Magazine article The Spectator

Vetoed by the PLO?

Magazine article The Spectator

Vetoed by the PLO?

Article excerpt


THE initial invitation looked promising when it was sent on 27 January, and I quickly replied in the affirmative.

`Dear Mr Walker,' wrote Ellie Blagbrough, 'I am writing as the incoming President of the Oxford Union to invite you to participate in a special debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel. The Union has not debated this important topic for several years and I know there is strong student interest. It is also the Union's 175th anniversary term, and I am keen to attract the best speakers and make this debate a key part of our celebrations.

`The potential motion for debate is:

`This House believes that land for peace is the only way to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East.'

In a telephone call to Ms Blagbrough I said that I was happy to speak in favour of the motion and we had a general chat about my professional background - 15 years based in the Middle East for the Times, ten of them - split into two different time periods -- living in Jerusalem and the other five covering the Arab world from our now closed office in Cairo.

As a one-time editor of Cherwell, the main Oxford University paper whose offices were in the old Union lavatories close to the debating chamber, the idea of some knock-about debate preceded by Pimms on the lawn and dinner with old chums like David Gardner, Middle East correspondent of the Financial Times, and Ned Temko, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, appealed, especially as the Times, in its wisdom, had decided to help me out with part of the air fare.

Even as late as May, when I had already booked my air ticket, arranged a lunch with Dr Jeremy Catto, a genial don from my old college, Oriel, and even given my inside-leg measurement by telephone to the shop in The High where I was going to hire the obligatory dinner jacket (not commonly called for in this part of the world), all the arrangements seemed to be going smoothly.

On 7 May, Ms Blagbrough faxed me for a second time to notify me of some minor changes. The motion for debate was now altered to read: ' "This House believes that an independent Palestine is the only way for lasting peace in the Middle East." Speaking for the motion are Mr Safieh (London representative of the PLO), Menzies Campbell QC, David Gardner of the Financial Times and yourself.

`Opposing the motion are Lord Jakobovits, Ned Temko of the Jewish Chronicle and Rob Garson, a leading Jewish debater.

`You should arrive at the Union between 6.30 p.m. and 7 p.m. There will be a blacktie dinner starting at 7 p.m.; with the debate beginning at 8.30 p.m. Do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. I look forward to meeting you on 28 May.'

It was not until two weeks later, when my $1,000-dollar British Airways ticket had already been paid for and various social arrangements in London agreed, that the first hint of trouble emerged -- although in roundabout language that took a further telephone call to Ms Blagbrough, this time apologetic and embarrassed, to interpret. I had, to put it baldly, for the first time in my life, been blackballed by the PLO and the Union authorities, without apparently a chirp of protest, had bowed to the threat because they did not want to lose `an ethnic speaker'.

`Dear Mr Walker,' said the third of my faxes from the Union's imposing offices in Frewin Court. 'I hope you are well. I am sorry that I have not been in touch for some while. …

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