A day before his Saturday, March 26, speech at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, deputy Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens will return from a week in Israel and Egypt, having left Cairo a day earlier. It will be his second trip to the Middle East in the past month. In a March 15 phone interview, the former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post spoke of the upheaval in the Middle East, America’s reaction, and its impact on Israel.
NJJN: What was the mood in Israel two weeks ago, given all that has happened in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Gulf states?
Stephens: There is an enormous degree of uncertainty and nervousness, justifiably so. If you are an Israeli prime minister or defense minister, you are looking at a Middle East in which Lebanon has become Hizbullistan, Gaza has become Hamastan, Jordan is unstable, and you’ve gone from an known and stable quantity in Egypt to an unknown and potentially unstable quantity. Iran continues to work to acquire a nuclear capability. Israel intercepted a Liberian flag vessel with arms destined for Gaza. Khadafi may yet destroy his opponents. And you have a U.S. administration which gives every appearance of indecision and fecklessness.
NJJN: What would you want the Obama administration to do, not just in terms of its relations with Israel but with the other Middle Eastern states?
Stephens: The strategic policy of the United States is to encourage regime change in those regimes that are anti-American and encourage far-reaching and fundamental reform in those regimes that are pro-American. But what you’ve seen so far is very nearly the opposite. Dictatorial pro-American regimes in Cairo and Tunis have fallen, and yet the really serious tyrants in Tehran, Damascus, and Tripoli are becoming more entrenched and willing to hold onto power by any means necessary.
NJJN: Were the people in Egypt and Tunisia justified in getting rid of those pro-American despots who ruled them?
Stephens: Sure. Zayn al-Abidin bin Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt had held onto power for decades. They were corrupt, heavy-handed, and autocratic. They were repressive. But when push came to shove, they had the decency to go without a bloodbath, and that has to be acknowledged. I was never a fan of the Mubarak regime. It refused to move to modernize and reform its political structure and institutions and pave the way toward more liberal institutions. Democracy doesn’t have to happen overnight, as long as the direction of government is toward greater freedom and liberalization.
NJJN: Do you think Egypt will become dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood?
Stephens: It is very hard to say, but the position of the Muslim Brotherhood is infinitely stronger today than it was three months ago…. The issue isn’t whether the Muslim Brotherhood can command majority support; the issue is whether the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood can unite around platforms and leaders who are more progressive. To me, the evidence is far from clear that they can.
NJJN: It looks as if Khadafi may retake what he has lost in Libya. Might that affect Israel?
Stephens: The two have never come directly into conflict, but Khadafi is an evil man who has been a source of instability and a supporter of terrorism for the years he has been in power. Any Western state has an interest in seeing him go. We don’t know who these rebels are, but we do know who Khadafi is.
NJJN: What effect might the Saudi troops in Bahrain have on Israel?
Stephens: It means the autocrats are clamping down with a perfect indifference to American views. I understand the Obama administration told the Saudis not to do it, and they went ahead and did it anyway. There is a visible decline in American visibility in an area of the world where it has critical interests.
NJJN: Do you think Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could have done more to encourage pro-democratic and possibly pro-Israel sentiment in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world?
Stephens: I think the right course for Israel is to mind its own store and deal with its own set of challenges. It would have been fine to say, ‘We support the democratic aspirations of people everywhere,’ but it’s not just their democratic aspirations. People can democratically aspire to be ruled by tyrants, as they did with Hitler. The best course for Israel was to have maintained a prudent silence.
But one point that might be made by the Israeli government is that if Egypt abrogates the treaty, it becomes null and void for Israel as well. Israel withdrew from the Sinai in exchange for peace. If that peace is not forthcoming, then Israel will have to draw its own conclusions.
NJJN: You said earlier that “Jordan is unstable.” Does that mean that Israel is now totally encircled by potentially hostile nations?
Stephens: That’s right. It is impossible for Israel to consider relinquishing further territories if it is encircled by hostile regimes. Any peace treaty with the Palestinians — not that I think that one is likely to happen sometime soon — has to happen in the context of a broader regional settlement in which Israel is accepted by all of its neighbors.