Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.05.27

What Was Not Reported about Bibi in Tokyo

JBpress on May 23, 2014

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu had visited Japan just before Shinzo Abe announced a review of the constitutional reinterpretation of Japan's right to collective self-defense on May 15. Although Bibi's visit did not attract as much media attention as he deserves, significant progress seems to have been made during his visit.

Israel and Japan have had a very unfortunate past. Bilateral relations were virtually frozen in 1973 due to pressure from third parties. This was during the "first oil shock" when the Arab oil exporting countries initiated an oil embargo against the countries they perceived as supporting Israel, leading the naive Japanese government at that time to make a diplomatic misjudgment.

Susumu Nikaido, Chief Cabinet Secretary at the time, issued a statement saying, "the government of Japan may be obliged to reconsider its policy vis-a-vis Israel if necessitated by the future situation in the Middle East." While this decision virtually halted bilateral exchanges between Tokyo and Tel Aviv, many western nations didn't give in and maintained relations with Israel.

For the next 15 years Japan-Israel relations stalled. It was only in 1988 that they resumed when Japan sent her first foreign minister to Jerusalem since the oil crises in the 1970s. This delay was partly because of persistent voices in Japanese business circles urging due consideration of Arab claims. Friendship with Arabs is of course important but this does not justify sacrificing relations with Israel.

More than 40 years since the first oil shock, Bibi Netanyahu's visit to Tokyo is of great significance not only for bilateral relations but also for the national security of Japan. The following points in the "Joint Statement on Building a New Comprehensive Partnership" issued on May 13 should be particularly noted:

- Both sides welcomed the launch of an exchange of views between Japan's National Security Secretariat and Israel's National Security Council and confirmed to hold the next meeting in Israel.

- Both sides confirmed the necessity of cooperation in the field of cyber security and expressed their expectation to hold talks between the relevant agencies of the two countries.

- Both sides affirmed the importance of bilateral defense cooperation and concurred on increasing the exchanges between the defense authorities of the two countries including exchanges at ministerial level and the visit of officers of the Self-Defense Forces to Israel.

- Both sides affirmed to make further efforts for exploring a possible cooperation to promote joint industrial research and development.

- Both sides confirmed their commitment to promote cooperation in the fields of advanced science and technology and innovation and shared the intention to promote exchanges among the two countries' space related agencies.

In a nutshell, there will be a series of summit and defense ministerial dialogues on national security as well as the full-fledged exchange of views, both at governmental and business levels, to promote cooperation on advanced technologies including cyber and space. These will no doubt enhance Japan's deterrent capability. Who in 1973 could have imagined this would happen?

It is also noteworthy that the summit meeting was reportedly candid, cordial and productive and that the two prime ministers seem to have liked each other. They talked about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Syria, Iran, international terrorism, North Korea and Japan's proactive contribution to world peace. There has arguably been no more successful visit to Tokyo by an Israeli prime minister.

Despite all this progress, Japan-Israel relations can do a lot more and the two nations must benefit more from each other, in national and global security affairs as well as in the fields of high-tech and R&D. In order to achieve these goals, the two nations must take additional steps to make relations more workable and functional.

For Israel, it is imperative to recognize that the Middle East and East Asia are rapidly becoming so intertwined that the two regions are now becoming one and inseparable. Under these circumstances, any one transfer of military technology or a weapon system, for example, from one side to another could seriously undermine the regional balance of power.

By the same token, Japan must realize that not all nations in the Middle East are Arab and Islamic and that no single dogmatic policy can guarantee energy supplies from the region. What has been most successful in the region has always been a mixture of realistic and pragmatic policies and approaches. In this regard, Israel and Japan can learn a lot from each other in the years to come.