For anyone who missed the debate on May 15 at UCLA between Reza Aslan and Hussein Ibish over whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved by creating a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish one or by creating a single bi-national state, here's the basic report of what went down.
As expected, Aslan argued that the two-state solution is "dead and buried," and that everyone (the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Americans and other international bodies) should instead start investing resources and energy to create a single bi-national state with "soft borders."
Ibish, meanwhile, rejected the idea that the window to create two states for two peoples has closed, and instead held out hope for the possibility that such a conflict-ending resolution could be reached in the region.
While they disagreed about what final resolution to aim for, a careful listener would have realized that Aslan and Ibish agreed on almost everything else about the conflict.
Both scholars assigned blame for the failure of the peace process to many parties, but set the lion's share of the blame at Israel's feet. Both Ibish and Aslan saw the Israeli policy of settlement expansion as the primary reason for the failure of the peace process to progress in the nearly 20 years since the Oslo Accords were signed. Both acknowledged that, while most Israelis and most Palestinians (and most Americans, for that matter) want to see a two-state solution achieved, the likelihood of it being achieved anytime soon is very slim.
UCLA History professor James Gelvin acted as moderator.
As one student in the audience put it afterward, "They're on the same page, but they have different views."
But confronted with the question of how the parties should proceed in resolving this seemingly intractable conflict, the two Muslim scholars parted ways.
"I'm advocating the one-state solution for one simple reason: there is no other solution," said Aslan, calling the prospect of two states for two peoples "a sham" and "a charade."
Pointing to the 600,000 Israelis who are currently living beyond the so-called green line that divides pre-1967 Israel from the territories it conquered during the war that year, Aslan argued, in no uncertain terms, that the infrastructure of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank had simply crowded out any possible space for a second state.
"There will never be a Palestinian state," he said. "Ever. That is the truth."
Ibish disagreed. "The majority of Israelis are, rather strongly, in favor of two state solution; the majority of Palestinians are in favor of a two-state solution," he said. "So it's a question of political will."
With that political will, Ibish said he believed that the Israelis would dismantle West Bank settlements in order to achieve peace, and cited the examples of Gaza and the Northern West Bank as evidence of their willingness to do so.
"Walls go up and walls come down," Ibish said.
Throughout the debate, Ibish sounded both hopeful and pragmatic when compared with Aslan, and never more so than when Aslan described the bloody process by which he believed a single, bi-national state could actually come about.
"If you want me to be honest with you," Aslan said, "I think that what we are going to see is a process through which the demographic balance [between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea] tips into apartheid, ethnic cleansing, until finally you have international mediation that leads to confederacy."
"If," Ibish responded, "I wanted to exercise a radical dystopian imaginative leap of that kind, if I wanted to be Hieronymus Bosch of Israel and the Palestinians, sure, I can arrive at your conclusion after all this horror. Well I'm not willing to go there."
"Even if it turns out you were right," he continued, "I would be proud to stand here and tell you that I am not going to acquiesce to making that happen."
Despite falling during the week of mid-terms, about 80 people, most of them students, came to UCLA's Humanities Building to hear from Aslan and Ibish.
"I think settlements can be overturned and stopped," Ajwang Rading, a second year political science major, said after the debate. He is taking a course about the Middle East this term, and found Ibish's argument the more convincing of the two. "It's hard, but I'm a believer in that option. There is hope that it is possible."
Benjamin Wu, a second-year student at UCLA studying economics and political science, also recoiled from the one-state solution. "Even though it's probably more realistic, I thought it was too cynical," he said. "Whereas Dr. Ibish, I thought he was much more optimistic. At least he was proposing a solution to the problem."
Tuesday night's debate was part of the Olive Tree Initiative's Month of Ideas, and a second panel of Jewish participants will address the same topic on May 29.