Written by Niv Horesh.
Last week saw a rare visit by a Japanese Prime Minster to Israel. In view of Jerusalem’s increasingly troubled relations with many of its traditional Western allies, Abe’s visit was something to celebrate. In the Prime Minister’s entourage were no fewer than one hundred government officials and business people, as if to demonstrate just how qualitatively different bilateral relations have become compared to the 1970s, when the great bulk of Japanese industry observed the Arab boycott of Israel. Asia as a whole has already edged over the US as Israel’s second biggest trading bloc.
To be sure, Abe’s previous stop along his Middle Eastern trip was Cairo, where he pledged $200 million in non-military Japanese assistance for Arab countries battling ISIS. In Jerusalem, Abe stressed the economic significance of his visit, yet he was inevitably drawn to Benjamin’s Netanyahu all-embracing, bleak Middle Eastern narrative. This was in part due to timing: unfortunately for Abe, ISIS announced it would execute two Japanese hostages just before he left Israel. The two hostages are freelance journalist Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, a private security contractor who was reportedly captured by a local armed group in August. In a chilling video, ISIS demanded ransom for the two because Japan “has proudly donated $100 million to kill our women and children and destroy the home of Muslims”. Previously, there have even been unconfirmed reports about ISIS operatives recruiting in Japan.
Coming soon after this month’s bloody events in Paris, there appears at the moment no greater threat to world peace and prosperity than Islamist terrorism, at least through Israeli eyes. This is despite tentative signs that the US is trying to wean itself off its reliance on Middle Eastern oil. In fact, oil prices have been dropping recently in the face of ISIS’ takeover of a few oil fields across Iraq.
Needless to say, Netanyahu’s pessimism about the Arab Spring over the past few years has on balance proven justified, compared with President Obama’s optimism in his first term at the oval office. Talk of democratisation of the Arab world had been at the time misguided and naïve, as many in Washington would now concede. The region is still profoundly impregnated with medieval-like animus against the West and benighted by religious fanaticism.
Yet, all crises by definition also carry opportunity which perennial ‘unerring’ pessimism can shut out all too easily. More conciliatory rhetoric toward Mahmoud Abbas at this point in time could, for example, open doors for Israel in Europe and around the Middle East, where many incumbent leaders are equally concerned about the rise of ISIS. Indeed, there could have been a lot more global understanding for Israel’s unique predicament in the eye of the storm, had Netanyahu not rushed to cash in on ISIS’ rise to bolster his “no peace partner, no hope” narrative in the ears of foreign dignitaries, whilst mollycoddling the West Bank Settlement Lobby at the same time.
Netanyahu was quoted as telling Abe his visit came at the right time because “we aim to reduce our dependence on some markets in Western Europe. Western Europe is experiencing a wave of Islamisation, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism so we need to ensure we have diverse markets around the world for years to come”. To get Tokyo on-side is certainly encouraging for Israel. It may be gratifying also because Abe’s government – though it has angered China on numerous occasions – is in almost complete unison with Beijing when it comes to ISIS. Ibrahim Jaffari, Iraq’s foreign minister, revealed for example last December that his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, offered his country assistance including airstrikes in the fight against “sunni extremists”. To his credit, Netanyahu did mention to Abe that his “Look East” pitch was not confined to Japan: It took Netanyahu to Beijing a year and a half ago, and saw him meeting his Indian counterpart at the last UN General Assembly.
To view Israel’s relations with Japan, China or India for that matter mainly through the prism of ISIS is somewhat simplistic if not short-sighted. So is the presumption that East and South Asia are rough-and-ready substitute markets. First, it does injustice to the over-arching historical significance and geo-political dynamics of these countries’ rise. Second, closer to home, places like Ramallah, Amman, Cairo, Erbil or Riyadh are precisely where one finds moderate allies without which ISIS — as an idea — can never be fully defeated, and provocateurs like Turkey’s Erdogan can never be effectively silenced. And Western Europe remains a much bigger trading partner for Israel than Japan.
A dangerous state of mind is taking over parts of Israeli public discourse, cheered on by a few populistic media analysts, one which casts Western Europe as a “lost cause” where governance is about to be “Islamicised” any minute now. Curiously, it is a state of mind not unlike that of the European far right, one that is dismissive, for example, of noble expressions of solidarity by many Muslims with the victims of the Paris attacks.The notion that Israel can stand its ground in that febrile part of the world in which it is situated by simply pitching beyond Europe and by constantly hedging against the Obama administration is precarious. Israel cannot afford to write Europe off. In that sense, Netanyahu should learn from Erdogan’s mistakes following Turkey’s membership rebuff from the EU: The Turkish PM has already tried to steer Turkey away from Europe with, among other things, upbeat rhetoric on Asia. He has gained little of substance from it so far.
Niv Horesh is Professor and Director of the China Policy Institute. Image Credit: CC by Global Panorama/Flickr