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‘It’s difficult to be optimistic in the short run’
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‘It’s difficult to be optimistic in the short run’

Questions for Stephen Berk

Stephen Berk, professor of history, Holocaust, and Jewish studies at Union College in Schenectady, NY, will discuss “Turmoil in the Middle East: Ramifications of the Arab Spring and the Role of the United States” on Wednesday, Nov. 30, at 8 p.m. at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell.

The program is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s 2011 Metro New Jersey Community Event and is cosponsored by the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest and Central NJ and a host of area synagogues and schools.

Berk spoke with NJ Jewish News in a Nov. 16 telephone interview.

NJJN: What do you believe are ramifications of the Arab Spring?

Stephen Berk: It is a question of how powerful Islamist groups are going to be in Egypt and elsewhere. I think the Muslim Brotherhood will do well in the Egyptian elections. I think victory goes not necessarily to the most numerous. The Muslim Brotherhood is well organized, well funded, and well led. Against a backdrop of a country that has been governed by pharaohs for 5,000 years, you’ve got to be a real optimist to believe that democracy — or even a pseudo-democracy — will develop.

NJJN: Were the Muslim Brotherhood to prevail in the elections, would they rip up the peace treaty with Israel?

Berk: I don’t know. What I worry about is, given the fact that Egypt receives considerable aid from the United States, the military will be very reluctant to jettison its relationship with the United States. But if there is a government composed of the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more extreme Salafis, it may lead the Egyptian armed forces to take a more aggressive position vis-a-vis Israel.

NJJN: Iran appears to be on the verge of having nuclear warheads. What do you think will happen?

Berk: I think Iran is close to obtaining a nuclear weapon. It becomes a question of a timetable. If Israel or the United States attacks Iran and sets back the nuclear program, that’s a good thing. But the price will be tremendous. The price of oil will skyrocket, and, of course, every American, every Israeli, every Jew will be a target for terrorism everywhere. It is really a balancing act.

NJJN: Do you still see the possibility of a two-state solution?

Berk: Yes, I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution. But I find it difficult to be optimistic in the short run about a two-state solution. I think President Obama is no enemy of Israel, but he made several mistakes in his Cairo speech when he based the existence of Israel on the Holocaust and when he adamantly spoke for an end to the settlements. I am not a supporter of the settlements, but the Palestinians under Arafat had never made the settlements a precondition for negotiations. When Obama raised that banner, [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas is reported to have said Obama put him up a tree from which he could not climb down. How could he be less adamant than the president of the United States?

President Obama should go to Israel, talk in the Knesset, and say, “No more Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line.” That would give Netanyahu a certain amount of cover. He could say, “I believe in my gut it is all our land, but the Americans will not allow it. We cannot have further settlements.” Obama should go to Ramallah and tell the Palestinians in nuanced language, “You’re not going home.” He gives Abbas cover because Abbas can say to his people, “Look, I am a refugee, but the U.S. will not allow the return of refugees, the European Union will not allow it, and the Quartet will not allow it. Let us go about building our lives.”

NJJN: Do you think Prime Minister Netanyahu in his heart of hearts wants a two-state solution?

Berk: That’s a tricky thing. He was raised as a right-wing supporter of [early Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev] Jabotinsky, but I think he understands in the end there has got to be a two-state solution. He is a grudging supporter of the two-state solution.

From the Israeli side, the problem is Jerusalem. There must be a Palestinian presence in Jerusalem. It just has to be. You can’t have a Palestinian state without its capital in Jerusalem. Things can be worked out.

NJJN: Do you believe Israel and its neighbors will ever live in peace?

Berk: Yes I do. It is quite possible. I believe in the end it will be good, but until we get there it will be very difficult. More blood may go under the bridges.

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