Milo Barisof, translator
February 15-21, 2019
Why Does the Middle East Conflict Continue?
Executive director, Oomoto Peace Institute for Israel and Palestine
All or nothing
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for attending this talk on the conflict in the Middle East. I hope that you will come away with a slightly better understanding of the issues and be glad you took the time out of your busy schedules to be here.
Among bestsellers on the market, there are some books written about Jews, especially on topics such as the theory that the Japanese and the Jews are of common ancestry, that understanding the Jews is the key to understanding the world, and that Jews control the world. Some people may find these topics interesting, but they are not germane to the problem in the Middle East.
Some people who study world affairs have concluded that the conflict in the Middle East is the clash of the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—a family feud that has lasted thousands of years—and stems from a worldview fundamentally different from that of the Japanese, who are tolerant of other religions. It is as if they argue that all the ills in the Middle East derive from an intolerant monotheism; they emphasize, in particular, the influence of the rich natural environment of Japan vis-à-vis the desolate deserts of the Middle East.
Anyone who has visited the Middle East, however, knows that it’s not all desert. There are pundits and so-called experts who seem to suggest that the problem consists in a monotheism born in a harsh natural environment and the clash of intolerant people from that barren land. Yet, the Philippines is a monotheistic, Catholic country, whereas Thailand and Myanmar are Buddhist. Is there a large gap between the tolerance levels of Catholics and Buddhists in those countries?
The influence of the media in relation to the Middle East conflict is undeniable. When you repeatedly see footage of the Israel Defense Forces bombing Gaza and civilians, including children, being killed, you might think that Israel is a terrible country. Of course, killing innocent people for any reason is always wrong, and thus criticisms of Israel should come as no surprise. However, even if their reasons are unjustified, I think it is vital to convey the Israeli point of view.
The keyword of today’s talk is “all or nothing,” and I will reprise it in the conclusion. Ought we let one misdeed affect our judgment of the whole? To give an everyday example, parents sometimes scold their children, saying, “You’re always doing that.” They make an overarching critique of their child’s behavior, in addition to reprimanding them for the issue at hand. From the child’s perspective, it is one thing to correct something in the present, yet quite another to cast judgment on their overall behavior.
The same is true for marital disagreements. Often in criticisms from women, one hears, “You’re always like that.” They sometimes dredge up past transgressions in addition to offering criticism on the matter at hand. If you claim not to remember, it simply makes matters worse, so it’s best to keep one’s mouth shut. By the way, I’d like to emphasize that this is just a general example and is not based on my personal experience.
The Middle East and Me
I didn’t start working at Oomoto headquarters with the intention of studying the conflict in the Middle East. I became involved with the Middle East only as part of my job in the International Department.
Although there are many Oomoto believers here today, this talk is intended for a general audience, and as such I won’t assume any knowledge about Oomoto.
In December 1998, an Israeli woman in her early twenties named Ruth Reiner came and spent one year in the Oomoto International Department. She was placed in my charge. We participated together in Oomoto ceremonies at both Kameoka and Ayabe headquarters and visited Oomoto branches around the country. She spoke often of her Jewish faith, and I, as her interpreter, learned much—especially concerning the Hebrew Bible.
Several days after she returned home in December 1999, I ended up following her to Israel. I went with the Universal Love and Brotherhood Association [Jinrui Aizen-kai] director general, Masato Deguchi, in preparation for the World Esperanto Congress to be held in summer 2000. Mr. Deguchi carried with him an official letter from the then-mayor of Ayabe, Yasuo Shikata. (Ten’on-kyō, here in Kameoka, is a sacred place in Oomoto and one of its two headquarters; the other is Baishō-en in Ayabe.)
Thanks to that letter, Ayabe and Jerusalem made a joint declaration of friendship in February 2000. The status of Jerusalem—an internationally debated issue—forms the nucleus of the conflict. This issue requires further explanation, but suffice it to say that Ayabe indicated its intention—should the two-state solution take hold with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital—to issue a declaration of friendship to East Jerusalem, as well.
In 2003, the third year following the declaration of friendship, the city of Ayabe invited Israeli and Palestinian youth to Japan. This was the beginning of a project with the aim of giving them the opportunity to speak with one another about their experience of the conflict. Between 2003 and summer 2016 (in Kōya, Wakayama Prefecture), a total of ten groups of Israeli and Palestinian youth were brought to Japan. Although this project is not under the auspices of Oomoto, I have been closely involved since the beginning. I’ll return to the subject of the Israeli/Palestinian youth project later.
In November 2017, I was able to arrange a meeting at Jerusalem City Hall between Zenya Yamazaki, the current mayor of Ayabe, and Nir Barkat, then mayor of Jerusalem. So the relationship between Ayabe and Jerusalem continues, now nearly 20 years old.
