With the Group of Seven avoiding criticism of Israel's intensifying bombardment of the Gaza Strip during their just-ended two-day foreign ministerial talks in Tokyo, some observers say Japan needs to make its own stance on the situation in the Middle East clearer.

The G7 members' alignment over Israel's ongoing war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas may open up a rift with Muslim countries that would ultimately benefit China and Russia down the road, they said.

Israel has been strongly backed by the United States, Japan's close ally. But Japan, this year's G7 chair, has traditionally pursued a "balanced diplomacy" between Israel and Muslim nations in the Middle East as it is highly dependent on crude oil from the region.

Group of Seven foreign ministers hold an outreach talk with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (on screen) taking part on Nov. 8, 2023, the second day of their two-day gathering in Tokyo. (Pool photo) (Kyodo)

The G7 foreign ministerial gathering came as Israel has been expanding its air and ground attacks on the Palestinian enclave Gaza, ruled by Hamas, following the militant group's surprise attack on the Jewish state Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,400 people.

With the Palestinian death toll reportedly topping 10,000, some countries have even started to recall their ambassadors from Israel or cut diplomatic relations with the country, accusing it of violating international humanitarian law.

The G7 ministers requested "humanitarian pauses" in the war "to facilitate urgently needed assistance" to Gaza, while condemning Hamas in a joint statement released after their meeting, but they did not mention whether they consider Israel's attacks to constitute a breach of international law.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa has told reporters repeatedly that the Asian country is "not a direct party to the conflict and does not fully grasp its specific situations. We cannot make a definitive legal assessment" of the Israeli attacks.

Japan was among the 44 nations that abstained from voting on a U.N. General Assembly resolution late last month calling for a "humanitarian truce," which was adopted but opposed by Israel, which has refused a cease-fire, as well as by the United States among some other nations.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa meets the press in Tokyo on Nov. 8, 2023, after wrapping up a two-day meeting of the Group of Seven foreign ministers. (Kyodo)

Satoru Nakamura, a professor at Kobe University's Graduate School of Intercultural Studies, said Japan has been "too attentive to the United States just because they are security allies and Arab countries have been wondering why" it abstained in the General Assembly vote.

Japan's ambiguous attitude might prompt Muslim nations in the Middle East to get closer to China and Russia, seeing the G7 countries as no longer reliable partners in creating regional stability, said Nakamura, who is well-versed in international security and politics in the Middle East.

In recent years, China's maritime assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and Russia's invasion of Ukraine since February 2022 have divided the world into two groups -- Western democratic nations and what they call autocratic countries.

Kenichiro Takao, an executive research fellow at the Middle East Institute of Japan, said the Israel-Hamas war occurred before four Muslim nations -- Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- are due to join the China-led BRICS forum in January 2024.

Brazil, Russia and India, along with China and South Africa, have tried to bolster ties with the Global South countries, some of which are ruled by dictatorships, while the G7 nations have also made efforts to boost relations with them to counter Beijing and Moscow.

If the G7 members continue to take Israel's side in the conflict to the frustration of Muslim nations, China and Russia would reinforce their clout in the Global South, Takao said.

Participants of a two-day Group of Seven foreign ministerial meeting pose for photos on the second day in Tokyo on Nov. 8, 2023. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa (4th from R) chaired the meeting. (Pool photo) (Kyodo)

Kazuo Takahashi, a professor emeritus at the Open University of Japan, said Japan should continue to criticize aspects of Israeli behavior, such as Jewish settlements in the West Bank, having earlier expressed "serious concern" about them.

"Even in the Israel-Palestine issue, Japan should stick to the principle that seizure of territories by force is not tolerated under international law," said Takahashi, an expert in the Middle East.

Takao, meanwhile, said Japan can leverage its differences from the other G7 members as a strength, including its traditional friendship with Iran, which has been backing Hamas.

Japan forwent joining in a joint statement by five G7 members -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy -- days after the launch of the war, voicing "steadfast and united support" for Israel and "unequivocal condemnation of Hamas."

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