May 13th, 2002
Watching recent developments in the Middle East, I cannot help but feel a sense of foreboding regarding the fate of Israel, the homeland of many friends of mine. This is because the way things are going in Israel now reminds me of the process that led to the collapse of the Japanese empire.
The road to the downfall of this great empire began with the Manchurian Incident in 1931–a surprise attack by elements of the Kwangtung Army, a unit of the Imperial Japanese Army, on a Chinese garrison in today’s Shenyang, northeastern China.
At that time, Japanese diplomacy was based on the policy of strictly maintaining the peaceful status quo as stipulated in the 1922 nine-power agreement on China in Washington and the promotion of international cooperation.
The fact that Japan, under diplomacy formulated by Foreign Minister Kijuro Shidehara, was an exemplary state in abiding by the world order had been acknowledged prior to the Manchurian Incident by such figures as U.S. Secretary State Henry Stimson and U.S. envoy to China John MacMurray.
But for the Chinese, it was only natural that they would harbor a grudge against the imperialist countries that had trampled them under foot. Thus for China, the new world order was not worthy of respect. It viewed it as unjust framework that should be rent asunder.
However, lacking the wherewithal to change the situation itself and without the legal grounds to do so, China’s Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) chose to attempt to change the status quo by launching an anti-Japanese popular movement.
The nationalists intended to make the Japanese living in China realize they were unwanted by a variety of methods, such as throwing stones at and beating women and schoolchildren, and spitting upon them. In addition, many Chinese retailers refused to sell goods to the Japanese.
This was much the same as the recent Intifada–the call to resistance–in the Middle East conflict, which has made the prospects for Israel’s permanent occupation of Gaza and the West Bank difficult.
Needless to say, the anti-Japanese movement angered Japanese living in China and the Kwangtung Army, which responded by perpetrating the Manchurian Incident. As a result, an outgunned China lost Manchuria.
The Tables Turned in 1936
However, by the onset of the Sino-Japanese War that broke out in 1937 things had changed.
By this time, China was growing stronger–as was its military. The pent-up anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese people had reached a level at which the country would no longer hesitate to retaliate against Japan. This nationalistic feeling had been fueled over the past years by the insolent military activities conducted by the Imperial Japanese Army in North China.
These actions had antagonized the Chinese so much that Chinese nationalists and communists formed a united front against Japan following the Xian Incident in 1936 in which Nationalist Party head Chiang Kai-shek was compelled to accept the principle of the united front after being arrested by one of his army commanders.
Prior to 1936, the bombing assassination of Manchurian warlord Zhang Zoulin by Imperial Japanese Army officers in 1928 and subsequent provocative activities leading up to military maneuvers by the Imperial Japanese Army in North China were all deliberately staged to concoct an excuse for the use of force.
However, there is no trace of Japanese involvement in the provocative incidents that took place during and after 1936, including the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, a clash between Japanese and Chinese troops, in 1937. Even the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, more commonly known as the Tokyo Tribunal, that was held after World War II did not take issue over this point.
These incidents must have been either the isolated actions of Chinese people who could no longer tolerate the overbearing attitude of the Japanese, or by certain groupings of people in the Nationalist Party who acted out of control. Or, more probably, they could have been machinations planned by the communists to turn the hostility of the Nationalist Party away from them and toward Japan.
Revolts By Chinese Guards
A pivotal event was the revolt staged by Chinese security guards that had been formed under Japanese supervision to protect Japanese people living in China. The incident occurred in Tongzhou, east of Peking, now Beijing–a city full of Japanese that was governed under Japanese rule.
The Chinese security guards began their revolt as soon as Japanese troops left the city to protect the Japanese living in Beijing in the aftermath of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. About 200 Japanese were killed in this incident, and atrocities on women were horrifying.
The key to success for Japan’s “nonescalation policy” after the Marco Polo Bridge incident depended on how to prevent belligerencies from spilling out over Shanghai. Such hope was dashed, however, when Imperial Japanese Navy Lt. Isao Oyama was killed in a volley of shots fired by Chinese security guards in Shanghai.
