Japan to Fund Gaza Plan, Seeking Greater Mideast Role

UNLIKE its reluctant role in the 1991 Gulf war, Japan has not hesitated to help bankroll the historic peace accord to set up areas of Palestinian self-rule.

When Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa meets with President Clinton this weekend in New York, he is expected to announce a hefty contribution by Japan to rebuild the city of Jericho and the impoverished Gaza Strip.

Tokyo officials admit they are seeking more influence in a region that provides most of Japan's oil. ``We regard ourselves as a sort of insider in dealing with the Mideast,'' says foreign ministry official Seiji Morimoto.

``We are totally dependent on the raw materials there,'' he adds. ``With that in mind, our contribution will be high to peace in the Middle East.''

The United States and World Bank plan to bring potential donors to a conference in early October to put together a $3 billion economic rehabilitation program for occupied territories about to be regained from Israel. The effort is similar to a 1991 conference that raised money for Russia and other former Soviet states.

Oil-rich Arab countries and the European Community may try to match Japan in the level of funding, with the US expected to provide a minor financing role. For the Gulf war, Japan gave $11 billion after much US urging.

US Treasury Undersecretary Lawrence Summers visited Tokyo last week to discuss Japan's contribution. The US hopes Japan will provide 20 to 30 percent of the total package, or $600 million to $900 million.

Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Kunihiko Saito says Japan will certainly go above the 12 percent that it now pays to the United Nations. Japan is also expected to offer training to Palestinian government workers in such matter as tax collection.

Japanese Prime Minister Tsutomo Hata was on hand when the historic accord was signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization at the White House. His presence underscored Japan's contributions to the Middle East peace process and the important role it can play in the future of that region.

Japanese money, if not diplomacy, is seen as filling a Middle East vacuum left by Moscow's pullback. ``Japan is ready to cooperate with other countries in providing aid to the areas because a Mideast peace will lead to world peace,'' Mr. Hata said.

Japan already ranks as a top donor to Palestinians among industrialized nations, providing $23 million this year. And during the Middle East peace talks that began in 1991, Tokyo hosted talks on the region's environmental problems, one of five such groups set up by the talks.

Japan had little dealing with Israel until 1991, when the US nudged it to expand its role after the Gulf war. Since then, many Japanese companies have stopped following the Arab trade boycott of Israel. Japanese cars now dominate the Israeli market.

Japan's interest in Middle East peace extends beyond its desire for a stable oil supply, however. It also wants to reduce the incentive for neighboring North Korea to build advanced missiles for sale to the region.

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