The Middle East Question and Japan

Sinan Levent

The Middle East Question as a Religious Conflict

Before addressing Japan's response to the Middle East Question, commonly referred to as the Israeli-Palestinian problem, it should first be mentioned that this problem is not only a political or economic conflict. It is necessary to examine the Middle East issue as a religious conflict as well as a political and economic one. The prevailing view on this issue is that it tends to be treated as a political issue above all else, and therefore a political response or solution is being sought.

Politically, the basis for this issue goes back to the French Revolutionary period in the 18th century, when the land of Palestine was promised to the Jews during the invasion of Egypt by the French revolutionary Napoleon Bonaparte, but if it is a fully political issue, then the Jews should not have been promised that promised land, i.e. Palestine, until they had formally established their state in 1948, this issue should have been resolved by the UN Security Council's Resolution No. 242 on the Middle East issue in 1967, or the Camp David Accords in the 1970s, or the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. However, the political problems that have persisted for more than two centuries are, in the author's opinion, unprecedented in history.

The last two centuries have seen the end of imperialism, the start of the nation-state era, two world wars and the establishment of numerous new states. However, this issue remains unresolved. It is therefore necessary to read more deeply than the political aspect.

The author considers that this issue should be also seen as a conflict/war with a religious dimension. In other words, it is a kind of religious war as well as political conflict/war. This can also be confirmed by the statements of politicians on the Israeli-Hamas conflict that is currently rocking the world.

Specifically, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said in a press release on 26 October 2023 that he would see a "prophecy" from the Jewish Bible, Isaiah, against Hamas. Meanwhile, on 9 October, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Galant said that the war against Hamas was a war against "animal-like humans", quoting from the Old Testament1. Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said in a televised speech that "we have seen predators" and, referring to the book of Samuel in the Torah (I. Samuel, 15/3), added: "Do not forget what the Amalekites2 did to you. So we will remember and fight.

On the other hand, after the establishment of the State of Israel, a series of Middle East wars between Arabs and Jews were fought repeatedly until the 1980s, but basically, unlike the international community, both belligerents tend to refer to these wars by names with religious symbolism. More specifically, the most recent example is the Hamas attack on 7 October last year, which took place on Simchat Torah (the Joy of Torah)3, a religious holiday and feast day in Judaism. Furthermore, the Third Middle East War of 1967 is often referred to by Jews as the Six-Day War, based on a Jewish Torah passage. The Fourth Middle East War of 1973 is referred to by Israelis as the 'Yom Kippur' war on the holy day of the Jewish calendar (ha-luahah-Ivri), while Arabs call it the Ramadan war because it began in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar (Hicri).

Considering the recent Israeli-Hamas conflict, Hamas is a religious armed group established in the Gaza Strip in 1987 under the slogan of Islamism.Unlike the PLO, a long-time pro-socialist Palestinian independent organization, Hamas's founding purpose is clearly described in the 1988 Statute, which is also said to be the organization's Constitution.According to this, in Chapter 4 en-Nisa, verse 46, and Chapter 5 Maid, verses 12 and 13 of the Qur'an, it is to destroy the state of Israel created by the Jews, who are regarded by Allah as "cursed people," and to establish an Islamic state in Palestine4.

In addition, as is well known, Israel does not have a codified constitution, but instead has a set of basic laws that regulate the country on an item-by-item basis. The Jewish Nation-State Law is one of these laws, but it is this law that is responsible for Israel's tendency to be seen as a religious state. The law, as amended in 2018, states that 'the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, where the Jewish people exercise their natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination'5. The crucial thing here is the term Jewish. While some have pointed out that Jewish is used in a secular rather than a religious sense, the precise meaning of Israel's self-definition as a Jewish state has never been clearly defined and is a matter of dispute. From the approach of accepting Judaism as the national religion of the Jewish people, there is sufficient religiosity at work in Israel, which has no codified constitution. In other words, Israel cannot be described without religion, whether in terms of the individual identity of the Jewish people or in terms of the identity of the social group and political community as a nation. Israel's basic laws reflect the historical continuity of the Jewish people. Examples of this historical continuity include the 1950 Law of Return (as amended) and the 1949 Flag and Emblem Law (adopting traditional Jewish symbols such as the Jewish prayer shawl, the seven-branch candelabra and the national anthem Hatikvah).

