- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2005

TEL AVIV — Japan wants to establish itself as a channel for Arab-Israeli negotiations, inviting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to pay separate state visits this year to discuss restarting the Middle East peace process.

Palestinian and Israeli officials said the leaders are considering a trip to Japan, but neither has set a date for the visit.

Japan is eager to try its hand in Middle East peacemaking in a bid to boost its profile in international diplomacy, said an official at the Japanese Embassy in Tel Aviv.

As Japan lobbies to secure permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council, the country wants to take a more proactive role in mediating solutions to conflicts on the world agenda.

“Japan is active enough, but we want to be more active,” said Kazu Hashimoto, a press attache at the Tel Aviv embassy. “We would like to play a role, not only for this, but in every major realm. … We cannot ignore the Middle East.”

Since the beginning of the Oslo peace process in 1993, Japanese donations to the Palestinian Authority have exceeded $1 billion, making it one of the most generous financial contributors, Mr. Hashimoto said. But hosting twin state visits by Israeli and Palestinian leaders would mark a new role for Japan.

Japanese officials stress that the diplomatic initiative is intended to supplement rather than supplant the leading role played by the United States. At the same time, Japan says it comes to the peace table as a “neutral” mediator because it has no history in the region as a colonial power or as an active player in the peace process.

“Historically, we are different,” said an official at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. “We were not involved in the imperial struggles in the area. Historically, we have clean hands with both sides.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Mr. Abbas had accepted the invitation, saying that an additional channel of mediation could help the negotiations move forward.

“We appreciate all the Japanese are doing to help the peace process,” he said. “I think it’s an additional facilitation, which is a good facilitation.”

Over the past decade of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the Japanese have chaired multilateral talks on water rights — an environmental issue that has triggered wars in the Middle East. Mr. Hashimoto said the Japanese now are offering to host informal or back-channel contacts between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr. Hashimoto said Mr. Sharon has had a long-standing invitation to visit Japan.

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