America Sets Sail: Crossing the Border toward Peace and Hope

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By Akio Matsumura

In December 1995 the World Assembly on Reconciliation was to be held at Jericho, hosted by Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat. A steering committee meeting I attended was held at Jericho in June, 1995. During our lunch break we went to see the Dead Sea. In case you haven’t been there, the Dead Sea is between Israel and the West Bank. It is the lowest point on the surface of the Earth on dry land and the water is 8.6 times saltier than the ocean. It was remarkable to see people reading their books while floating on the water. On the tour my friends also pointed out the Mount of Temptation where it is said Jesus was tempted by the Devil. We enjoyed our lunch and tour and returned to the afternoon session of our meeting. We kept moving to finish our agenda because I was scheduled to meet with Chairman Arafat at 9 PM that evening in Gaza.

During the afternoon, while finishing our agenda, we received an emergency phone call informing us that a suicide bomb had exploded on a public bus in Tel Aviv. There were more than 25 deaths, one of the largest death tolls in many years. The accident closed the border between Israel and Gaza—no car, diplomatic or not, was allowed to cross the border.

Immediately I rushed to the office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Palestine to meet with the representative, Mr. Wate. He checked with the Foreign Ministry and confirmed that indeed, the United Nations car was not allowed to cross the border. I moved on to check with the Israeli Minister of Culture, Ms. Shulamit Aloni that there was nothing I could do. After I asked for her help, she said that the border security was not the charge of the Foreign Ministry, but the Ministry of Defense. Knowing the urgency of the situation, she immediately called the Minister of Defense and explained who I was and the importance of my meeting with Chairman Arafat at Gaza that night. The Minister of Defense agreed to issue a special permission for me to cross the border.

Mr. Wate, the UNDP representative, offered me to use his marked UN car so that I would not be stopped by the police on my travel across the 80 km (50 mi) distance. I arrived at the security checkpoint and the military officer found my name on the list authorized by the Defense Minister. Ready to cross, I encountered my next hold-up. I would have to change into the Israeli military car because no car, even Mr. Wate’s UN car, could cross the border. I boarded the Israeli military car and crossed the distance of the border, about one kilometer.

I arrived at the other side of Gaza where the police officer sent by Chairman Arafat awaited me and requested me to change into his police car, now my fourth car, and after doing so, we proceeded directly to the office of Chairman Arafat.

Finally being received by Chairman Arafat, I expressed to him my deep gratitude for the car he had sent, and said that it was the fourth car I had used to reach his office. His countenance could not conceal his surprise. Then, I also told him of my great appreciation for Minister Aloni and the Minister of Defense of Israel for their extraordinary efforts to make our meeting happen. Chairman Arafat also appreciated this. Moving on, I showed him two photographs.

The first was the group photo in front of Christ Church at Oxford University. The photo is enormous, one meter long, and I always take it with me; it has piqued the curiosity of so many people. Chairman Arafat scanned the faces of the 300 participants in the photograph and was very much impressed, seeing many notable leaders. Surprisingly, he asked me of my concept—why I organized the parliamentarian and religious leaders together. He very likely understood well the concept of looking at human issues in practical and spiritual terms.

Next I showed him the photo of the Kremlin and the Jewish members attending during our closing ceremonies on the Sabbath. He asked if even the Jewish Orthodox members attended, and his eyes grew especially large with surprise when I answered yes! I told him this too would be the spirit of the Jericho conference, and he assured me of his support and its importance for the Palestinian people. Upon ending our meeting, I noticed that it had gone on for much longer than the scheduled time. We shook hands and, despite his fierce reputation, I felt the incredible softness of his hand—the softest of the many head of government’s I have shaken. On my return to Jerusalem late that night, I above all noticed the beauty of the dark sky. It was as if I could catch the shooting stars in my hands. I thought back to the four cars I had taken that day to cross the border, and how not one of the cars—UN or diplomatic—was allowed to cross, yet I, who didn’t hold a position of government or in the UN, was able to cross.

The answer to why this happened is very clear. A car runs primarily on gasoline—just as a country primarily is run by the government. However, no car can function without lubricating oil, or the trusting, individual relationships between people. This is why I have always been encouraging leaders to participate in conferences in an individual capacity, instead of in their position of rank. Then, individuals instead of institutions would produce the vision of the conference.

History shows that once conflict begins, governments cease to communicate. And, on the whole, people are afraid of the consequences of not fighting a war when called upon. Communication stops, misconceptions grow, and fear sets in. At this point the only remaining function is the relationships of trust between individuals. It is the lubricating oil, not the gasoline, that determines a nation’s destiny if, at the worst outcome, must go to war.

All of us in the world participated in the joyous bon voyage for President Obama as he sets his sails and begins his journey for reconciliation. Today the President reminded us that America is and should remain open to freedom and change. “To the Muslim world,” Obama said today at his inauguration, “we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” This will for change and for peace embodies the United States’ spirit for hard work and the willingness to lead. With confidence he asserts America as a leader of the world, but with limits and responsibilities, not a manifest sense of expansion. President Obama, filling so many hearts and minds with hope, perhaps has the possibility to be the gasoline and lubricating oil of America’s car, inspiring freedom and trust in individual leaders and whole governments alike.

May we pray for his prosperous voyage toward freedom and a new hope.

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