Pulitzer Prize winner Bret Stephens, op-ed columnist and senior political contributor for The New York Times, was guest speaker at the Jewish National Fund Annual Breakfast held on Dec. 4. Stephens, who spoke on “Israel and the U.S.: What Does the Future Hold?” previously served as foreign-affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor for The Wall Street Journal. He spoke to a crowd of 550 at the Newton Marriott.
Stephens began his talk explaining that a friend recently asked him why he is unhappy with the current U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The friend reminded him of the good news, including plans to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The friend, said Stephens, also noted that, “Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, known popularly as MBS, recently visited Israel and is trying to improve relations between the two countries.” Stephens acknowledged that, “MBS is the best thing that’s happened to Saudi Arabia since the dinosaurs died. He wants to coordinate policies against terrorism and extremism in the Arab world.”
Stephens’ friend reminded him about the introduction in the U.S. Congress of the Taylor Force Act, which cuts U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) until it stops paying large salaries to terrorists and their families. The P.A. distributes $300 million to terrorists and their families annually. The legislation is named for a U.S. Army veteran who was murdered in Israel in a stabbing attack in 2016. “My friend also said that the U.S. is backing away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran deal, and that it has been decertified.” In effect, Congress had been told that the deal is not in America’s best interest because Iran cannot be trusted not to cheat, while continuing to support terrorism, and at best the deal only delays Iran’s development of a nuclear arsenal.
“So, said my friend,” recalled Stephens, “why aren’t you happy?” The bulk of Stephens’ talk was his answer.
“The first aim of U.S. policy in the Middle East should be to stop Iran. It’s also the second, third, fourth and fifth,” Stephens asserted. “We have to find a way to support an alliance of moderates and modernizers in the Middle East. They might not be democracies or share our Western values, but some do oppose terror and extremism, want to cease scapegoating the Jews for the world’s problems and improve relationships with the U.S. and Israel.” Stephens also emphasized that the U.S. should “beware of chaos; we can’t create or contribute to combustible situations such as those in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Yemen and Libya.”
Stephens referred to the recent terror attack in Egypt that killed 350 in a Sufi mosque. “Egyptian President el-Sisi has been trying to suppress terror in the Sinai Peninsula for years. They don’t have a military strategy. ISIS and other terror groups are growing while the Egyptian economy is tanking. It is the largest Arab country, with a population of 90 million, yet we don’t have an ambassador to Egypt.”
Stephens quipped that our policy in Lebanon has a “Where’s Waldo?” quality. No one knows what’s going on with the current president, General Michel Sleiman, and its cabinet is dominated by Hezbollah. What’s the American policy? What are we doing to prevent the next Israel-Hezbollah war?
“How do we bring together coalitions of moderates and modernizers?” he asked. “Some of this is happening. The heads of Saudi, Egyptian and Israeli intelligence now meet on a regular basis. The Saudis now understand the damage they’ve done by supporting Sunni terror. We should quietly support MBS as he modernizes his country.”
Stephens also feels that the U.S. has not been supportive enough of the Kurds, who live in an autonomous region in Iraq and have helped in the fight against ISIS. “They voted for independence a couple of months ago. One of the greatest U.S. successes has been to support them,” said Stephens. “We have turned our back on them. What does this say to our allies?”
Regarding the Palestinians, Stephens clarified, “The U.S. doesn’t support the one-state solution. We support a two-state solution, but the content of that state is critical. It should be a democratic, progressive state. It could flourish. We should not engage in the bigotry of low expectations. We should be able to support it, but not with its current tactics.”
In an overview of the Middle East, Stephens said, “In Syria President Assad is winning, and Hezbollah is doing well. Iran is large, evil and cunning and on the verge of going nuclear. This is the central catastrophe of the policies of the last few years. We need to back further out of the Iran deal and use big sanctions. And we should support the Green Revolution—the dissident movement in Iran which we made the mistake of not backing in 2009.”
“I do have cause for optimism,” Stephens reassured the audience. He noted that Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently quoted Winston Churchill while speaking in Singapore: “America always gets around to doing the right thing after exhausting all other methods.”
“America historically defines its interests according to its values, not its values according to its interests,” said Stephens. “When the U.S. recognized the new State of Israel in 1948, a country with no oil surrounded by oil producers, with dim prospects for survival, President Truman put values first. And look how this has worked out for the U.S.—Israel is our steadfast, democratic ally.”
Stephens offered that a deeper reason for optimism is Israel itself. “I go to Israel once or twice a year. I get very emotional. I feel joy,” he said. “In Tel Aviv I see new skyscrapers every time I go. The city is vibrant, young and sexy. One-hundred eight years ago none of this existed. The Israelis willed, built, imagined. What an achievement. It’s so alive and free.”
“I toured the ancient City of David with an archeologist,” Stephens continued. “We were 60-70 feet underground, looking at two-ton stones laid millennia ago by my forebears. When I’m told that Israelis are ‘transplants’ I see these stones. Meanwhile, Syria, Libya, Iran and Lebanon are all being blown away. All were built on foundations of sand. The one state that’s sunk the deepest and sturdiest roots is the Jewish state. So I have a deep sense of optimism. Since 70 years ago—and 2,500 years ago—this enterprise is the strongest, and their future is bright and guaranteed.”