Some basic background
First, let’s take a look at the geography of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Palestine is divided into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Although some people confuse Iraq and Iran, they are very different countries. The majority of Iraqis are ethnically Arabs, and Iraq’s official languages are Arabic and Kurdish. Iranians are Persian, ethnically closer to Europeans, and their language is Farsi (Persian), which is an Indo-European language, not Semitic like Arabic and Hebrew.
With the exception of Israel, all these nations and areas are overwhelmingly Muslim, practitioners of the Islamic faith. Islam can be divided into two main branches: Sunni and Shia. Shia followers are known as Shiites. They constitute a minority in an Islamic world, which is 85 percent Sunni. Although Muslims in heavily populated regions such as South and South East Asia are almost all Sunni, the Middle East is more evenly divided between the two factions. 90 percent of Iran and 60 percent of Iraq are Shia; the Shiites constitute the majority in religiously diverse Lebanon, as well. In Bahrain, the royal family is Sunni, while the majority of the population is Shia. Perhaps you’ve heard on the news that in the conflict between the two main branches of Islam, Saudi Arabia heads the Sunni faction and Iran the Shia. Even if the conflict between Israel and Palestine did not exist, you would still see conflict between Sunni and Shia.
What happened in the Middle East in May 2018
A number of important developments took place in the Middle East in May 2018. Allow me to enumerate:
A) The victory of Hezbollah, a Shia political party and militant group, in Lebanon.
B) The victory of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric, and his electoral coalition in Iraq
C) The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal
D) The relocation of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
A) and B) can be viewed in the context of growing Shia power in Lebanon and Iraq. Iraq, which is majority Shia, was under the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein—a Sunni—until the US toppled his regime in the Iraq War. It should have come as no surprise that the majority Shia faction came to power through elections. Incidentally, ISIS, which has attempted to create a new fundamentalist Islamic state in the region, was born when Sunni extremists in Iraq rose up in discontent against the Shia majority, and grew as other Sunni extremists came to join them.
C) and D) were two of Donald Trump’s election promises, made to gain the support of his base and calculated to procure what he hopes will be an advantage in the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential election.
US sentiment on Iran
While not true of everyone in the US, I believe the average American holds a negative view of Iran. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution took place. It was truly a large-scale phenomenon. Prior to the revolution, Iran had been a Westernized country on good terms with the US and heavily supported by it, and it was not especially Islamic in character. However, as a result of the revolution, it became a Shia theocracy overnight.
I’m sure many of you remember the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, during which many Americans were taken hostage. President Carter launched a rescue operation that ended in failure. In living rooms across America, footage of the crisis played on television on a daily basis. Occupying an embassy is completely unacceptable, isn’t it? Despite its location in Tehran, the embassy is sovereign US territory, and it was occupied for 444 days, more than a year. I believe this incident figures large in the minds of many Americans who hold a negative impression of Iran. The fact that there exists some approval for the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal—even among those who criticize President Trump’s diplomatic posture—bespeaks the influence of US public opinion toward Iran.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend
The Iran nuclear deal from which the US withdrew was initially concluded in July 2015 among Iran, the US, the UK, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the EU. There is no doubt that the agreement worked to limit Iranian nuclear development, and even in Israel there was some measure of approval. Nonetheless, President Trump claims that more concessions could have been forced on Iran, and he may have a point. Out of consideration for the position of moderate Iranian President Rouhani, the Obama administration gave him some leeway that would allow him to rein in the hardliners and pave a more moderate path forward.
There is no such thing as a perfect agreement. However, when it comes to international politics, it’s not good practice to immediately renege on agreements, as Trump has done, and the US withdrawal will likely accelerate the decline of American credibility. It goes without saying that Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of whom consider Iran a menace, rejoiced together when President Trump withdrew from the deal. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Merely carrying out what had already been determined
The US Embassy in Japan is in Tokyo. Actually, the embassies of all the countries with diplomatic ties to Japan are, without exception, located in Tokyo. The Embassy of Japan in the UK is in London, and the Embassy of Japan in France is in Paris. This is because London is the capital of the UK and Paris is the capital of France. Yet, Israel is a different story.
The Knesset, which is Israel’s parliament, and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs are located in Jerusalem. This is because Israel considers Jerusalem as its capital. However, all the countries that have diplomatic ties with Israel, including Japan, have their embassies in Tel Aviv. This is because the international community doesn’t officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
It was in this context that President Trump relocated the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In fact, in 1995, during the Clinton administration, the US Congress passed a law to move the embassy to Jerusalem. However, the law allowed the President to invoke a six-month waiver of the application of the law. Subsequently, every six months the President decided to extend the waiver, in order to avoid directly declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Clinton, Bush and Obama all extended the waiver every six months.
