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Conversation with Dr. Ralph Nurnberger: Georgetown professor to speak at Israel Bonds Dinner

By Stacey Dresner

WESTERN MASS. – Dr. Ralph Nurnberger will be the guest speaker at the annual Israel Bonds Dinner on Wednesday, June 13 at 5:30 p.m. at Chez Josef I Agawam.

The dinner will honor  Western Massachusetts congregation leaders Richard Fein of Congregation B’nai Israel, Bevery and David Hirschhonr of Congregation B’nai Torah, Sheila and William Adams of Congregation Rodphey Sholom, Nancy and David Carmen of Congregation Sons of Zion, Patty and Steven Sussman of Sinai Temple and Susan and Jonathan Goldsmith of Temple Beth El.

Dr. Nurnberger is a Professor of International Relations at Georgetown University, where he was named Professor of the Year by the Graduate School of Liberal Studies in 2003, and received another award in 2005 for more than 20 years of excellence in teaching.  He teaches graduate seminars at Georgetown on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  In addition to speaking nationally and internationally, Dr. Nurnberger has appeared on radio and television programs as an analyst on political and international issues.  His most recent book is entitled “Lobbying in America.”  In addition to his academic career, Dr. Nurnberger has spent 25 years in the field of government relations, including serving on Capitol Hill in the Executive Branch.  He spent more than 8 years as a Congressional Liaison for AIPAC.  Dr. Nurnberger was the first director of Builders for Peace, an organization established in 1993 to encourage private sector investment in the West Bank and Gaza.

He recently talked to the Jewish Ledger about the “Arab Spring” and its affect on Israel.


Q:   Now that the elections in Israel have been cancelled and Benjamin Netanyahu has formed a government with Kadima, what does that mean for both the peace process and the Tal Law, which  concerns the drafting of fervently Orthodox young people in to the Israeli Army?

A: You are correct.  At 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 8, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the newly elected leader of the Kadima party, Shaul Mofaz, agreed to form a national unity government.  The deal was finalized just hours before the Knesset had planned to take up a proposal that would have resulted in new elections on Sept. 4.

As a result of the new agreement, 28 Kadima Knesset members will join Bibi’s ruling coalition, increasing the government’s total to 94 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.  This forms the largest parliamentary majority in Israel’s history.

Baring a totally unforeseen event, this means that Netanyahu will be able to serve out his full four-and-a-half-year term and that Israel’s next elections will be in October 2013. Mofaz will become deputy prime minister, a member of the inner security cabinet, and a minister-without-portfolio, while a number of cabinet portfolios will be given to other Kadima members.

Netanyahu and Mofaz held a joint press conference in which they outlined the new coalition’s four priorities: One, drafting new legislation to replace the Tal Law, a controversial measure that exempts the ultraorthodox (Haredim) from military service and is due to expire in August; Two, forming the electoral system prior to the next election; Three,  passing a new budget; and Four, promoting a “responsible” peace process with the Palestinians.

It is much too early to determine how the new coalition will deal with the Palestinians.  Netanyahu will now have sufficient support within the Knesset to support more far reaching compromises than would have been possible in the past, especially as Kadima members had previously been pushing for more Israeli flexibility.

That said, not only are Israel and the Palestinian Authority far apart on the substance of an agreement, they are even quite far apart on even resuming serious negotiations.  While Netanyahu has called for a “two-state solution” and recently said that the Palestinian state should not look “like Swiss cheese,” it is not likely that he would offer the Palestinians as much as his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, offered to PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in September 2008.  If Abbas rejected Olmert’s offer then, there is no reason to believe that he would settle for less now.

The Obama Administration has backed Netanyahu’s view that any resolution of the conflict must be a result of direct negotiations and cannot be imposed by any outside body, including the United Nations. Netanyahu’s position has been that such negotiations should start without any preconditions.

The Palestinians indicated that they had a number of preconditions that must be met before they would actually negotiate on the core issues.  On April 22 a delegation from the PA presented these to Netanyahu, including a settlement freeze, prisoner releases and border discussions to be based on the 1967 lines.  Essentially, without negotiations there cannot be a resolution of the conflict, regardless of the composition of the new Israeli government.

Your second question deals with the so called Tal Law, which enabled ultraorthodox Haredim to avoid military or national service. The law runs out on Aug. 1.  The new coalition’s configuration means that three secular parties — Likud, Kadima, and Yisrael Beitenu — will now have 70 of the 94 coalition seats, so it is possible that the Tal Law will be ended or, more likely, that a more gradual approach might be established with a focus on civilian national service programs that could mitigate the shock to the ultraorthodox community.


Q: There was hope that the Arab Spring would usher in democracy to Egypt. Where do you see Egypt headed?


A: Actually, Egypt has moved to a form of democracy.  Egypt has held a series of parliamentary elections, in which the Muslim Brotherhood has gained over 40 percent of the seats in the new parliament and the more hard-line Salafist party (al-Nour) gained about 25 percent of the seats.

They are now in the midst of their presidential campaign.

There are only three major presidential contenders in Egypt after the High Election Commission banned a number of leading candidates. 

The frontrunners are Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister for President Hosni Mubarak who was also the head of the Arab League; Mohamed Morsi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party; and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was expelled by the organization after declaring that he would run for president at a time when the Brotherhood had stated it would not field a candidate for president. 
Current polls indicate Amr Moussa is in first place, followed by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, with Mohamed Morsi in third place. But most Egyptians say that they are still undecided and the Muslim Brotherhood may still mount a stronger campaign on behalf of Morsi. 
The majority of the secularists will likely support Amr Moussa. Part of his popularity stems from the fact that he took a hard line on Israel when he was foreign minister. 

Mohamed Morsi was not the Brotherhood’s first choice, but was picked to run after Khairat al-Shater was barred from running, so that Egyptians refer to him derisively as “the spare.” Morsi has made a series of extremely hostile comments about Israel and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.  Morsi recently told thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at a Cairo soccer stadium, “Yes, Jerusalem is our goal. We shall pray in Jerusalem, or die as martyrs on its threshold.”

Aboul Fotouh is personally more popular than Morsi, and has attracted the endorsement of segments of the youth, and also Islamists who do not care for Morsi.

With the Islamists splitting the votes, the most likely outcome is that no candidate will gain 50 percent of the vote on May 23 and that Amr Moussa will run against an Islamist in the second round.

While Egypt still emphasizes the role of the president and downplays that of the parliament, the timing of this election is probably premature. The presidential election takes place before Egyptians have drafted and ratified a new constitution. Thus, it is likely that the president will be elected to a four-year term but that the new constitution may weaken his authority soon after he assumes power.


Q: How will what is happening in Egypt affect Israel?


A: Continuing the peace with Egypt is important to both countries, but this is better understood in Israel than in Egypt, where the relationship with Israel is viewed with ever-increasing hostility.

On April 22, the national Egyptian gas companies, EGAS and EGPC, announced the revocation of the agreement to supply natural gas to Israel. In 2010, Egypt supplied the Israel Electric Company (IEC) with 37% of its gas consumption; in 2011, that dropped to 18% because of attacks on the pipeline in northern Sinai. The revocation of the agreement is a decision that was clearly made, or at least approved, at Egypt’s highest political levels.

Brotherhood leaders in Parliament have indicated that they do not wish the parliament to end the treaty relationship as they do not wish to take the blame for such an action.  They have suggested that, instead, the treaty and relations with Israel be put to a national referendum so that the Egyptian people themselves can take this action.

The Egyptian military, for the most part, still supports the treaty and understands its importance to Egypt, so in the near term, it is not likely that the major features of the treaty will be revoked.



Q: How will affect U.S. relations with Egypt?


A: The U.S. will continue to monitor events in Egypt and seek to develop relations with the new leadership.  The Obama Administration remains concerned about human rights conditions in Egypt, and most recently was able to arrange for pro-democracy activists and NGO officials to leave the country.


Q: What do you think will be the outcome of all that is happening now in Syria, and could its affect be on Israel?


A: The awful events in Syria can have dramatic consequences for neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and, of course Israel.  Israel is concerned that the Assad regime might try to divert public attention away from internal events and to focus on Israel.  So far, this has not happened and the border along the Golan Heights has remained relatively quiet.

Israel is also concerned that Iran continues to ship weapons through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and that these weapons might someday be used against Israel.

In addition to great concerns about the human costs in Syria, Israel is also concerned that refuges from Syria will continue to flee to neighboring countries, which can have a destabilizing effect. Israelis are also concerned that there are strong Islamist elements involved in the anti-Assad movement, and that they may eventually gain positions of power in a new Syria.

One positive note to consider is that Hamas has left its headquarters in Damascus, which seems to have weakened that organization.


Q: Do you think there will ever be an “Arab Spring” in Iran?


“Ever” is a long time.  Regime change in Iran could be a desired outcome, but for now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains Iran’s “Supreme Leader, both in title and in fact.  President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s forces lost in recent elections and his power base appears to be significantly eroding.


The Israel Bonds Dinner will be held June 13 at Chez Josef, 176 Shoemaker Lane in Agawam at 5:30 p.m. Couvert is $55 per person. For more information, contact the Development Corporation for Israel at (800) 916-1918.



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