TOKYO — The Japanese have asked the Arab nations to suspend their boycott of trade with Israel, a move that brings Japan's Middle East policy in line with that of the rest of the industrial world and that could boost its potential role as a peacemaker in the region.
Now that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has frozen plans to build new settlements in the occupied territories, Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa said Friday, "It is the position of the government of Japan that the Arab side should reciprocally suspend the . . . boycott."
Japan signed a 1991 London Economic Summit declaration calling for the suspension of both the Arab boycott and the Israeli policy of building settlements in the occupied territories.
Although Japanese officials have stated that boycotts undermine free trade, they have taken the position that the government has no sway over private-sector decisions. But Japan this time has taken a stronger stance by conveying its position directly to its "Arab friends."
The government is also planning to publicly promote closer economic ties with Israel during a Dec. 14 visit to Japan by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
The shift in Japan's position drew praise from Israel and from the American Jewish community. "It is quite a significant change, and we are glad they took the initiative to tell Arab ambassadors (in Japan) they are against the boycott," an Israeli diplomat in Tokyo said. He said the step will enable Japan to take a more active role in the Middle East peace process.
Neil C. Sandberg, director of the Pacific Rim Institute of the American Jewish Committee, a Los Angeles-based research group, said: "Japan has close ties to the Arab world, and that influence is now being brought to bear on the boycott. Japan is emerging from being an economic power into a new phase as a political superpower. This increases its credibility."
Japan is playing a leading role in a multilateral effort to address environmental problems resulting from the Gulf War and has stepped up its involvement in the peace process involving Israel and the Arab states, Sandberg said.
Sandberg, in Japan for visits with Japan's political and business leaders, said he expects Japan and Israel to cement their ties with potentially important scientific exchanges and joint ventures during Peres' visit.
"Immigrants from Russia with engineering and scientific backgrounds are working as taxi drivers and waiters," Sandberg said. "This could mean jobs for them."
Ever since the Arab oil cartel gained power in the early 1970s, Japan has sought to appease the Arab states--on which it depends for 70% of its oil--by siding with them on key regional issues and by keeping its distance from Israel.
But in recent years, with the increasing conflict among Arab nations and the weakening of the oil cartel, Japan has quietly allowed its relations with Israel to warm. Two-way trade between Japan and Israel has quadrupled in the last six years, reaching $1.5 billion. Japanese companies now sell cars and consumer products to Israel directly rather than through circuitous routes. Last month, a top official of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry visited Israel to scout out investment and trade opportunities.
"Japan has become much more willing to hear the Israeli side," an Israeli diplomat said.
With Japan's recent policy shift, he said, the lingering tendency of Japanese companies to avoid meeting with Israeli business people or to mention Israeli ties in company literature should begin to dissolve.
Skeptics, including some Japanese Middle East experts, say Japan's shifting position on Israel may be an effort to court America, rather than a step toward carving out a new international role.
Reconciliation with Israel is regarded as particularly important to Japan because the incoming Clinton Administration is seen here as being strongly pro-Israel.
At a time when Japan's trade surplus is reaching record levels, Japanese officials are loath to do anything that may irritate the United States, the experts say.