Japan’s state secretary of defense, Yasuhide Nakayama, was much criticized last week after he posted on his Twitter feed that “Our hearts are with Israel” amid the violence in Gaza and the West Bank, with the Tokyo-based media reporting a group of “around 100 demonstrators gathered to protest” outside the Defense Ministry.
As a former Japanese diplomat who was involved in the U.S.-led peace process in the early 1990s, the episode felt surreal — like something out of “Alice in Wonderland.” Thirty years ago, no politician at the ministerial level would have publicly expressed sympathy for Israel; and if he or she had done so, thousands of protesters — not just hundreds — would have marched.
In 1979 when I started studying Arabic in Cairo, Palestine was the Arab cause. Middle East scholars taught us that it was America, which they called an agent of Israel, and its imperialism that was exploiting the Arab nations. We came to believe there could be no stability in the region before the Arab-Israel conflict was resolved. It is obvious now that times have changed.
Did Nakayama say something wrong? Here is a more complete version of the tweet: “What would you do, if suddenly, within 24 hours, over 300 rockets were fired by terrorists, taking the lives of your loved ones and sweet homes? Israel has the right to defend itself against terrorists. Who fired rockets against ordinary citizens first? Our hearts are with Israel.”
Every nation has the right to defend itself, yet some people have called Nakayama’s remarks controversial. They claim he contradicted the government’s official stance of neutrality. Tokyo has called on both the Israelis and Palestinians to exercise restraint, avoid aggravating the situation and for them to restart peace negotiations.
Let’s take a step back and look at this objectively.
Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank also have the right to self-defense. Nakayama’s comments were aimed at ending terrorism. He also said the remarks were his personal views and do not represent the position of the Japanese government.
While Israel has no right to kill Palestinian civilians, Hamas also has no right to kill ordinary Israelis, either. It is perfectly fine to express the view that Israel has the right to defend itself against those who intentionally — with the launching of thousands of missiles — target its civilians. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato naturally declined to make a direct comment on Nakayama’s view.
With that said, editorials from major newspapers in Tokyo were more critical of Israel and the United States than the Palestinians. The traditional views of most of the media in Tokyo on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have not changed. The narratives often express the view that Israeli forces are brutally killing innocent Palestinian women and children. The reality is not that simple.
Although most editorials urged both sides to immediately implement a cease-fire, they also called on the Biden administration to be more forthcoming in persuading Israel to change its hard-line policy toward the Palestinians, which may have been encouraged by the Trump administration. Such a conventional approach, however, will most likely never bear fruit.
The reason is crystal clear. What is currently happening in the Middle East now is not just another round of the recurrent military clashes between Israeli and Hamas forces. It is rather part of a massive geopolitical reorientation of the regional power balance resulting from the intensifying hegemonic rivalry between the United States and Iran’s Islamic Republic.
In fact, I was not fully confident about this proposition until I read a copy of a university lecture on the role of Israel given by Singaporean Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary at the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the ambassador to the United Nations and Russia.
Ambassador Kausikan first urged the students to “approach the issue with a cool head and clinical eye.” He said “The conflict in Gaza has three dimensions” which are “The Israel-Palestine dispute; Intra-Palestinian politics between Fatah and Hamas; and Broader geopolitical shifts in the Middle East.” I fully agree with him.
Then he went on to say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “paradoxically, the least important of the three dimensions in the current conflict,” because “the Israel-Palestine conflict is not a black-and-white issue or a simple matter of ‘Justice’ on one side and ‘Injustice’ on the other.”
On the second dimension, Kausikan wrote that “Ordinary Palestinians have been consistently used and betrayed by their own leaders and other Arab governments since 1948. Prospects for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute are at best dim.”
Finally, he argued that “Even before the Abraham Accords, several Gulf States had already developed unofficial ties with Israel” and “this is a geopolitical seismic shift in the Middle East.” He added that “the recalibration of the U.S. engagement of the Middle East to rectify mistakes following ill-considered ground intervention in the region is a major reason” for the shift.
My unpleasant conclusion is that the Palestinian leadership, whether it is Hamas or the PLO, has missed several golden opportunities for the Palestinians to live in peace with Israel and realize self-governance. They may have believed at one time that they could defeat Israel, but that remains an unrealistic dream.
At the end of his lecture, Ambassador Kausikan quoted North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, arguably one of the greatest military strategists of the 20th century and the architect of the victory over the United States during the Vietnam War, once said: The “PLO people come to me all the time asking for advice on how to get rid of Israel. After all, we Vietnamese defeated both France and the United States.” He said, “My answer is always the same: The French went back to France and the Americans went back to America. The Jews have nowhere to go. So, you can’t beat them.”
If their political leaders had just one-tenth of Gen. Giap’s wisdom, the Palestinians could have had an independent state twenty years ago. Unfortunately, neither Yasser Arafat nor Mahmoud Abbas have played their cards right. That was the real reason why the issue of Palestine is no longer an Arab cause.