The author thinks that Israel will theoretically continue to be identified with Hamas in terms of religion as long as it does not break away from its religiosity-filled past by means of a codified constitution. For example, Turkey's switch from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic wiped it from its past identity as a religious state, as it fully and formally embraced secularism and the separation of religion and state through its codified constitution. Or, although different from the Abrahamic religions that originated in the Middle East, Japan severed its relationship with Shinto, the national religious system responsible for pre-war militarism, with the 1947 national constitution. As well as these cases, Israel needs to codify the separation of religion and state. Otherwise, it will continue to be a country that does not differ from Saudi Arabia, which holds Islamic law, the so-called Shariah, to be the basic law, and Hamas, which holds that Shariah should be the basic law of Palestine. At least that is the view of the Islamic world regarding the view of the State of Israel.

On the other hand, politicians in Arab countries including Palestine as well as the other Muslim countries in the region such as Turkey and Iran should not treat all Jews as Zionists, or treat all Jews as supporting heavy-handed diplomacy by the Israeli government. First, the distinction between Israel, Zionism and Jews must be made clear, otherwise the rise of anti-Semitic speech and actions against Jews populating the entire world will lead to a recurrence of holocausts or similar inhumane developments, and a regional problem will become an irreversible international problem.

History of Palestine-Japan relations

I would like to address the Japanese Government's response to the Middle East Question, first in relation to Palestine. The relationship between Japan and Palestine dates back to the 1960s. According to Yuzo Itagaki, Professor Emeritus of the University of Tokyo, who turned his attention to Palestinian issues even at a relatively early stage in post-war Japan in the 1970s, "it was after the Third Middle East War in June 1967 that a movement to 'join hands' with the Palestinians emerged in Japan". Until then, the Palestinian issue had been taken rather lightly in the context of relations with the Arab states6.

As is well known, it was the PLO that protected and advocated the Palestinian independence movement until the late 1980s, when Hamas was founded. The PLO was established in 1964, but until then the Palestinian independence movement had been led by the Arab world, mainly Jordan and Egypt. The defeat of the Arab states in the Third Middle East War in 1967 delegated full authority of the movement to the Fatah party under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. Under Yasser, the PLO was re-organised and effectively became the Palestinian Government-in-Exile and the de facto political partner of Palestinian independence vis-à-vis Israel. Although the support of the Arab states behind the scenes continued, specifically the armed wing of the Palestinian independence movement under President Yasser strengthened its presence with military training in Algeria and elsewhere. Besides, in 1974, the PLO gained observer status with the UN and began to open offices abroad.

Japan also developed relations with Palestine in a way linked to the Middle East politics of that time. The Japanese government, which regards UN centralism as a pillar of the diplomatic principles of post-war Japan, especially after the Kishi administration, has come to place greater importance on the Palestine issue. Thus, the PLO came to be based in Japan for the first time in February 1977, but was not granted diplomatic status. A year earlier, in April 1976, the visit to Japan by PLO Political Bureau Director Kadoumi at the invitation of the LDP played a major role in this development; it was probably the first visit to Japan by the PLO at the executive level. Until then, the PLO's solidarity partner in Tokyo from the late 1960s until the first oil crisis was the Algerian Embassy in Tokyo7.

The PLO Tokyo Office was upgraded to a 'General Mission to Palestine' in October 1989 on the occasion of the visit of then PLO Chairman Arafat to Japan; in June 1995, the PLO Tokyo Office was temporarily closed due to financial difficulties, but was reopened as the PLO's Resident Representative in Japan in September 2003. Meanwhile, the Government of Japan opened its first representative office in Palestine in July 1998. The representative office, which had existed as a representative office in Gaza, was relocated to Ramallah in April 20078.

In the post-war Middle East, the period from the 1950s to the mid-1970s was a period of decolonisation, when nationalist-based unification ideals and movements with a mixture of socialism, as in the Arab world, became more dominant than religion9.

However, as a result of the increased international weight of religion following a series of political Islamic events that began in 1979 and continued for several years, there was a growing international interest in the Middle East in the context of Islam. In particular, interest in the Middle East linked to Islam rose in Japanese society in the wake of the second oil crisis that accompanied the Iranian Islamic Revolution. As a concrete result, Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda visited the Arab countries of the Middle East and Iran in September 1978. This was the first time that Japan had trodden on Middle Eastern soil at the prime ministerial level10.