The situation became hopeless as Japanese throughout China were exposed to the danger of imminent bloodshed. There were only two choices left for Japan: Japanese residents could abandon their assets accumulated over the years and withdraw from China, or Japan could go to war with no prospect of victory in sight.
History tells us that Japan chose the latter course and the Japanese empire fell.
Although Japan lost its empire on the Asian continent, it was still able to come back to the Japanese archipelago.
However, the case of Israel is different: It is surrounded by Arab countries that refuse to acknowledge its existence as a sovereign state. Furthermore, Israelis are exposed to threats of unpredictable terrorist suicide bombings within their own country.
Israel’s retaliatory operations against terrorist bases may be successful in the short term. But it will prove difficult for Israel to completely shut off the supply of arms to Palestinians, as was the case with arms being smuggled out of Iran. As Palestinian resentment against Israel intensifies every time the Israeli Army conducts antiterrorist sweeps, the number of potential anti-Israel terrorists will inevitably continue to grow.
International Support To Wane For Israel
Furthermore, Israel will see its international support weaken. The damage from the terrorist attacks on Israelis and that of retaliation against Palestinians may offset each other. Certainly, the former is indiscriminate killing and the latter is execution of terrorists. But the former is an act based on individual courage and self-sacrifice, while the latter is an assault by the militarily superior against the weak.
Naturally enough, many in the international community sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians. Also, it is impossible for Israel to say that its government is not directly responsible for attacks against Palestinians.
What would happen if Israel were to become isolated internationally while the Palestinians gradually build up their military strength–just as China did at the outset of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937– and if they gained military support from neighboring countries?
Because of its geopolitical location, Israel is destined to ruin even it loses only one battle out of 100.
Even if this scenario does not come to pass, Israel may end up seeing the support of its people eroding and foreign capital fleeing if it is routinely targeted by suicide attacks and its retaliatory operations are deemed ineffective in containing them.
In either of the scenarios, the future does not portend well for Israel.
There were only 40 years between Japan’s unbelievable victory over Russia in Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and the collapse of the Japanese empire in 1945. Although I do not want to see such developments materialize in the Middle East, it is not possible for me to put aside the ominous thought that the clouds have begun to gather over Israel’s glory since the 1967 Six-Day War.
The tit-for-tat of terrorist attacks and retaliatory operations in the region have resulted in unprecedented resentment on both sides. It is probably impossible for either side to resolve the matter through dialogue. Neither side can back off in consideration for the feelings of the victimized.
The only way to rescue the leaders of both sides from their dug-in positions is a resolute and forceful intervention by a third party.
The mediation role played by former U.S. President Bill Clinton was mainly a product of his own individual circumstances. It is also clear that his proposal failed to gain major support within Israel, but at least it presented a compromise plan that could possibly be reached in the future between Arab states and Israel.
U.S. Role Crucial To Peace
Therefore, a third party can build on this to construct inch by inch a detailed blueprint for concrete measures toward resolution and force both sides to implement the proposal as in a court ruling. Alternatively, a third party could throw a substantial part of its own military forces into the region to completely separate the two sides before realizing some kind of imposition.
In either case, this imposition would only be possible with the active intervention for a sustained period by the United States. Even if the forces of both sides were to be separated, it may require one generation, or 30 years, for the regional conflict to be settled because of residual mutual resentment.
Another question is whether international forces such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would be able to protect Israel in case of a full-scale attack by Arab states. Only the military power of the United States–the world’s sole superpower–could serve as effective deterrence.
The United States is now fast becoming the world empire. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the country renewed its willingness to intervene in affairs taking place outside its own world. This is not a bad thing. As long as the Roman Empire was willing to protect its order by sending Roman soldiers to even remote areas, the world was a comfortable place in which to live.
One generation is not long for the United States to have its forces stationed in the Middle East, because the country’s hegemony over the world is expected to last at least for another half century.
It will be a major turning point for the United States as a hegemon to decide on whether or not it should actively meddle in the Palestinian problem.
Okazaki served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Thailand. He is currently a guest research fellow at the Yomiuri Research Institute.