Jean-Marc Ran Oppenheim teaches history, culture, and politics of the Middle East and Islam at Teachers College at Columbia University and at New York University. He will speak about religion and diplomacy in the Middle East at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange on Friday, Jan. 22.
NJJN caught up with Oppenheim, who grew up in the Jewish community in Egypt, to speak about the state of politics and diplomacy in the Middle East today. Responses have been edited and condensed.
NJJN: What is the most important thing you think the Jewish community needs to understand about Israel today?
Oppenheim: They need to understand the other side; they need to understand the politics of the Middle East and how various societies are functioning and what role Israel plays in their domestic politics and in their regional politics. They are all complicated and complex societies. Israel’s primary concern is security. The other side has an understanding of this as well. The problem is that the other side uses Israeli security as a rallying point. The Islamists are using Israel as an issue, and the American-Jewish community is easily manipulated by the way Arabs and Islamists use Israel. Hamas uses Israel in this way. Hamas cannot destroy Israel. It does not have that power now, and it will not have that power in the future. Hamas’ issues with Israel are for Palestinian consumption. For Hamas to remain a serious political player in Palestinian politics, they use Israel.
NJJN: But Hamas’ charter specifically states among its goals the destruction of the State of Israel. How can its stance on Israel be just about remaining a serious political player?
Oppenheim: The charter and the use of the charter and the publicizing of the charter is all to whip up frenzy. This is where the media becomes a problem. They focus on what will sell papers…. If the parties were to sit down and negotiate, those charters will be nothing.
NJJN: What is your take on Israel’s current settlement freeze in the West Bank?
Oppenheim: They have to have it. If they want peace, Israel has to freeze settlements, absolutely. How long they will have to freeze them, to what extent, and what the freeze will cover or not cover, this is dynamic.
NJJN: What is the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Is any peace process still a possibility?
Oppenheim: It is definitely still a possibility, but it will take serious give and take on both sides. The future of any peace process is affected by internal conditions and regional conditions. On the Palestinian side, Hamas, whether at the table or not, will have to sign off on any agreement. Israel will have to make some concessions, but serious Palestinians agree that security for Israel is paramount. No one discusses the security of Israel as a state — ultimately, it’s a given fact on the ground. But there are aspects of security that could be negotiated.
NJJN: Many Israelis focus on Iran as the key threat to their survival. What is your take on this?
Oppenheim: I don’t see Iran as threatening the survival of Israel. Israel is a very powerful country. Israel has a very powerful ally. Israel has a formidable security apparatus in its military, in its intelligence, in its appurtenances of power, and it has a tremendous amount of leverage in the Middle East. Iran is using Israel, and they are using each other. Iranians have their hands pretty full right now — they have very serious internal fish to fry. The opposition may or may not use Israel as a rallying cry. And the opposition is not all that different from the [current] regime on Israel, although they might be less ideological or fanatical.