Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has embarked on a four-day official visit to Japan. Since Ehud Olmert traveled to Tokyo in February 2008, no Israeli premier had visited this East-Asian state. The visit is part of an Israeli effort to expand political and economic ties with Asia, which in recent years included Presidential visits to Vietnam (2011), Japan (2011), and China (2014), and a visit by Netanyahu to China in 2013. Netanyahu, while meeting the Emperor and Empress as well as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is likely to discuss the need to deepen economic bilateral relations. The meetings will probably touch on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the Palestinian issue as well. On his trip, Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to realize that Japan and the Middle East have become indispensable geo-strategic partners and therefore should focus on the following issues:
1. Promoting bilateral trade, with a focus on technology – Although Japan is the third largest economy in the world (after the U.S. and China), bilateral trade is relatively low; in 2012, Israeli exports totaled $0.83 billion (mostly electrical equipment), only a tiny fraction of a $856 billion of Japanese imports. Israeli imports from Japan at the same year totaled $1.7 billion (mainly automobiles and machinery) out of around $800 billion value of Japanese exports. As Israel rebalances its trade strategies towards Asia because of fear of an over dependence on trade with Europe, Japan should be an important factor in this. Netanyahu should focus on technology and partnerships between Tokyo and the ‘Start-up Nation’, while keeping in mind that the past year saw some notable exists and partnerships involving Israeli and Japanese companies (the acquisition of Viber for $900M by Rakuten, the purchase of OCZ Technology Group by Toshiba, and the investment of Yaskawa in Argo Medical Technologies).
2. Encouraging Japan to take a more active role in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions — Japan was one of the top consumers of Iranian oil exports, but has complied with U.S. sanctions that penalize countries which buy Tehran’s oil and gas. While Tokyo has also imposed its own sanctions on Iranian banks and banned investment in new Iranian energy projects, it has not played an active role in solving the nuclear dispute. The United States has been pushing Japan for years to be a more influential player in the international security realm. In his visit, Prime Minister Netanyahu should remind Shinzo Abe about Japan’s policy of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the shared experiences with weapons of mass destruction that bind Tehran and Tokyo. Quiet engagement between Japan and Iran in the near future, while the nuclear talks are taking place, is not far-fetched; since the Islamic revolution, Japan has at times been a conduit for sensitive messages between the West and Iran.
3. Discussing the sustaining of Japanese aid to the Palestinian Authority through international organizations – Amid concerns of corruption in the Palestinian Authority with regards to donors’ money, it is important that Japan continues its numerous development projects and not make direct contributions to the PA budget. Since Japan imports more than 80 percent of its crude oil from the greater Middle East, the regional stability is of great interest and concern to Japan. Tokyo views the Palestinian issue as a volatile factor, which can hurt the stability of the region and put its energy supply in harms way. Tokyo’s soft power in this issue comes through projects aimed at bringing reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, such as the Corridor of Peace and Prosperity, an initiative to work collaboratively on projects such as the establishment of an agro-industrial park in Jericho and facilitating the transportation of goods. In recent years, Japan, the PA’s third largest benefactor after the U.S. and the E.U., began funneling its support into development projects through organizations it could trust, such as the World Bank, and not directly to the Palestinian Authority.
4. Discussing the possibility of exporting LNG to Japan – Recent discovery of natural gas offshore has provided Israel with the potential of becoming an energy exporter. The Israeli government has decided to allow the export of between 260-360 billion cubic meters, depending on the size of the proven reserves. After the signing of export deals with Jordanian and Palestinian companies via pipelines, there is also a discussion to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) which would allow Israel to ship its products to Asian markets, where the price of natural gas is higher than in the Euro-Mediterranean area. PM Netanyahu should bear in mind that Japan imports more LNG than any other country in the world, a record of 87.5 million metric tons in 2013, and would therefore be a large market for LNG exports from Israel.
5. Creating a framework of cooperation on cyber-security – The Israeli Prime Minister should strengthen bilateral collaboration in addressing national security issues in cyberspace, combating cybercrime, and boosting cyber-security and critical infrastructure cyber-security. Tokyo has been maintaining cyber-security dialogues with the U.S. and the European Union, and therefore it is high time that the Japanese Cyber Defense Unit and the Israeli National Cyber Bureau inaugurate a bilateral cyber-security dialogue. Besides governmental cooperation, the Japanese market could be a lucrative trade opportunity for Israeli cyber-security firms, ranging from major product-based companies to start-ups.