Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been reaching out to Israel. Photo: AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi
Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe leaves an admirable legacy on his Middle East policy. Photo: AFP / Kazuhiro Nogi

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s new prime minister, has an opportunity to build on his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s legacy as well as make a few needed changes to his country’s Middle East policy.

For nearly three decades, Japan has played an important role in the Middle East 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 US$1.7 billion to Palestinian programs that promote agriculture, economic development, refugee assistance and health services.

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

Additionally, under Abe’s leadership, Japan expanded economic and geopolitical engagement with the people of Israel. Abe’s historic speech at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in 2015 increased 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.

However, Japan’s friendly outreach to Israel in recent years, while a welcome development, is at odds with its official policy on Israel at the United Nations. From settlements to Gaza tensions to the Golan Heights, Japan’s public diplomatic posture at the UN has been in concert with regimes that do not share its values, nor those of Israel.

Under Abe, there was a marked difference between his positive engagement of Israel and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ unhelpful political positions toward the Jewish state. The glaring difference between Abe’s forward-thinking engagement of Israel and the Foreign Ministry’s outdated approach to the Middle East has been concerning given the geopolitical stakes and new realities of the region.

Prime Minister Suga’s new administration has an opportunity to make needed 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 peace deals with the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain. These agreements are unleashing the unlimited potential between Arabs and Jews, and it is hoped that they will nudge the Japanese Foreign Ministry to adopt a new approach to fit the times.

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.

It bears saying that Israeli companies prefer doing business with Japan over China because of Jerusalem’s and Tokyo’s shared values and also out of concerns relating to China’s and Iran’s new military and trade partnership.

Japan and Israel face another common adversary: North Korea. While Pyongyang’s crimes of kidnapping Japanese nationals and missile launches over its territory are widely known, it has also opposed Israel for decades in various ways.

Prime Minister Suga’s administration should take a new look at Israel and consider its ongoing precarious geopolitical situation. Should, for example, Japan’s diplomats continue to treat the Golan Heights, which Israel treats as part of its sovereign territory, as land 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?

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.

Another area deserving focus is the Foreign Ministry’s aid policies in the region.

While the government of Japan is to be commended for its generous aid to the Middle East for decades – the latest package was for US$22.4 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) – much of this money is used for bad ends.

Often, these large aid packages are transferred to entities whose Hamas-controlled “educators” teach Palestinian children with curricula that praise “martyrdom” (that is, terrorism) and do not show the State of Israel on the map in social-studies materials.

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.

As his administration charts its course, Prime Minister Suga can build upon recent breakthrough achievements by changing the Foreign Ministry’s approach to Israel. A failure to reset the Foreign Ministry’s Israel policy will imperil the gains of Abe’s historic work of bringing the Japanese and Jewish peoples closer together.

The recent change in leadership in Tokyo is an opportune time to steer the Foreign Ministry in a new direction that adopts a more pragmatic and equitable approach to Israel and its neighbors.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Kinue Tokudome is an author (@JewsandJapan) and creator of the website JewsandJapan.com. Ted Gover teaches at Claremont Graduate University in California and is an adviser to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.