With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks quietly proceeding, I sat down with Michael Bell, a former Canadian diplomat with extensive experience in the region.
As Canadian ambassador to Jordan in the late- 1980s, to Egypt in the mid-1990s, and to Israel from 1990 to 1992 and again from 1999 to 2003, Bell has seen his share of bilateral and regional attempts at peace, some more fruitful than others.
We spoke recently in person and then by phone about the sputtering peace process and about the Old City of Jerusalem project to which Bell has devoted much of the last several years.
Perhaps in a bit of punditry revenge, I started out by asking Bell the question that I most hate being asked: What is prohibiting the sides from reaching peace?
At root, he believes that the barrier to peace between Israel and the Palestinians comes down to a “lack of trust.” It may not be a particularly novel observation. But it is one that has forced Bell to move beyond abstraction and diplomatic despair and plunge into the details. Along with several colleagues, Bell has drawn up a governance proposal for the Old City that would involve an executive committee with Israel and the nascent State of Palestine being the two key members.
In working closely with Israeli and Palestinian representatives on the proposal, the authors asked themselves what would meet the basic needs of both parties.
“Access, control, and sense of belonging that each party wanted without threatening the needs of the other,” was their response.
A version of their proposal appeared in 2009 in the journal Foreign Affairs, with a three-volume set of papers to be released this spring.
About the West Bank settlements, Bell thinks they are an “obstacle to peace. They send a message to Palestinians that, rightly or wrongly, the land they consider to be their own, the last of historic Palestine, is at risk through population movements, which is aggravated by the behaviour of ultra-nationalist settler groups who [in turn] have a disproportionate influence on policymaking.”
Still, despite the intertwined nature of land and populations in the area, Bell holds out hope for the two-state solution. He believes a one-state solution, which has been gaining ground among Palestine-solidarity activists, is not a viable one.
“I cannot conceive of educational systems or health systems that would be compatible, let alone the societal norms that Israelis and Palestinians have, that you could mix these and accommodate these. You [would be] importing into a state a struggle for power.”
The two-state solution, on the other hand, could conceivably come to fruition – even given the Israeli fear over rocket attacks. On this point, Bell suggests, with a lot of international help – the kind of help Gaza did not receive following the Israeli withdrawal – “and with a lot of restrictions, including the stationing of troops – American-led NATO troops, or, less likely, Israeli troops, that the chance for this kind of harassment is relatively modest, especially since the two security services work
This sort of political solution, he continues, will have a positive spillover effect onto Israel’s domestic situation.
“If relative satisfaction exists among the Palestinian leadership, there will be less reason among Palestinian citizens of Israel to support radical movements; they will feel less threatened, and they can feel equal citizens, in a state which was proclaimed to be a Jewish state by the United Nations. Many states have minorities – look at Russia, look at Canada.”
Ultimately, Bell is troubled by the mutual demonization of the other, something he sees as being carried into realm of Israel-Palestine activism.
“I think there’s a tendency to disregard the complexities of a situation.” He notes that observers are quick to ask “is he pro-Israeli or is she pro-Palestinian?” with the two notions seeming to be mutually exclusive stances, which they are not.
Logging so many years in a conflict-ridden region could make anyone a cynic. But Bell remains a hopeful pragmatist.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people on both sides over the decades. There are still grounds for viable accommodation.”
Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, blogs at Haaretz.com.