Asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan replied, “Events, my dear boy, events.”
With that in mind, Bret Stephens, foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal, will tell AIPAC supporters in Closter on Dec. 11 that whatever President-elect Obama’s intentions regarding the Middle East, his administration will have to contend with ever-changing political realities.
“Who knows what will happen?” he said.
Stephens, who writes The Wall Street Journal’s “Global View” column on foreign affairs and is a member of the paper’s editorial board, was editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004.
“The pace of news” was different in Jerusalem, Stephens told The Jewish Standard, recalling the comment of a visiting Australian journalist that “there is more news in Israel in one day than there is in Australia in a decade.”
Stephens said it was not unusual to have his plans for the day “upended by terrorist attacks or major political developments.” Describing The Jerusalem Post as a “relatively small news organization, especially compared to a paper like The Wall Street Journal,” he called the New York paper a “more orderly institution,” with resources not available to the Israeli journal.
In addition, while his office overlooks the site of the World Trade Center, he noted that working in Jerusalem presented him with a situation where concern about “personal security was more acute.” Indeed, he said, one of his reporters was gravely injured in a terrorist attack, while others were called up for military duty.
Discussing the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Stephens said he was particularly struck by the fact that the terrorists communicated via Blackberry.
Noting “the savvy nature of modern-day terrorism,” he suggested that Obama’s contention that the war began in Afghanistan and must end there “is a 19th-century view.”
We’re fighting “a different kind of enemy,” he said, calling the terrorists “mobile, networked, and global.” The new president, he said, must “leave behind the campaign rhetoric” and take note of the new reality.
“He has to adjust to a number of potentially game-changing events in the region,” said Stephens, pointing, for example, to the speed with which Iran has developed its nuclear capabilities. Suggesting that Iran could pose a serious nuclear threat within four years, he said the country’s nuclear program is moving “more quickly than we can imagine.”
Another problem that will demand Obama’s attention is the upcoming Palestinian presidential election in which Mahmoud Abbas, now in his 70s, may be defeated by a candidate from Hamas.
“What does that mean in terms of advancing the peace process?” asked Stephens, noting that while he expects the new U.S. president to take “a more active stance” in the peace process, “it will be hard if Hamas wins.”
Also in contention will be the pressure on Israel to negotiate with Syria over the return of the Golan Heights in order to “turn Syria away from the Iranian axis. That’s a problematic conclusion,” he said, pointing to overtures to Syria made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as well as statements by former U.S. government advisers such as Aaron Miller, a Woodrow Wilson Center Public Policy scholar, that the United States should reactivate the “Syrian track.”
Stephens said he is also wary about the situation in Egypt, which – with an aging leader – may well face a crisis of succession in which the Muslim Brotherhood “could make considerable gains.”
Despite these problems, Stephens described himself as “profoundly optimistic” about the future of Israel.
“I have no doubt that just as I celebrated Israel’s 60th anniversary, my grandchildren will celebrate her 120th anniversary,” he said. “Israel is remarkably powerful and resilient and her economy has outperformed” the economy of most other countries over the past four years, he said.
In addition, “regimes like that [in] Iran are fundamentally brittle and prone to cracking,” he said, pointing to that country’s high rate of inflation and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “massive unpopularity.”
Finally, suggesting that the war in Iraq may turn out to be a success, though a “costly” one, Stephens said that the country might become a “functional, responsible, pro-Western democracy in the heart of the Arab world.”
The Dec. 11 event, billed as an AIPAC Northern New Jersey Community-Wide Briefing, will take place at Temple Emanu-El of Closter and is co-sponsored by Kehillat Kesher, Temple Beth-El of Northern Valley, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, Temple Emanuel of The Pascack Valley, and Temple Sinai of Bergen County.
For further information, call (212) 750-4110.