Monday, August 31, 2009

What the new era in Japan might mean for Israel

Ben-Ami Shillony
Haaretz News

The immediate consequence of the opposition's sweeping victory in Japan's elections yesterday will be psychological - it will create an atmosphere of optimism that could strengthen the economy. Such optimism will be fleeting if it is not followed by concrete results. The victorious Democratic Party, headed by Yukio Hatoyama, has never before governed in Japan. It is seeking to be perceived as a center-left party.

Hatoyama has declared that his government will raise child allowances, expand welfare services and abolish highway tolls. He plans to fund these programs by shutting down "wasteful" projects, such as unnecessary highways and bridges.

These "wasteful" projects were designed to stimulate the Japanese economy, and eliminating them will harm various sectors and slow the country's recovery from recession.

The Democratic Party's plan to eliminate the employment of temporary industry workers, which would benefit employees but hurt industry, is expected to cause similar problems.

The new government will attempt to forge a more independent foreign policy, involving closer ties with China and other Asian countries and more independence from the United States.

Hatoyama has said he will end Japan's participation in anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan; Japan was involved in refueling American ships in the Indian Ocean.

Ending Japanese support for Western military operations in Afghanistan could cause tension with the United States and reduce American support for Japan in its confrontation with North Korea. It could also hurt U.S.-bound exports, which are essential for the Japanese economy's recovery. Toyota recently reported a 20 percent drop in worldwide car sales, while Mitsubishi's car sales were down 45 percent.

Withdrawing from American guardianship could also change Japanese policy toward Israel. Until now, Japan limited its support for the Palestinians to aiding economic projects, in keeping with American requests. The Hatoyama government is likely to take a more pro-Arab stance, such as by recognizing Hamas and making tougher demands of Israel, such as calling for an end to construction in the settlements. Such a position would be similar to the line taken by some European governments, and will not necessarily lead to a confrontation with the United States. The Obama administration may actually be pleased.

This January, the Israeli ambassador in Tokyo, Nissim Ben-Shitrit, participated in a Democratic Party convention. At the end of the convention, he met with Hatoyama. The party's Web site stated that Hatoyama expressed his deep concern over the Palestinian victims of Israel's Cast Lead operation in the Gaza Strip, and added that he hoped Israel would change its policies toward the Arab world, like American foreign policy had changed with the election of Barack Obama.

Hatoyama called himself the Japanese Obama in his election campaign, and said he would bring hoped-for change. When it comes to Israel, Obama and Hatoyama may coordinate efforts in ways Israel hasn't expected.

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