In Israel, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talks business with tough line on peace

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held talks with top Israeli officials in Jerusalem on Monday in a bid to deepen economic cooperation while also bringing a tough message on peace.

Abe said Tokyo would continue to have an "active engagement" in efforts to broker peace in the region as he held separate talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.

His visit to Israel, the first by a Japanese premier since 2006, is primarily aimed at bolstering the bilateral relationship, particularly in the economic sphere.

But Abe, who travels Tuesday to the West Bank town of Ramallah, said he was also to give some tough advice to both Israel and the Palestinians.

"As a genuine friend, I might offer advice that may not be easy to swallow to both of the parties," he told reporters on meeting Netanyahu.

He did not elaborate further but the embassy said he would be urging both sides to find ways to return to the negotiating table after the collapse nine months ago of the latest round of peace talks.

A Japanese government official said Abe would communicate the same message to both sides.

"The prime minister... believes that hatred does not help anything, and that both sides should refrain from taking unilateral actions that would exacerbate the situation... and (undermine) the two-state solution," he said on condition of anonymity.

For Israel, this referred to "issues like the settlements" as well as to the Jewish state's freezing of Palestinian tax monies.

Earlier this month, Israel blocked the transfer of US$127 million (S$169 million) to Ramallah as a punitive measure after the Palestinians applied to join the International Criminal Court where they can potentially sue Israel for alleged war crimes.

The move drew sharp international criticism, including from the United States and the European Union.

Both issues are likely to come up when Abe meets Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah on Tuesday.

"In terms of the Palestinians ... becoming a member (of the ICC) and the indictment of Israelis does not really help to pursue this (two-state) solution," the Japanese official said. "He would say that both sides should refrain from taking these actions."

At the start of the meeting with Abe, Netanyahu said Israel would continue to defend itself against any threats and would not be deterred by the ICC, which has begun a preliminary examination of a Palestinian complaint relating to Israeli actions last year.

"Israel is adamant that it will have the right to defend itself against all those who wish to propagate terror and other attacks against its citizens, against its territory," he said. "We will not have our hands tied by anyone, including the ICC. We will do what is necessary to defend ourselves wherever we need to do so."

Earlier, Abe visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem as the world marks 70 years since the end of the Nazi genocide.

"This year as we mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation of Auschwitz, I make a pledge that we should never ever let such tragedies be repeated," he said.

"Today, I have learned how merciless humans can be by singling out a group of people and making that group the object of discrimination and hatred," he said after laying a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance and restoked the "eternal flame" as is customary for international leaders and diplomats visiting the site.

He also paid tribute to late Japanese diplomat Chiune Sempo Sugihara, who is known one of the "righteous among the gentiles" who gave travel documents to some 3,500 Jews trying to escape the Nazis while posted to Lithuania, and in whose honour a tree is planted at Yad Vashem.

After meeting Abbas in the West Bank on Tuesday, Abe will return to Japan, wrapping up a six-day tour of the region which began with a visit to Egypt and Jordan.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.