About a year later, on 6 August 1979, then Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda made a reaffirming statement to the Arab States Ambassadors Dinner urging Palestine and Israel to recognise their mutual positions. He reiterated the Japanese position that Israel's withdrawal from all occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, and the construction of settlements in the occupied territories by Israel are illegal and unacceptable. This was identical to the content of Chief Cabinet Secretary Nikaido's statement during the first oil crisis in 1973.

A few years after Prime Minister Fukuda's visit to the Middle East, in October 1981 Prime Minister Suzuki met with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who had come to Japan at the invitation of the Japan-Palestine Friendship Parliamentarians League (Chairman: former Foreign Minister Toshio Kimura, Secretary General: Yoshiko Ōtaka). In fact, behind this visit there was a series of contacts over a period of about two years: on 10 November 1979, the first meeting was held in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), between Ryōhei Murata, Japanese Ambassador to the UAE, and Mahmoud Abbas, PLO International Bureau Chief. They subsequently met twice in January and February 1980, and at the time of the third meeting, PLO Political Bureau Chief Kadoumi, who had visited Japan in 1976, also participated. According to Ryōhei Murata's Memoirs (vol. 1), these talks basically centred on ① the visit to Japan of PLO Chairman Arafat and Kadoumi, who was regarded as the PLO's foreign minister, and ② the status of the PLO Tokyo Office11. However, the Japanese side refused, considering that the international political situation was not ripe enough for an official invitation by the Japanese Government. In addition, the PLO side requested that the Tokyo Office be granted embassy status, which was also refused by the Japanese side for the same reason as in ① above.

In more detail, the PLO was not yet a 'quasi-governmental organisation' in the international political and legal context. The first oil crisis in 1973 and Prime Minister Fukuda's visit to Middle Eastern countries in 1978 certainly raised both Japanese domestic interest in Palestine and the PLO's international status. On the other hand, the PLO was regarded as a 'terrorist organisation' by western society, mainly the US, at the time of its establishment because of the 'international demagoguery' of developed countries manipulated by Israel and international capital, which regarded the Palestinian issue as a 'war on terror'. This made it difficult for the Japanese Government to pursue its policy towards Palestine in a different direction from that of the US and the international community12. In this context, the meeting between Ambassador Murata and Director Abbas did not immediately produce concrete results, but "culminated in Chairman Arafat's visit to Japan in 1981"13.

Chairman Arafat visited Japan five times until 2004, when he passed away. He visited Japan three times at the invitation of the Japanese Government, in October 1989, September 1996 and April 1999. He also visited Japan in October 1999 to participate in the Palestinian Assistance Coordination Conference and last visited Japan in August 2000. Later, PA President Abbas, as successor to Chairman Arafat, also travelled to Japan in May 2005 at the invitation of the Japanese Government. In succession, PA President Abbas visited Japan relatively frequently in February 2010, April 2012, February 2016 and October 2019. Since the beginning of the 2000s, various senior PA officials have visited Japan besides the presidential level, including the head of the Foreign Affairs Agency and the head of the Economic Affairs Agency. The Japanese Government's economic cooperation with Palestine also began in earnest after the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. To date, the Japanese Government's aid to Palestine amounts to approximately USD 2.3 billion14. Some of that aid has been channeled through UN channels, particularly UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees). However, due to the alleged involvement of UNRWA officials in the recent 10.7 incident, the Japanese Government, along with Western countries, announced that it would suspend additional funding to UNRWA as of 28 January 202415. In the statement of January 28 issued by the Foreign Ministry's foreign affairs spokesperson, it appears that the Japanese Government will continue to provide assistance to the Gaza Strip through other international organisations, excluding UNRWA.

Hamas-Israel Clash and the Japanese Government

Civil Approach

The Middle East issue has been one of the few conflicts that have united socialist and conservative campaigners in Turkey and other parts of the Islamic world16 in the past and at present. This trend has also been observed in Japan. In Japan, leftist student rebels such as the Zenkyōtō Movement of 1968-1969, along with those of the Vietnam War and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, showed strong sensitivity to this issue as allies of the Palestinian independence movement17. A few years later, in May 1972, three members of the JRA, then calling themselves the 'Arab Red Army', collaborated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in a shooting rampage at Lod International Airport (now Ben Gurion International Airport) near Tel Aviv, Israel, which killed 24 people and seriously injured 76 others18.

