From the eyes of the prize

Bret Stephens discusses his surprise at winning the Pulitzer Prize and shares his views on Netanyahu, Obama, Iran and Israel’s future.

Brett Stephens 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Brett Stephens 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
Bret Stephens walks through the hallway at The Wall Street Journal’s headquarters in a Midtown Manhattan skyscraper, and sees the 34 Pulitzer Prizes on the wall that will soon be joined by his own. The newspaper’s deputy editorial page editor, he knows all the names on the prizes and what they were given for. And he reacts to his own with modesty unexpected of a man who became editor of The Jerusalem Post at 28, and will receive journalism’s top award before he turns 40.
Running into the Journal’s digital network’s deputy managing editor Gabriella Stern, he responds to a hearty mazal tov for winning the prize without kvelling.
“There are ups and downs after winning a Pulitzer,” he says. “You wake up the morning after winning and realize you have not been transformed into [U2 lead singer] Bono or [basketball star] LeBron James. You’re still the same guy, and you still have to write a column and meet a deadline.”
In an interview in his cluttered office on the building’s fifth floor, Stephens says his first thought when he was told he won the prize on April 15 was that he wished his father, who died a year and a half ago, was alive to see it. He says his Jewish mother is thrilled.
Stephens received congratulations from Republican senators, an unexpected letter from US President Barack Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough, and a bottle of Israel’s best wine from the Israeli Consulate down the street.
“I was not expecting to win it at all,” he says. “I might as well have been hit by the same asteroid that nearly missed Russia. I feel very lucky to have won it. There are a lot of first-class commentators out there. It could have gone to any of the finalists. Humility does not come easily to me, but this certainly achieves that effect.”
BORN IN New York and raised in Mexico City, Stephens says he honed his talent for writing his Global View column for which he won the $10,000 prize in Jerusalem. During the two years he edited the Post from 2002 to 2004, he wrote the weekly Column One in an effort to give the newspaper a strong public voice.
“The discipline of making an argument fresh each week when Israel was under such a sustained and dishonest ideological assault sharpened both my moral sense and my craft as a writer,” he says. “Jerusalem Post readers’ feedback, their praise, and even their criticism, made me the writer that I am today. I will continue to write a great deal about Israel and the urgent threats to its security, and rebut the libels on its good name. That is a legacy of those critical years I spent in Israel.”
Stephens also credits the staff of top editors and writers at the Post for making his job easier and teaching him. First he lists a few names, but throughout the interview and afterward, he keeps adding more out of fear of leaving key people out.
The current and former editors he cites include Steve Linde, Amotz Asa-El, Calev Ben-David, Saul Singer, Amir Mizroch, Ruthie Blum and the late Meir Ronnen. He also credits “great reporters,” citing Arieh O’Sullivan, Herb Keinon, Khaled Abu Toameh, Judy Siegel-Itzkovich and Tovah Lazaroff. He expresses special gratitude to secretary Linda Amar and photographer Ariel Jerozolimski.
“I won’t go down the entire list, but they helped me do something special,” he says.
While Stephens is remembered for bringing ultra-hawk Caroline Glick to the newspaper, he also made dovish Larry Derfner and Arab Daoud Kuttab columnists, because he wanted a fair representation of views.
Stephens’s own views have not graced the Post since he left for the Journal. Unlike other American columnists who are syndicated or post their columns on personal websites or social media, Stephens’s writing can only be seen by those who pay to read the Journal online or in print.
Completely unapologetic about this, he says: “Journalism is not free, so people should pay for it. It costs money to hire quality writers and editors. You pay money to buy a lollipop, so why not a newspaper?” On other topics, Stephens’s views are no less blunt, especially when it comes to the president of the United States. Despite the positive reviews others gave Obama’s March visit to Israel, he was not very impressed.
“The ‘Obama Spring’ when it comes to Israel is probably already over,” he says. “It was nice to see him improve the mood music in Jerusalem. But when Obama says he isn’t bluffing on Iran and then shows he’s bluffing on Syria, you have calls for concern. Yes, Israel should be afraid. No, Israel should not count on the US being there when it counts.”
Stephens complains of an isolationist mood that he says is sweeping Washington on both sides of the political divide. He says Obama’s talk of the need for nation-building at home sounds to him like the dangerous isolationism of the 1920s and ’30s.
“Our foreign policy then under both Democrats and Republicans was to blink in the face of aggression and reduce the size of our military,” he recalls. “No one paid a higher price for that than the Jews.”
