Journalist Bret Stephens has been an opinion columnist with the New York Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2013 while working for the Wall Street Journal and was editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004.
Stephens is scheduled to speak at Adath Israel Congregation in Toronto on April 30 at 7:30 p.m. in an address to be moderated by Sen. Linda Frum.
Can you give a brief taste of what you’ll be talking about in Toronto?
It’s two or three distinct categories. First, Israel and its prospects after the election. The second is Israel vis-a-vis the region, and that encompasses not only its foreign policy, but U.S. foreign policy and the potential unveiling of an American peace plan and consequences from our withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. And the third is more specifically Jewish, and that has to do with the rise not just of anti-Semitism, but the rise of thinking that produces anti-Semitism, both on the progressive left and the far right.
You said in a column that Benny Gantz deserved to win the Israeli election. What do you make of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory and what do you think it will entail?
I’m glad that Israel now has its “Blue and White,” a serious opposition party that demands a substantial bloc of votes and which has at last gotten on the right side of the security issue. The problem with what used to be called the left in Israel is that it was on the wrong side of the security issue.
Secondly, in Netanyhau, Israelis had a leader who, for all the whiff of scandal and legal jeopardies he’s in, has been a steady and successful prime minister. Diplomatically, he expanded the range of Israel’s relationships in a way that scarcely can be imagined when I was editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post. In terms of security, Israel is probably more secure today that it has been in quite some time.
Finally, economically, Israel is prospering as it never has. So all of that means Israelis were not irrational in wanting to stay the course. He’s now dominated Israeli politics for the better part of 25 years. Ten years in office was enough. I think Bibi in many ways has been a divisive leader and that Israel could have benefited from a more uniting figure.
Do you think he’ll make good on his promise to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank?
No. Look, I interviewed Netanyahu in early 2009, at the time of the first of the three major Gaza wars. His criticism of the Ehud Olmert government was that it had failed to go into Gaza, take Hamas out, reoccupy the strip and change the nature of Palestinian governance. Here we are, a decade later, and the policy of the Netanyahu government is exactly the same as the Olmert government. I expect the same is true of the West Bank promises, which struck me as more of a political ploy in the run-up to the election than a serious promise. So I think it should be taken with a grain of salt.
U.S. President Donald Trump has done things for Israel few people have dreamed. Do you expect more Jewish voters will reward him with their votes in 2020?
Maybe on the margin. But if you look at the results of the midterms, something like three-quarters of American Jews voted for the Democratic ticket, and that was after Trump had relocated the embassy to Jerusalem and withdrawn from the Iran deal but had not yet extended U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
American Jews are not single-interest voters. However they may feel about those decisions, vis-a-vis Israel, they’re weighed against other political considerations. I think it’s worth remembering that every American Jew is an American very much by choice, because every American Jew, in some sense, has opted not to make aliyah. So it’s perfectly natural for American Jews to vote their consciences on a much broader range of subjects than
Israel alone. I’ve consistently cheered the president on decisions he’s made about Israel, which I think are in Israel’s best interests: the embassy, the Iran deal and the Golan Heights decision. On the other hand, whether Trump’s overall record in the Middle East proves to help Israel’s security, I think the verdict isn’t entirely clear. Removing American troops from Syria was a very bad decision, and I think the North Korea precedent raises questions about how successfully a Trump administration could renegotiate a second Iran deal, if they could do it at all.
What things could the U.S. and other governments be doing to combat anti-Semitism?
Well, it would be nice to have a president who doesn’t constantly, whether inadvertently or not, rehash anti-Semitic tropes. He went before a Jewish audience recently and spoke of “your prime minister” – Netanyahu. That was, wittingly or not, suggesting dual loyalty. When he attacks “globalists,” he’s replicating language that has been used commonly against Jews for centuries. That matters because the problem with anti-Semitism is that it is, at some level, a conspiracy theory that holds that a small group of nefarious and shadowy people are running the world at the expense of the vast majority of others. And one of the consistent objections I’ve had to this administration is that it indulges in a great deal of that rhetoric, even as it is unmistakably pro-Israel. It would also be nice if the Democrats forthrightly denounce, without caveat or equivocation, the anti-Semitism we’re increasingly seeing from the progressive left in the form of so-called anti-Zionism. Will the Democratic party remain a liberal party or become a Corbynite party?
What is your view of media coverage of the conflict between Arabs and Israelis?
The media would serve the interests of truth and balance, as well as the interest of the Palestinian people, better if more attention were paid to the abuse perpetrated deliberately by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas on their own people than to the tragedies of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. And it’s important to note that when Israel has faced security challenges from the Palestinians, it has typically used caution and deliberation – compared to NATO’s behaviour in Afghanistan or in the U.S. actions in Iraq in the previous decade. Israel ought to be judged in that comparative basis in terms of the way its army has acted. If it is judged comparatively, its record will be seen as remarkably commendable.
In the age of fake news and unprecedented distrust directed at legacy media, do you think trust in the media can ever be restored?
It should be restored. I would quote my colleague Frank Bruni, who gave a terrific speech on the subject. He said the media are not fake, they’re flawed. There are many thousands of journalists not only doing their best, but also taking extraordinary risks to tell the kinds of stories that lead to a richer and freer world. And when President Trump denounces the “fake” and “fraudulent” news, he’s creating a template that is being copied by the dictators of the world, to the detriment of everyone’s interests.
Does that mean the media isn’t a flawed institution, that we don’t have biases, that we don’t do enough to correct those biases? No, of course not. But it does mean that we are an absolutely essential pillar of a free society, and that rather than try to destroy us, it would behoove government leaders, including President Trump, to celebrate the work we do. If you listen to people like George W. Bush or other conservatives, they understood, even when they were in power, that they needed a critical media to keep them honest, to keep them on their toes. And no one is going to benefit if we see trust in journalism erode further. The responsibility is on multiple ends. Journalists have a responsibility to do better in terms of fairness, balance and accuracy. But political leaders also have a responsibility to do better in terms of celebrating the role of the press in keeping everyone honest.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity