OXFORD, England - Oxford dons were reeling at their high table dinners late last month, in the wake of a startling controversy over the Middle East. A debate at the Oxford Union on the motion "This house believes that one state is the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict" was compromised by external political pressure, generating serious concerns about academic freedom and the principles of free speech. Given the nature of this contentious debate and its implications for the trajectory of the conflict, those dwelling outside Oxford's hallowed college halls have every reason to take notice as well.
The venerable Oxford Union, training ground for countless British prime ministers and world leaders, has a long history of provocative debates. Yet criticism over the lineup of speakers for the October 23 event was especially fierce, resulting in the withdrawal of an invitation to Prof. Norman Finkelstein. Finkelstein, whose book "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering" (2000) and strident views on a host of other issues have drawn ire from all corners, had nevertheless been asked to speak in support of a two-state solution. The ensuing drop-out by several other invitees over what they perceived as violation of free speech in the decision to disinvite Finkelstein, and the fallout among Union members spread to both the local and national press, making it abundantly clear that Oxford is not insulated from disturbing trends afflicting the academy in America.
For all its left-wing orthodoxy, Oxford still manages to provide a space where people can talk freely about any aspect of the conflict. Such openness, after all, is central to the spirit of academic freedom, which suffers greatly as a result of heated campaigns by the pro-Israel Campus Watch and tenure disputes arbitrated by university alumni in the United States. Yet even as the Oxford community awakens to this new and unpleasant reality, astute observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be asking far more important questions about the substance of the Union debate itself.
How is it that the one-state argument has managed to carve out such a comfortable intellectual niche in recent years, and why are more experts on the conflict giving up on the viability of a two-state solution? One surprising voice of despair that has always adhered to the two-state solution belongs to Prof. Avi Shlaim, a historian of the Arab-Israeli conflict at Oxford. Shlaim's scholarship, together with the indispensable work of fellow Israeli "New Historians," has engendered difficult questions about Israeli and Palestinian nationalist narratives and forced a painful, but necessary, reexamination of the underlying causes of the conflict.
In lectures and tutorials at Oxford, Prof. Shlaim has consistently defended Israel's right to exist within its pre-1967 borders, while at the same time criticizing expansionist settlement policy in the West Bank and arguing for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. His position on the legitimacy of both Jewish and Palestinian national aspirations stands out amidst the intellectually attractive but naively impractical calls for a binational state often voiced at Oxford. Hence my great surprise at seeing his name printed on the Union term card debating for the proposition of a single state.
During a forthright discussion of this apparent about-face, Shlaim stressed his abiding belief that a two-state solution is still the only legitimate way out of this conflict. Nevertheless, he agreed to speak for the proposition in order to critique Israeli policy, which he sees as destroying the basis for such a solution. In Shlaim's view, the construction of the security barrier over the Green Line, and other Israeli actions in the West Bank, undermine the very possibility of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state.
Although Shlaim withdrew from the debate in protest, the implications of his decision to discuss the proposition extend much farther than the Oxford Union. As Shlaim is one of the few remaining "New Historians" to occupy an ethically compelling middle ground regarding the conflict, his despair should serve as a wake-up call to liberal advocates of a two-state solution.
Heightened uncertainty about the possibility of two viable states existing side by side has been building for some time. Even the current American government, which has been on paid vacation from Middle East policy for the last seven years, seems to have finally recognized this reality ahead of the upcoming Annapolis peace summit. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Mideast Policy three weeks ago, admitted as much when she warned that the U.S. is concerned "we will lose the window for a two-state solution." Several prominent policymakers have recently issued similar warnings about what is at stake with this last-ditch effort, including former U.S. National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft.
It would certainly be easy to dismiss the idea of the one-state solution as mere ivory tower chatter, or worse, to shut down the conversation about what the post-Oslo status quo has wrought upon the region altogether. But the current reality forces us to grapple with them both, especially as the possibility of justice in the form of two sovereign states continues to unravel. The latest iteration of the one-state/two-state debate at Oxford, coupled with the genuine fears being expressed by Middle East experts, simply cannot be rejected as a fit of anti-Israel hysteria. While the future of Israel and Palestine won't be decided in the chamber of our august debating society, the consequences of the two-state solution's collapse will be felt far beyond this city's dreaming spires.
Seth Anziska is an M. Phil. candidate in modern Middle Eastern studies at St. Antony's College, Oxford.