Concurrently and equally with these socialist and communist defences of the Palestinian issue, some Japanese nationalists also defended the Palestinian issue. For example, Takeyo Nakatani, a conservative who served as founder and president of the Japan Arab Association in Japan during the Cold War, criticised the Japanese government's official stance on the Middle East conflict. Nakatani argued that Japan, as "the only advanced country with untainted hands", should take a proactive stance. He also suggested to make a serious shift from Japan's post-war foreign policy of "as long as we follow the US, we are safe" and establish a more "unique Middle East Arab policy based on a long-term perspective, while taking into account the national interest line of securing energy resources"19.

In fact, an approach similar to Nakatani's 'the only developed country with untainted hands' perspective can be read from the 1985 Diplomatic Blue Paper, which changed its tone in relation to the Palestinian issue and began to refer to the Japanese Government's position on involvement in the issue. It indicated that the Japanese Government could be fair and objective in dealing with Middle East issues because Japan did not have strong historical ties with the region20. However, successive Japanese governments, including the current Kishida administration, have basically been unwilling to get directly and deeply involved in Middle East affairs. The author believes, in direct contradiction to Nakatani's perception, that Japan does not have the confidence to play a mediating role in Middle East affairs because of its thin relationship with the region. This can be seen from Prime Minister Kishida's statement that he is "not in a position to make a decision" on the Hamas-Israel clashes because he is "in a position not to confirm the reality of the situation".

This tendency of the past in Japan is also seen in the current Hamas-Israel clashes. Specifically, in the Diet, JCP MPs have expressed their principles on the Palestinian issue and criticised the Kishida Government's policies, as shown below. On the other hand, after the 10.7 incident, on 16 November last year, members of the right-wing organisation Seidōkai Gijuku drove a light car into a fence at an intersection near the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo21. Furthermore, in October and November last year, anti-Israel demonstrations were held in Japan, mainly in Tokyo and Osaka. On 5 November, organisers said more than 1,500 people attended a march in Tokyo organised by a citizens' group, calling for an end to attacks on the Gaza Strip and for peace in Palestine22. In addition, the revolutionary-affiliated Zengakuren, which is left wing organised a protest against the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo on 8 November23.

Government Response

With regard to the Israeli-Hamas conflict, which has now been going on since 7 October, it can be said that the Japanese Government's response and policies are based on lessons learned from the past. As is well known, Japan is dependent on Arab countries for more than 90% of its crude oil in terms of natural resources and energy. Therefore, stability in the Middle East region is a critical issue for Japan, as it was during the past oil crisis.

The Japanese Government did not join the joint statement by G7 countries on 22 October over the 7 October attack by Hamas. As a result, the Japanese Government, which was initially perceived internationally as not supporting Israel, stated in an announcement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno the following day, 23 October, that the reason for not joining the statement was that "other six countries are countries whose citizens are reported to have been kidnapped, missing or otherwise killed"24.

It can be seen that the Japanese Government refrained from making such comments on the grounds that there were no Japanese victims as a result of the Hamas attacks or that the relationship between Japanese society and Middle Eastern society, particularly Palestine and Israel, is not as deep as that of Western countries. In other words, while other G7 countries have stated that they clearly support Israel's right to use military force against Hamas attacks, Japanese officials have avoided such comments.

In addition, Japan is the only G7 country that has not visited Israel at prime ministerial level as of 22 January 2024, with the exception of Japan, where the leaders of the US, UK, Germany, France and Italy have visited Israel more than once to confirm cooperation with Israel. This can be taken as a significant approach in terms of expressing cautious attitude regarding the Hamas-Israel conflict.

The author also believes that the Japanese Government's perception of Hamas is not as clear as that of western countries such as the UK, US, France, Germany and Italy. In other words, the Japanese Government refers to the 7 October action by Hamas as a 'terrorist attack', but it is unclear whether it officially designates Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Statements by Prime Minister Kishida and Foreign Minister Kamikawa confirm this.

