Boosting Israel-Japan trade

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, on a four-day visit to Japan, meets with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on February 27, 2008 in Tokyo. (GPO / BPH IMAGES)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, on a four-day visit to Japan, meets with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on February 27, 2008 in Tokyo. (GPO / BPH IMAGES)

TOKYO (JTA) – Japan, a small country with few natural resources that became a high-tech powerhouse through hard work and ingenuity, can serve as a role model for Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert believes.

And, while Olmert didn’t state it quite as clearly during his recent visit here, Israel may be a role model for Japan on issues of defense.

The two countries are seeking to establish a framework for joint research and development in civilian and defense areas where they have similar needs, Olmert said last week in Tokyo.

He didn’t specify which defense concerns Israel and Japan share, but his comment came during a news conference that dealt in part with potential nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea.

“The possibility of North Korea becoming an active nuclear power is of major proportion in this part of the world, and in my discussions with Japanese leaders we shared our assessments and observations about the possible ramifications of this to the world at large,” Olmert told journalists at the end of his four-day working visit.

“I talked with Prime Minister [Yasuo] Fukuda at some length about the situation vis-a-vis the proliferation of North Korea and Iran, what are the measures to be taken and how Israel and Japan can cooperate,” Olmert said.

He also discussed Iran and North Korea during a meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba.

Olmert’s visit to Japan was the third by an Israeli prime minister.

On the streets outside central Tokyo’s government offices, the Israeli flag’s Star of David fluttered next to Japan’s red sun. Nearby, a tall, dark-haired man strolled apparently at leisure down the street, stopping occasionally to peer at shrubs or parked cars, with only the earpiece running from beneath his suit jacket identifying him as an Israeli security agent.

Even half a world away, however, Olmert couldn’t escape the conflict with the Palestinians: While he was here, Hamas rocket barrages killed an Israeli civilian in Sderot and reached the southern city of Ashkelon, precipitating Israeli retaliation that has left more than 100 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers dead.

The Hamas barrage led to an impromptu meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who happened to be visiting Tokyo at the same time as Olmert. And it dominated questioning during Olmert’s news conference, as Japanese journalists peppered him with queries about the isolation of Gaza, why Hamas had changed tactics and whether Israel felt any obligation to help the Palestinians economically or whether it was shunting that burden onto the rest of the world, including Japan.

Though Israeli casualty figures may seem small, Olmert tried to bring home to his hosts the reality of the conflict.

“Just imagine that a city the size of Yokohama is shot at on a daily basis by rockets that land all over the place,” he said. “This inevitably creates an unbelievable sense of fear and instability among thousands of people that live with this continued threat for years, without a rest either on the day or during the night.”

The escalation in southern Israel diverted attention from the economic angle Olmert had hoped to press in Japan.

Israel’s trade with Japan rose 27 percent in 2007 to $2.88 billion, but most of it – primarily cars and electronics – goes from Japan to Israel, according to Chaim Choshen, the deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo.

Israeli imports from Japan rose 41 percent last year as the economy surged and Israelis bought more high-end goods. Meanwhile, Israeli exports to Japan, which include optical and medical equipment and diamonds, fell 3 percent to $722 million.

Olmert was accompanied by a delegation of Israeli businessmen, and a forum during the trip attracted several hundred members of Japan’s business elite, including top officials from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the powerful Japan Business Federation.

Olmert talked up Israeli efforts to develop renewable energy sources and electric cars, saying “we will be happy to share some of the knowledge and achievements with Japanese companies that are involved in the same area.”

The contrast between the jocular, backslapping Olmert and his starched and formal hosts could not have been more stark. Yet he sought to present Japan and Israel as kindred nations using brainpower and discipline to overcome demographic challenges and a lack of natural resources.

Israeli high-tech companies “are the leaders of our economy, of our industry, and these are exactly the areas where the power, the sophistication, the excellence, the precision which characterizes Japan’s industries, together with the innovation that characterize Israeli high-tech developments, can join forces,” Olmert said. “I think that this is a good basis for economic cooperation.”

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