G7's political relevance at stake over Israel-Gaza response

Foreign ministers will meet in Tokyo this week to discuss the conflict, which several global powers have warned could spiral and engulf the Middle East

John GeddieSakura Murakami and Kentaro Sugiyama
Published : 6 Nov 2023, 11:32 AM
Updated : 6 Nov 2023, 11:32 AM

The Group of Seven (G7) bloc of wealthy democracies risks eroding its relevance as a force to tackle major geopolitical crises over an apparent struggle between its member nations to agree on a firm, united approach to Israel's war in Gaza.

Foreign ministers from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the European Union and the United States meet in Tokyo this week to discuss the conflict, which several global powers have warned could spiral and engulf the Middle East.

If ministers do issue a communique after the meeting, it will likely address the conflict in general terms, reflecting the different concerns, and the divergent political and economic loyalties within the group, analysts say.

  • G7 foreign ministers meet in Tokyo Nov 7-8

  • Joint statement on spiralling war in focus

  • Chair Japan has struck cautious tone on conflict

"Europeans are divided and this division is also certainly visible within the G7," said Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations.

Complicating matters is that the current chair of the group Japan has taken a cautious approach to the crisis, resisting pressure to fall in line with the pro-Israel stance of its closest ally, the United States, officials and analysts say.

Officials from France and Canada, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said the strong US support for Israel, and concerns about a backlash from either Arab or Jewish segments of the populations of the G7 nations, have made reaching common positions challenging.

From the beginning of the conflict, Japan has sought a "balanced" response, in part due to its diverse diplomatic interests in the region and its dependency on the Middle East for oil.

Israeli diplomats, however, have intensively lobbied Japan in phone calls, emails and visits to Japanese officials, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

The mounting casualties in Gaza have reinforced Japan's cautious approach, analysts say. Health officials in the Palestinian enclave say almost 10,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed since Israel's bombardment began in retaliation for Oct. 7 attacks by the militant group Hamas.

"I don't think ever in the past history of the G7 presidency under Japan it has come to this kind of a critical challenge," said Koichiro Tanaka, a professor at Tokyo's Keio University who specialises on international relations in the Middle East.

A spokesperson for Japan's foreign ministry said it was expected that countries have different positions, but denied that G7 members were struggling to find common ground.

The spokesperson declined to confirm whether a communique would be issued. A statement issued by G7 trade ministers from a meeting in Osaka late last month did not mention the war.

DIVISIONS ON DISPLAY

The G7 was initially set up half a century ago to discuss global economic problems, but its scope has since broadened to represent the collective voice of major industrialised countries' on political and security issues.

While the group in recent years has shown unity in sanctioning Russia over its Ukraine war and calling out so-called 'economic coercion' from China, they have not moved in lock step over the Israel-Gaza war.

Since the war erupted, the G7 has issued just one joint statement on the conflict amounting to a few sentences. Other group members have issued joint statements.

G7 divisions have also been evident at the United Nations, with France voting in favour of a resolution calling for a humanitarian truce in the conflict on Oct 26, the US opposing it and the group's other members abstaining.

Agreeing specific wording on Israel's right to defend itself, the civilian casualties in Gaza and calls for a temporary halt in fighting will be difficult, officials say.

Aside from rhetoric, Hideaki Shinoda, a professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said the G7 needed concrete proposals on how to get humanitarian aid into Gaza, where fuel, food, water and medical supplies are scarce, but that is also likely to prove a tall task.

Israel has vowed to annihilate Hamas after the Iran-backed group attacked southern Israel, killing 1,400 people and taking more than 240 hostages. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected global calls for a humanitarian ceasefire, saying any lull would play into the hands of Hamas, while the United States has proposed temporary, localised pauses in the fighting.

One G7 official said members were deliberately trying to hide their differences so as not to "play into Russia's hands".

China and Russia are using the conflict as an opportunity to burnish their credentials as the champions of the developing world, as well as to oppose the United States.

Any sign of disunity or failure to stem the conflict may only embolden these G7 detractors, analysts say.

"It's also a question of how China and Russia will interpret these developments and how they will try testing us," said Kunihiko Miyake, research director at The Canon Institute for Global Studies, a Tokyo-based think tank.

*Additional reporting by Reuters correspondents Tim Kelly and Yoshifumi Takemoto in Tokyo, John Irish in Paris, Andrew Gray in Brussels, Andreas Rinke in Berlin, David Brunstromm in Washington DC and Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Editing by Miral Fahmy