Specifically, some Hamas-related organisations and individuals have been subject to measures such as asset freezes, while Iranian organisations and individuals have also been subject to asset freezes in the wake of the nuclear activities issue. In other words, as in the case of Iran, which has official diplomatic relations with Japan, it can be read that Hamas was forced to take these measures out of consideration for the US-Japan alliance and the international community, particularly Western Europe. In other words, siding with Hamas is "tantamount to making an appeal to the international community" that the country "supports terrorism and is complicit in it" and the Japanese Government is "refraining from doing anything that would lead to the damage of the national interest"25.

At the very least, the Japanese Government has so far made an effort to distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinian people, sanctioning the former and providing assistance to the latter, but it is interesting to note that it has not labelled Hamas a 'terrorist organisation', as has the British or German governments. At the moment, Hamas has a confrontational relationship with the PA, but there is a good chance that it will soon become a major player in the Palestinian independence movement. As mentioned above, the PLO was also considered a 'terrorist organisation' by the western society, mainly the US, for a period of time during the Cold War, but later became the official partner of the Palestinian independence movement and opened offices in countries around the world. The Government of Japan should emphasise these historical facts and take it as a lesson learned from history that it has not turned Hamas into a serious enemy like the Western countries.

In addition, at the House of Councillors Budget Committee on 1 November last year, Prime Minister Kishida was asked by Communist Party member Taku Yamazoe whether Israel's air strikes and ground operations against the Palestinian territory of Gaza were in violation of international law, to which he replied: "As a country that is in a position not to confirm the actual situation, we are not in a position to make a legal judgment". On the other hand, regarding the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine since 2022, Prime Minister Kishida, referring to Russia's aggression against Ukraine, clearly stated that it was "a clear violation of international law and absolutely unacceptable". In a press conference in April 2022, he made the following statement: "Killing innocent civilians is a war crime. Russia's aggression and war crimes must not be allowed to continue, and our country will show this through tough action"26. It is therefore noteworthy that, unlike this hard-line stance on Russia, the same stance is not shown on the Middle East issue, in short, the Hamas-Israel clashes.

The Japanese Government, which has been criticised for its stance on Israel in comparison to its stance on Russia, has reflected its policy line in its votes at the UN. At the Security Council, Japan voted in favour of the Brazilian-led, US-led and Algerian-led resolutions calling for a humanitarian ceasefire, but abstained from the Russian-led resolution calling for the immediate lifting of Israeli evacuation orders against Palestinian civilians. Japan also abstained from voting on a UN General Assembly emergency special session call for a ceasefire for humanitarian purposes, which was compiled by Jordan, because it did not contain language condemning Hamas attacks on civilians27.

The Japanese Government is trying to walk a fine line with regard to the war between Israel and Hamas, balancing its relationship with its closest ally, the US, and with its energy supply partners in the Middle East. The author believes that there are two main factors behind Japan's ability to pursue this relatively independent foreign policy line, or what the Japanese media call 'balanced diplomacy'28. The first is that Japan does not have a Jewish lobby like the UK, US, France, Italy and Germany, so there is no domestic intimidation leading to political and economic developments manipulating general elections. As Werner Sombart pointed out, Jews played a major role in the formation and development of modern capitalism and continue to do so today. However, Japan's economy is one of the few that is not driven by these forces from within the country, and therefore seems to be able to conduct its own diplomatic course more independently than other developed countries, both in the current conflict and in past issues in the Middle East.

Second, Japan has a relatively unhistorical relationship with the Middle East. In contrast to Israel's historical and cultural ties with the West29, Japan, as a country influenced solely by the international community and its ally, the US Government, has been able to take a pragmatic approach, focusing on oil supply, both during the first oil crisis in 1973 and the current Hamas-Israel conflict.

Also on 3 November 2023, Japanese Foreign Minister Yōko Kamikawa, who visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, said in an interview with reporters that 'Japan would like to refrain from making a definitive legal assessment'30. It can be seen that, unlike Western countries, the Japanese Government is showing a stance of trying to draw on the lessons of the past and maintain neutrality. This is in fact the approach taken by the Japanese Governments in the past on Middle East issues as well. There is unlikely to be any significant change from the diplomatic line itself, which has formally supported the Palestinian right to self-determination and advocated a two-state solution since the early 1970s.

(Professor, Ankara University)

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