Bret Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign-affairs columnist for the Wall Street Journal as well as the paper’s deputy editorial page editor, will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield at a Jewish National Fund event.
Stephens, a former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, will speak on the topic, “U.S. and the Middle East — Where Do We Go From Here?” The JN caught up with Stephens for comment on some timely topics before his speaking engagement.
Some say conditions are ripe for an enduring agreement between Israel and the majority Sunni countries that want to keep Iranian influence from expanding in the region and whose long-held positions on Palestinian statehood are negotiable. Based on the current situation, what counsel would you give the Israeli government?
Stephens: Israel’s long-term goal in the Middle East ought to be to participate and lead an Alliance of Moderates and Modernizers throughout the region, including the Egypt of Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, the United Arab Emirates, Hashamite Jordan and the modernizing forces of the current Saudi government. Its purpose is to coordinate action wherever possible against terrorists, Sunni as well as Shi’ites, and their state sponsors, chiefly Iran.
Longer term, it ought to lead the Middle East toward a set of values that are more tolerant, political, pluralistic and, ultimately, democratic. The chances of this happening are greater today than they were 10 years ago.
This creates a long-term vision attractive to the Middle East’s nervous rulers and provides a hopeful vision for ordinary Middle Eastern citizens who want to be ruled neither by theocrats nor autocrats.
As to the Palestinians, the idea of a two-state solution makes sense in theory, but won’t make sense in practice until Palestinians demonstrate they are capable of governing themselves without threatening their neighbors.
The relationship between Israel and American Jews has a tradition of bipartisanship. While about 70 percent of American Jews continue to vote for Democratic presidential candidates, exit polls showed support for Israel is less likely a deciding factor in how Jewish Democrats vote. Does bipartisan Jewish American support for Israel matter in 2017? If so, what should the Israeli government be willing to do to maintain it?
Stephens: It remains vitally important that support for Israel remains fully bipartisan, not simply for the sake of Israel itself, but also for the moral health of both Democratic and Republican parties.
Support for Israel among Republicans is a reminder to conservatives that America benefits from allies and that isolationism can never be our policy; and it is a reminder for Democrats that supporting a liberal democracy like Israel means distancing themselves from the siren song of progressivist totalitarianism that makes common cause with terrorists and religious extremists in the Middle East.
I am confident that Israel will be able to survive whatever happens in American politics, but I wonder whether American politics can remain healthy if one or both of its major parties disavows the cause of the Jewish State.
You have been critical of conservatives and Republicans for sacrificing long-held principles to embrace positions championed by President Trump on trade, immigration, infrastructure spending and global leadership. With the recent unsuccessful effort to repeal and replace “Obamacare,” do you see any changes in how conservatives and Republicans in Congress manage their relationship with Trump and whether many will rediscover those principles?
Stephens: I can only hope so. The best hope for a conservative future is to espouse policies that reward aspiration, opportunity and inclusion. That’s the aspiration of poor people wanting to start their own businesses, striving immigrants chasing the American Dream, high-tech entrepreneurs opening new markets overseas or scientists fighting regulation to produce life-saving medicines.
The Republican party should stand for those people and not for a cramped vision of America as a country of closed borders, fearful of newcomers and wary of international competition.
How does the media regain public trust and what can you do as a columnist to elevate its role and responsibilities?
Stephens: I think the first thing that we should do, speaking only for the Wall Street Journal, is to consistently offer readers information that is completely factual, exhaustibly reported, unbiased and smart, and to distinguish ourselves from other media sources that are at best partially factual and rarely unbiased.
I would add that it also requires readers and citizens who understand the difference between real news and rumors, between straight facts and alternative ones to be willing to pay some money to support the former.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout the Middle East and Europe and now the U.S. What should the American Jewish community do about it? What should the Trump administration do? Is there anything the Israeli government can do?
Stephens: We should remember that anti-Semitism is a mutating virus that changes forms to suit the times. The hatred of Jews based on religious reasons became anti-Semitism based on racial reasons, which in our day has become anti-Zionism based on national reasons. But each of them are expressions of the same hatred.
And we should also remember that anti-Semitism isn’t simply a hatred of Jews; it is also a conspiracy theory about Jews that blames all of the world’s ills on their supposedly nefarious doings. So purveyors of conspiracy theories about “globalist” control of the media, for example, may not have the Jews in mind, but they are creating a mindset in which anti-Semitism can flourish.
For starters, the president should stop indulging in conspiracy theories of any kind and his administration should, as it has, redouble its efforts to fight the vilification of Israel in places like the United Nations. That is something that it’s doing that I approve of.
The Israeli government should expose it and denounce it, but the best thing the Israeli government can do is to continue to make Israel a light unto the nations, irrespective of the haters.
Is Russian meddling in the recent presidential campaign credible or fake news? Do you see a way to come to accurate conclusions? If true, what response to Russia’s actions would you recommend America take?
Stephens: I have no doubt that Russia sought to meddle in the U.S. elections just as it has meddled in the internal politics of other free countries. The American public deserves a comprehensive and impartial investigation that can both settle every question about past Russian interference and also prevent such interference from occurring again.
That is going to require more than just congressional hearings; we need a blue-ribbon commission with broad investigative powers on the model of the Robb-Silberman Report of 2005 into the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
If a price isn’t extracted from the Russia regime, then they will simply continue to meddle. One place to begin is to continue to expose the ill-gotten wealth of Russia’s leaders and, if necessary, seize assets, impose travel bans and make it unpleasant to be at the helm of Russian government.
Keri Guten Cohen Story Development Editor
The April 26 JNF event at 7 p.m. at Temple Israel is free.
RSVP by April 14 to (248) 324-3080.