To whom Jerusalem belongs remains an undecided and potentially explosive issue. If a Palestinian state is established in the future, it is the view of the Palestinian National Authority, as well as of the international community—including Japan—that East Jerusalem should be its capital. To whom Jerusalem belongs will be decided by an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. President Trump claims to be upholding that which previous administrations had failed to abide by because they chose to extend the waiver. And he is not wrong. We are presented with the paradox of a US Congress that almost unanimously passes a resolution that was not be implemented by previous presidents.
Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the Middle East conflict?
In the past, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East conflict were considered one in the same. Allow me to give some background.
Jews who had faced persecution, oppression and genocide in Europe tried to build a country in the land where their ancestors had lived two thousand years earlier. This movement, called “Zionism,” led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. However, there were Palestinians living on that land. Broadly speaking, it turned into a land war between the returning Jews and the Palestinians. The term “Palestinian” refers to Arabs who live in the region of Palestine. As an analogy, “Osakans” are Japanese who live in Osaka and “Kyotoites” are Japanese who live in Kyoto.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East conflict have long been considered synonymous. There have been four wars between the Arabs and the Israelis since the establishment of the State of Israel: the first Arab-Israeli war, at the time of Israel’s founding in 1948; the second in 1956 over the Suez Canal; the third in 1967, in which Israeli captured territory that quadrupled its size over the course of six days; and the fourth in 1973. Those over a certain age in Japan will remember that Japan ran out of toilet paper as an indirect result of the conflict.
At the very beginning of the fourth Arab-Israeli conflict, the surprise attack by the Arab side was successful, although in the end it was a total victory for the Israelis, just as it had been in the first three wars. The main belligerents on the Arab side were Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Naturally, Saudi Arabia—the leader of the Islamic world— and all the other Arab countries fought against Israel. Post defeat, Egypt signed a treaty with Israel, and there has been no fifth Arab-Israeli war per se, although violent conflict periodically flares up.
The changing Middle East conflict
When the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem was announced, one famous Japanese commentator, emphasizing the seriousness of the problem, suggested that the Saudi reaction would be harsh. As a researcher of the current Middle East conflict, I was taken aback by this blatantly anachronistic way of thinking.
Saudi Arabia has been conspicuously silent on the issue. Superficial objections to the relocation of the US Embassy aside, the Palestinian conflict is a matter of little interest to the Saudis. Due to their common goal of curbing Iran, Israel, along with the US, is one of the countries with which Saudi Arabia wishes to work most closely. Off the record, Israel and Saudi Arabia are becoming closer and closer. And in the case of Egypt, which fought in four wars against Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a burden.
Governance of Palestine is divided between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas, which does not recognize the existence of Israel and continues to be hostile, was initially founded as the Gaza branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The current government of Egypt considers the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. At present, Egypt is strengthening its relationship with Israel over maintaining security in the Sinai Peninsula. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are highly dependent on the US, Israel’s staunchest ally, for security and economic aid. Those in the Middle East most fiercely opposed to the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, in addition to the Palestinians themselves, are the non-Arab countries of Turkey and Iran. The Arab countries are unable to mount a unified display of opposition toward Israel and the US.
US support for Israel
There is a powerful Israel lobby in the United States that exerts considerable
influence over US Middle East policy. Although the influence of American Jews in US society is often exaggerated, there is no denying that they have extraordinary sway, especially considering that they make up less than 2 percent of the population.
The Israel lobby persuades members of Congress to pass legislation beneficial to Israel, including the 1995 resolution to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Of course, this is not illegal. The concept of lobbying is unfamiliar to many people in Japan, but I like to give the example of the National Rifle Association in the US, which prevents the passage of gun control legislation despite the approximately one hundred people who die by gun violence each day in America.
There is now a new influential Israel lobby in the US: J Street, founded in 2008. Several years ago, I had a chance to speak with one of its members. Unlike older Israel lobbies, which half-blindly supported the policies of the Israeli government, J Street openly criticizes what it sees as deserving of criticism and calls for co-existence with the Palestinians. Many young Jewish Americans do not share their parents’ and grandparents’ sentiment toward Israel and are expressing grave concern at the Israeli government’s shift to the right. In the first place, Jewish Americans are, broadly speaking, traditionally a liberal group who vote Democrat. I wonder whether, twenty or thirty years hence, Jewish Americans will still support Israel as they do today.
Rather, the group in the US that strongly supports Israel and will likely continue to do so is the Evangelical Christians. Evangelicals far outnumber Americans of Jewish ancestry. Evangelicals constitute a quarter of the US population and are estimated at more than eighty million. They interpret the Bible literally and believe that Jesus will not return and Christianity will not truly flourish unless all of Israel and Palestine belongs to the Jewish people as promised in Scripture.
