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It may all be academic, but the US is shifting on Palestine

Young, articulate Palestinians and Israelis are willing to explore a different political vision in the Middle East, including the one-state solution.

On university campuses, few things stir the blood like talk of social justice.

And so the announcement that students at Harvard's Kennedy School would host a "one-state" conference on Israel and Palestine sent pitchforks flying through the air in Boston last weekend.

One professor declared the event an "anti-Israel hate fest", while US Senator Scott Brown and the Anti-Defamation League called for it to be cancelled. Harvard's administration felt compelled to say that it "would not endorse any policy that some argue could lead to the elimination of the Jewish state of Israel".

Fortunately for the ivory tower, the rhetoric inside the Kennedy School Forum tended to be long-winded rather than zealous - except, perhaps, when it came to the idea that a one-state solution is inevitable.

"The reality on the ground is the reality of a single, apartheid state," said the conference's organiser, Ahmed Moor. "Pretending that isn't the case … suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what reality today is." His view, echoed by other Palestinians at the conference, was that demographics, rather than grand bargains, will shape the future of the region.

Legal minds agreed. "We are already in a de facto one state," said Duncan Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor. "[Israeli] settlers have social security, voting rights and freedom of movement in the West Bank. Palestinians do not."

Prof Kennedy also argued that Israel is not an apartheid state but a "colonisation akin to French Algeria, organised along racial lines".

The one-state alternative does remain contentious, with little detail on how it might be achieved. "One state is not Utopic," said Elaine Hagopian, an activist and a professor at Simmons College. "Would Israeli Jews feel comfortable sharing their nuclear weapons with Palestinians? Their water resources? Probably not."

Others argued that progress is possible. Dalit Baum, a feminist Israeli scholar, pointed to last year's project by the Israeli NGO Zochrot that tried to map the right of return.

Depicting Palestinian and Israeli populations as "inextricably intertwined", Ramallah-born Harvard student Sa'ed Atshan argued that one secular state would work for moderates on both sides. "I don't think any of you can imagine what it's like to be stateless in a world of nation states."

Others said equal representation should be the focus of Palestinian efforts. Yale law student Itamar Mann advocated a "one vote" policy rather than a "one state" agenda, pursuing equal representation in the Knesset. "Pushing for a universal right to vote is perhaps the best way to move forward," he said.

The consensus was that a one-state framework was the messy, uncomfortable and inevitable future.

Thunderous applause echoed when Ali Abunimah, the co-founder of Electronic Intifada, joked: "A two-state solution is like Santa … and [Barack] Obama's secret progressive agenda: things fervently believed in that don't exist."

Indeed, the US president's speech at the Aipac conference on Monday affirmed the solidarity between Israel and the US. "When the chips are down, I have Israel's back," Mr Obama declared. He also mentioned last year's veto at the United Nations of a resolution to declare Palestinian statehood.

It was a stance that few found surprising. "The American body politic has been an enabler of a self-destructive course of a friend [Israel]," said Harvard professor Stephen Walt.

Just the fact that the conference happened, with some controversy but little actual disruption, shows that the dialogue in the US is shifting. Young, articulate Palestinians and Israelis are willing to explore a different political vision - even at universities that apologise for such an event taking place.

Effie-Michelle Metallidis is a graduate student at Harvard and a former editorial writer for The National

Updated: March 8, 2012 04:00 AM