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Opinion: Foreign Minister Motegi’s Israel visit a historic opportunity for Japan

  • August 17, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 5:00 a.m.
  • English Press

Satoshi Ikeuchi and Gedaliah Afterman


Satoshi Ikeuchi is professor of religion and global security at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo. Gedaliah Afterman heads the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy.


During his nine-day tour of the Middle East which began on Sunday, Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi will visit Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Iran and Qatar. One of the goals of this trip is to achieve a better understanding of recent developments in the strategic but divided region and to position Japan as a major actor.


Japan has substantial economic interests in the Middle East: in addition to its energy trade with Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is also increasingly invested in the technology and innovation sectors in the United Arab Emirates and Israel.


The signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020, normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, and later on Sudan and Morocco, is creating an unprecedented moment in modern Middle East history. The agreements, which have already changed Israel’s position in the region profoundly, can also pave the way for Japan to increase its regional footprint, and open a new chapter in Japan-Israel relations.


In 2022, Japan and Israel will mark 70 years of diplomatic relations. But while Japan was the first Asian nation to normalize relations with Israel in 1952, the relationship remained limited until the end of the last century. However, the relationship truly blossomed during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s years in office.


Japan’s relationship with Israel has traditionally been constrained by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and concerns over an Arab boycott. Japanese officials avoided openly supporting Israel and consistently condemned Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. This attitude has softened in recent years, and the Abraham Accords seem to have removed any remaining reservations on the Japanese side, at least as it pertains to economic collaboration.


Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in September 2020: an unprecedented moment in modern Middle East history.   © AP

Indeed, the signing of the agreements seems to correlate with a growing number of Japanese investments in Israeli technology, which in 2020 alone increased by 20% to $1.1 billion, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, Japanese investment eclipsed the 2020 record within the first six months of this year, marking a rise of 64% and totaling 10% of all foreign investments in Israel in the first half of the year.


Motegi’s visit, the first trip by a Japanese foreign minister to Israel since 2017, presents a strategic opportunity for Israel. Beyond the growing Japanese interest in Israeli technology, the relationship with Japan holds broader significance.


The strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China is intensifying, placing Israel under increasing pressure from both powers. As the Biden Administration increasingly pressures Israel to scale down its economic engagement with China, particularly in the areas of infrastructure and technology, Japan has a unique opportunity to fill the void. To improve its global standing, Israel needs to develop stronger relations and cooperation with Asian powers, and Japan should be a central pillar in this strategy.


The U.S.’ failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the perceived erosion of its regional dominance, and the COVID-19 pandemic, have helped China to substantially enhance its relations with the Arab world. China’s growing role in the region and, in particular, its evolving relations with Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf states have consequences for both Japan and Israel.


Motegi’s regional tour comes after two recent trips by Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister to the region. But Japan’s regional balancing act is different from China’s recent efforts. Unlike Wang Yi, Foreign Minister Motegi will visit Israel as part of his trip. Meanwhile, in contrast to China’s lukewarm reaction to the Abraham Accords, Japan has an opportunity to embrace them and become an active party in strengthening the Accords.


Japan traditionally excels in building bilateral relations based on mutual trust. However, by making Israel a cornerstone of its evolving regional strategy, Japan could adopt a multilateral approach to its relationships with Israel and the Gulf and assume a greater role in the Middle East.


Developing trilateral and regional cooperation with Israel and its Arab neighbors, connecting two of the most promising relationships which latently overlap could become a linchpin of Japan’s long-sought-after diplomatic upgrading. By achieving this, it could bring new economic opportunities and have a lasting impact on regional stability.


Japan, Israel and their partners in the Gulf, could cooperate in vital areas like green energy, water technologies, health care and smart cities. This could begin as early as the upcoming Dubai Expo in October.


Using the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision as a base, Japan, Israel and the Gulf states could cooperate in Africa, bringing together Japan’s foreign aid leadership with Israeli and Emirati innovation and expertise to tackle issues such as climate change, water, health and food security. Such cooperation could position Israel and the UAE as regional leaders on climate change and food security, while helping Japan strengthen its regional presence in both the Middle East and East Africa amid the growing superpower competition.


The paradigm shift in the Middle East following the Abraham Accords, intensifying superpower competition and the growing Japanese interest in Israeli technology, all create a unique opportunity for Japan and Israel to establish a new strategic partnership. Tokyo and Jerusalem should not overlook the unprecedented opportunity of this moment.

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