When asked whether he believes Obama when he says he won’t let Iran get the bomb, he answers negatively.
“No, he’s looking for a negotiated settlement that will inevitably allow Iran to maintain a nuclear, industrial capability that will put them within a screw’s twist of the bomb itself,” he says.
Turning his attack on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s administration, Stephens doesn’t pull any punches.
When he speaks of Israel, the former Jerusalem resident uses the word “you,” but when he speaks of the Jewish people, the proud scion of a revered rabbinic family noticeably shifts his pronouns to “our” and “we.”
“You in Israel are doing nothing, because you are waiting for your savior, Barack Obama,” he kvetches. “If Jesus wasn’t your savior, Obama certainly isn’t. There isn’t a Jewish state so we can rely on someone else for our salvation. We have a Jewish state precisely so we can rely on ourselves.”
Stephens mocks both Netanyahu for stalling rather than making decisions on Iran and the international community for persisting with a diplomatic approach that has failed to show signs it could ever bear fruit.
“Israel has moved from strategic ambiguity about whether it will to a public nervous breakdown about whether it can,” he says. “Don’t think Iran isn’t watching. I would like the Israelis to answer how many more meetings at Almaty, Kazakhstan, will be needed to establish that the avenues have been exhausted. How many times and in how many languages can the Iranians say no?” When he is given former defense minister Ehud Barak’s usual response to his question – that to strike Israel requires ability, necessity and legitimacy – Stephens is unforgiving.
“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he says. “When the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] compares your country to a cancer that must and will be cut, that’s your legitimacy.
Israel will be condemned under any and all circumstances. Israel even got condemned when it sent humanitarian aid to Haiti.”
Noting two former Israeli politicians, Stephens warns against repeating Golda Meir’s mistakes of 1973 on the cusp of the Yom Kippur War, and quotes Yigal Allon’s words at the cabinet meeting to approve the 1967 Six Day War, saying, “They will condemn us, but we will survive.”
Asked whether he trusts Netanyahu, Stephens quotes late US president Ronald Reagan, saying in an answer to a very different question: “Trust, but verify.”
Shifting from war to peace, Stephens says he is in favor of the latter. But when it comes to preconditions, he aims high.
“I would give up the West Bank for real peace,” he says. “I’m for a two-state solution if [the Palestinian state] is like Canada, and I’m against it if it’s like Iran. Why shouldn’t we demand that the Palestinians adopt a decent, tolerant political order rejecting fanaticism and hatred as a precondition to statehood? To demand anything less of the Palestinians is a form of racism. It’s time we have expectations of their political leaders and religious imams that go beyond the mere temporary abstention of making war on Israel.”
Since returning to the US, Stephens has become a frequent defender of Israel on the airwaves and on college campuses.
His strategy to prevent heckling involves asking the audience how many of them support women’s rights, gay rights, freedom of speech, environmental responsibility and other liberal values.
After almost everyone in the audience raises their hands, he tells them that the only country in the Middle East that defends and supports these values is Israel. He says that there are no gay rights in the Palestinian Authority, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, or sense of environmental stewardship in Egypt.
“If you consider yourself a liberal or a progressive, the only country in the region you can decently support is Israel,” Stephens says. “Otherwise you are ether a fool or a hypocrite.”
STEPHENS LAMENTS that the Arab world had an opportunity in overthrowing secular autocracies to establish a genuinely liberal political order, but instead multiple Arab countries turned to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“There is an intellectual explanation for the Arab world’s poverty, backwardness, fanatical religiosity and support for terrorism,” he says. “A fondness for conspiracy theories, hatred of Jews, hatred of dissent, hatred of the free exchange of ideas. It’s from this complex of mental attitudes that you can explain the economic backwardness and political dysfunction now so manifestly on display in Cairo, Tunis and Damascus.”
Stephens is encouraged by Israel’s new government taking steps to ensure that it will remain a Zionist state. He says that means shared responsibilities for all its citizens, including the ultra-Orthodox.
But he is less optimistic regarding the Netanyahu government taking steps to ensure Israel’s security. In fact, his recent columns indicate that he is very worried that Netanyahu will continue bluffing and Israel will not act fast enough against Iran.
“I’ve never been more scared for Israel than I am now,” he says. “I understand that sitting in the comfort of my office in New York, I do not bear the responsibility of Israeli decisionmakers. But I can provide a sense of perspective. That’s sometimes harder to get when you are in the eye of the storm.”