About ten years ago, I attended Sunday service at an Evangelical church in Santa Cruz, California. They waved the flag of Israel at the end of the service. The Evangelicals have their own TV station and resident office in Jerusalem. In the 2016 presidential election, reportedly 85 percent of Evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump. When President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and relocated the US Embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018, it was for the purpose of garnering Evangelical support. Not so much “America First” as “my re-election first.” The Evangelicals are not necessarily working on behalf of Jews. It is said that they expect the Jews to convert to Christianity in the end. For Israel, Evangelical support appears to be a double-edged sword.
Why does the Middle East conflict continue?
I’d like to reformulate “Why does the Middle East conflict continue?” as “How can the Middle East conflict move toward resolution?”
In 1973, then US Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger—himself a German Jewish immigrant to the US—helped achieve a ceasefire in the fourth Arab-Israeli war. During his famous “shuttle diplomacy” that subsequently sought to bring about a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, he coined the phrase “constructive ambiguity.” Is this not a deviation from good-versus-evil, black-and-white Western thinking? I believe that Dr. Kissinger realized as a result of his experience in the diplomatic arena that the Middle East conflict could not be solved using Western standards and criteria. The solution is to be found in the middle ground. Perhaps the surprising answer to the problem of the Arab-Israeli conflict lies in Japanese-style ambiguity that allows both sides to save face? Japanese diplomacy, which is often characterized as following the US lead, is making its own unique contribution.
After the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, the US cut off relations with Iran and pressured Japan to do the same, but Japan refused and allowed the Iranian Embassy in Tokyo to remain open. Japan is not a signatory to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but it supported the outcome as a friend and partner of Iran.
At the beginning of this talk, I brought up the theme of “all or nothing.” Although I personally disagree with many of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policies, I would like to share one that I approve. At the start of May 2018, Prime Minister Abe made a visit to Israel and Palestine. Since President Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017, Prime Minister Abe is the only head of a G7 country to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Yet the Japanese media hardly reports this sort of thing at all. Scandals must be condemned, but must not articles be written on positive developments, as well?
Since 2006, the “Corridor for Peace and Prosperity” project, championed by former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, has been underway in the Palestinian city of Jericho. It has been well received. Creating an agro-processing center and giving Israel and the Palestinians the chance to work together on agricultural development has allowed them to build a relationship of trust, while simultaneously working toward the goal of Palestinian economic independence. Today, the unemployment rate among Palestinian youth is 60 percent. It is Japan’s intention to provide technical assistance so that when the Palestinians have their own country in the future they will be able to make ends meet. It is noteworthy that Israel supports this effort even now under present circumstances. Japan has cultivated a good relationship with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, and it is precisely for this reason that Japan is in a position to help. I wish the media would pay more attention.
The evolving Middle East peace project
I now return to the subject of the Middle East peace project that I have been pursuing in Japan. The project brings to Japan young Israelis and Palestinians—several of each—who have lost family members in the conflict, with the aim of giving them the opportunity to get to know each other and, through mutual understanding, recognize the importance of peace.
At the end of their stay, we normally visit the Prime Minister’s Official Residence and Tokyo Disneyland, but in 2010, with Ayabe as home base, we instead went to meet Seihan Mori, the abbot of Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, who also happens to be a famous calligrapher. Each received a large piece of paper with his or her name written in calligraphy. I wonder if they realized the value of those pieces of paper… At the end, we went to Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. That year, we created a more relaxed schedule and prioritized giving the Israeli and Palestinian guests time to spend with their host families. This stays between us, but the kids generally say that they remember more the time spent with their host families than the visit to the Prime Minister’s residence or meeting with members of the Diet. Perhaps it’s only the Japanese organizers who are excited to visit the Prime Minister’s residence. (But please don’t tell anyone.)
In 2013, when we took the Israeli and Palestinian kids to Kyōtango (in northern Kyoto Prefecture), a local high school junior greeted them and expressed herself in English with good pronunciation and intonation and with great aplomb. As a result of this exchange, she entered a university in the Tokyo area with the clear goal of working at the UN in the future.
At the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, the Israeli and Palestinian youth representatives each gave a proper speech; this appeared to make a big impact on the Japanese high school students who accompanied them, as well. I hope that more Japanese youth are inspired to pursue work in the field of international relations as a result of this project.
The year 2016 witnessed two groups of Israeli and Palestinian youth come to Shizuoka and Kōya, Wakayama Prefecture. In Shizuoka, they visited two high schools and socialized with the students there; they also interacted with students in the International Relations Department of the University of Shizuoka. That day, we left everything up to the students at the university. The majority of the international relations students there had experience traveling abroad and could communicate fluently in English, which was a meaningful experience for the Israeli and Palestinian youth, too.
This project is possible precisely because of its unique Japanese setting. I want to continue spreading the word of this endeavor as part of Japan’s efforts toward peace in the Middle East.