peace process,” added Dr Hawari.

Japan is in a strong position to take on such a role. That role involves the delicate balancing of both Israeli and Palestinian interests, as well as their own, and Japan seems to be trying to walk this line. It has an unusual diplomatic history with the region, one that could play to its advantage. Japan was one of the nations affected by the Arab League’s 1973 oil embargo, and its overwhelming dependence on Arab oil exports led it to join the boycott of Israel.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a press conference on January 20, 2015, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI) 

As a result of its lack of historical ties to Israel, Japan enjoys good relations with Arab states, including Palestine. Yet Israel is also very keen to better its relations with Japan again now that the embargo’s influence has lessened, and does not see this history as precluding a fresh start.

Likewise, Japan has its own interests in Israel. It is keen to strike deals in Israel’s burgeoning technology sector, and has been boosting its bilateral trade with them since early 2016.

Still, Japan’s support for the two-state solution has never wavered. It resisted recent Israeli pressure to recognize Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It has also enthusiastically backed initiatives to foster economic cooperation between Israel and Palestine.

It began a “Corridor for Peace and Prosperity”, a multi-pronged initiative that included the Jericho Agro-Industrial Park in the West Bank. The Park intends to facilitate Palestinian development projects and trade of the projects’ products with Israeli markets. But in its most definitive gesture of attempting peace brokering so far, in December Japan invited both Netanyahu and Abbas to a Peace Summit in Tokyo.

There may be sticking points in starting talks. Netanyahu says his participation will need to be met with approval by the Trump administration, whilst Palestinian leadership has said it will not work with Trump. It is also still uncertain how Japan’s declaration of recognition for Palestinian statehood will affect prospects for talks. However, the message that the recognition sends is clear.

Nicola Perugini, a lecturer in International Relations and a specialist on Palestine at the University of Edinburgh, told Al Bawaba:

Japan’s plan comes at a moment when the US has completely lost its already compromised legitimacy as a broker between Israelis and Palestinians. It should be read as a signal that even U.S. allies like Japan are worried about President Trump’s unilateral steps in the Middle East”. Even if Israel backtracks as a result of the recognition, Japan’s lead may encourage greater international support for Palestine.

“The question is if U.S. unilateralism in favor of Israel will be balanced by an international unilateralism that will lead to an international conference based on the two states solution,” added Perugini.


Japan: A More Neutral Broker

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono says the Japanese government will provide some RM163.5 million in aid to Palestinians. – AFP pic, December 27, 2017.


Japan will have no shortage of challenges, but there is good reason to believe its peace-broking efforts will have traction. Even if Israel is jarred by Japan’s recognition of Palestinian statehood, it is unlikely to wish to compromise its economic “pivot to Asia”, and so may still enter Japan-led talks as a gesture of diplomacy.

Meanwhile Palestine has already been encouraged by Japanese support for their independence, and will likely see Japanese brokerage as an avenue for a meaningful rather than coerced settlement.

European and other nations should not cease their own efforts peace. However, they should bear in mind that Japanese-initiated talks may have a greater chance of success, given Japan’s relative neutrality.

They should lend their support to Japanese attempts if and when they develop. Trump’s provocation has been damaging, but if it leads to a new era of talks with a more credible initiator, there may yet be hope for peace in one of the world’s most turbulent regions.


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