Resumption of Gaza Fighting Blurs Kishida’s Visit to Middle East

Courtesy of the Cabinet Public Affairs Office
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, shakes hands with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Dubai on Friday.

DUBAI — Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East ended Saturday after a series of talks in Dubai with national leaders of the region.

Kishida had tried to make his presence felt in an effort to help calm the situation in the Gaza Strip, but fighting in the area unexpectedly resumed during his stay in the United Arab Emirates city.

The prime minister was unable to generate the impetus to reverse his slumping Cabinet approval ratings.

“The situation remains unpredictable, but we want to continue our diplomatic efforts,” Kishida told reporters on the day.

The prime minister stressed that he had met with “key players in the region,” including from Israel and Qatar, and expressed Japan’s intention to work for peace and stability in the Middle East in its role as the Group of Seven chair.

Of the Middle Eastern leaders, Kishida met first with Israeli President Isaac Herzog. During the Friday meeting, Kishida stressed the importance of making efforts to calm the situation as soon as possible.

However, Herzog said that the situation had become brittle and fragile, indicating that negotiations with Islamist militant group Hamas aimed at extending a pause in the fighting had reached an impasse.

Shortly after the meeting, the Israeli military announced a resumption of the fighting.

“The timing is very bad,” a government source said.

Kishida had no choice but to repeatedly express his regret over the resumed fighting when he met with the leaders of Qatar, which had brokered the truce, Egypt and other countries in the region.

Striking a balance

Japan, which depends on the Middle East for about 90% of its crude oil imports, has maintained good relations with Israel, Palestinians and Arab countries. However, the situation in Gaza has given rise to different views between Japan and the United States, which is allied with Israel, forcing Tokyo to make difficult decisions.

In light of this, the Japanese government carefully selected the leaders with whom Kishida would speak during this trip. In addition to neighboring countries such as Israel, Egypt and Jordan, the government also arranged a telephone conversation with the president of Iran, which backs Hamas.

“Considering Japan’s energy situation, the nation should not make its stance clear,” a senior government official said. “We tried to strike a balance as much as possible.”

Challenges await in Japan

Kishida will face more challenges after returning to Japan. His biggest cause for concern is the issue of the underreporting of political funds income by five factions of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The largest LDP faction — formerly led by late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and known as the Abe faction — has been hit by allegations that it systematically pooled undocumented funds. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno and Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, both key members of the Kishida Cabinet, have each played a central role in the faction. However, neither has addressed the fund allegations.

There is growing concern within the government and ruling camp that the funds issue could deal a major blow to Kishida’s administration.

“People with knowledge of each political group’s situation should clarify the situation,” Kishida told reporters on Saturday.