The winner of the US presidential election in November may not be supportive of Israel at all, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens warned on Wednesday.
“I think, if I were an Israeli decision-maker, I would say, ‘We might hope, but we should not assume, that the next president of the United States is going to be pro-Israel, and even pretend to be pro-Israel,’” Stephens told senior editors at The Jerusalem Post.
A former editor-in-chief of the Post who is currently deputy editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, Stephens is visiting Israel from the US to participate in meetings of the Israel Democracy Institute’s International Advisory Council.
Not known for being a strong supporter of President Barack Obama, Stephens said his successor may be even worse for Israel.
“Obama will always say, ‘I’m a great friend of Israel.’ I think he’s a great friend of Israel when it’s easy, when it’s about providing planes to wipe out the forest fire or giving de minimis funding for Iron Dome – de minimis on the scale of the US budget,” he said. “I think he’s not a great friend when you have an overwhelming majority of Israelis opposed to an Iran deal, and he pushes it through in a way that I thought was deceptive. But the next president might not even bother with that, especially with the rising popularity of Bernie Sanders, and all the more so because no one can accuse him of being an anti-Semite.”
Stephens said it is too early to predict the results of the US presidential primaries.
“It’s really anybody’s race, as you saw yesterday from the New Hampshire ballot,” he said. “This is such a wild year politically in the United States that it’s very hard to forecast where we’re going to be in 12 months’ time.”
Describing himself as “a left-handed, right-wing Mexican Jew – a really small minority,” the erudite Stephens bashed both the Democratic and Republican front-runners.
“Bernie Sanders worries me. Hillary Clinton worries me. Donald Trump worries me, and frankly Ted Cruz kind of worries me too,” he said. “Bernie Sanders is, as befitting a very left-wing Jew, not exactly sympatico with the cause of Israel,” he said. “I don’t think that Trump’s going to get the nomination, but we’ll see. It worries me that Mrs. Clinton is so close to Sidney Blumenthal, whose son [Max] is a raving, psycho anti-Semite.”
Asked who he thinks is the most favorable candidate for Israel, Stephens said, enigmatically, “I always refuse to answer that question because I am barred by Dow Jones, my employer, from offering political endorsements, so I only offer political disendorsements.”
Calling Trump “an ignoramus,” Stephens noted, sarcastically: “He went in front of the Republican Jewish Coalition and said, ‘You’re all fantastic negotiators.’ Exactly! ‘We’re terrible basketball players, but we’re great negotiators.’ When you’re too stupid to realize that you’re engaging in anti-Semitic tripe, then you’re really far gone.”
Of all the candidates, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has “the most nuanced and sophisticated foreign policy,” he said.
Stephens argued that Iran poses much more of a threat than Islamic State, although he warned that the coming year would see more Paris-like terrorist attacks.
“ISIS is on balance the lesser evil in that ISIS doesn’t have an air force, ISIS doesn’t have industrial-scale nuclear capabilities,” he said. “I think ISIS has to be destroyed, but ISIS is like Donald Trump – and boy am I going to get into trouble for this – in that to the extent that it’s perceived as a winner, it draws adherents and makes converts and gains strength.”
He criticized the Obama administration for not being fair with Israel, especially over the Iran deal.
“I’ve called Obama an anti-Israel president, but Obama at least goes through the motions of saying, ‘I’m the most pro-Israel president you’ve ever had, except it’s in ways that very few Israelis recognize as pro-Israel.’ It’s like, ‘I’m going to break your nose as your friend because you’ve got a bad nose, and if I break it, you’ll get a nose job,’” he said. “That’s the kind of wisdom that the administration likes to peddle: that sometimes friends have to tell each other ‘the truth.’ A statement that apparently doesn’t go in two directions because when Bibi [Netanyahu] went to Congress to talk about the Iran deal, the Obama administration blew a gasket. So what’s sauce for the goose, apparently, is not sauce for the gander.”
He said the administration should have been “more empathetic” with Israel, especially when it comes to the Palestinian conflict.
“We’re living in a world where our friends don’t trust us, and our enemies don’t fear us, and that explains the kind of disorder that has become so ubiquitous,” he said. “For at least 20 years, there was a theory that with the right Israeli government and the right Palestinian leader you could reach a peace deal. Now I think there’s a consensus that the most that Israel can possibly concede in any negotiation is less than the minimum Palestinians are prepared to accept. It’s unbridgeable.”
He said he backed the establishment of a Palestinian state “in theory, but not in practice.”
“The one thing that might mollify criticism of Israel, which is the creation of a Palestinian state, is for all kinds of reasons, I think, not likely to happen any time soon. All this tells you I don’t think we’re going to see a resumption of the kind of bilateral relationship that we’ve had. I don’t think that what we’re experiencing is the normal wave-like pattern of ups and downs in the relationship, that it might become something much darker.”
The IDI’s International Advisory Council is scheduled to enjoy four days of activity and discussion, including a special dinner with Netanyahu and meetings with President Reuven Rivlin, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and senior representatives of the major sectors of Israeli society. In addition to Stephens, its distinguished guests include former US secretary of state George Shultz and former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.
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