Michael Bell, former Ambassador and senior Canadian public servant (1943-2017)
For nearly forty years, few people were more influential in shaping Canadian policy towards the contentious Israel/Palestine issue than Michael Bell, who passed away on August 24th after a prolonged fight with liver cancer. According to long time Globe and Mail journalist Patrick Martin, Bell “did more than anyone to define Canada’s policies toward the turbulent Middle East.”
Bell was charming and well liked in the Department of Foreign Affairs. He was also a big help to me in the founding of the Canadian International Council’s Middle East Study Group in Ottawa a decade ago.
Bell’s first involvement in middle east politics came as a mid-level diplomat in Tel Aviv in the mid-seventies. But in 1979, when Prime Minister Joe Clark’s promise to move the Canadian Embassy to Jerusalem blew up into an international crisis, Bell got a big break. Clark asked Robert Stanfield to help him smooth things over. Stanfield crisscrossed the Middle East, meeting key people in Ramallah, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. His trip was organized by Bell, who accompanied Stanfield everywhere.
Bell gained intimate knowledge of the region and made precious contacts at senior levels everywhere he went. They would serve him well when later he himself would be named Canadian Ambassador in several key countries including Jordan, Israel and Egypt.
Through their meetings in the region, Stanfield and Bell developed some sympathy for the Palestinian position. Stanfield’s report back to Clark, which Bell had a key role in drafting, recommended that the Canadian embassy remain in Tel Aviv, rather than moving to Jerusalem which Canada did not (and still does not) legally recognize as a part of Israel.
Clark accepted Stanfield’s report despite protests from vociferous Zionists in Canada and Israel, who felt Clark had betrayed them and had undermined their objective of making Jerusalem the capital of a Jewish State.
While rejecting the idea of moving the embassy, however, Stanfield’s report did affirm Canada’s long-term strong support for the basic Zionist idea of a Jewish State in historic Palestine.
Aligned with liberal Zionism
Bell would probably not have defined himself as a “Zionist”, but in fact his position was in line with that of liberal Zionists, who argue that the best way to protect Israel as a Jewish State is through a “two state solution” – one of them the religious/ethnic Jewish state of Israel and the other a non-Jewish Palestinian state (containing both Christians and Muslims). He held this position to the end of his life, often saying that the 2-state solution was the “only possible answer”.
Although Bell accepted the basic Zionist idea of a Jewish State, he was not afraid to criticize Israel in private or in public when he thought it appropriate. After writing a column in the Globe and Mail describing Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as a “cancerous obstacle to peace” he was aggressively denounced by Honest Reporting, an Israel advocacy website.
Bell’s stubborn advocacy for a 2-state solution sometimes seemed more like an article of faith rather than a reasoned political stance.
In 2016, Bell participated in a panel discussion at the University of Ottawa to discuss what Canada’s policy should be given John Kerry’s failure (again) to broker a peace deal. However, even when faced with evidence that the 2 state solution has gone nowhere for over 30 years, and that the situation of the Palestinians has become demonstrably worse, Bell refused to consider any other alternative.
“There is no other option,” argued Bell, who then spent the rest of his allotted time on the panel explaining why the “peace process” had failed and urging the parties to try harder.
Asked why the idea of a single bi-national democratic state with equal rights for Jews and non-Jews is not an option, “The Israelis will never accept it”, Bell shot back.
When an audience member asked if the idea of a single bi-national democratic state with equal rights for Jews and non-Jews should be considered, Bell was dismissive. “The Israelis will never accept it”, he shot back.
Of course, on current evidence, Bell is right. As long as Canada and the international community continue to support the idea of a state based on Jewish ethnicity/religion, Israel can safely ignore any discussion about the option of developing a multicultural democratic state based on equality and human rights for all.
Bell was a decent Canadian trying to defend Canadian values. Nonetheless, it seems a peculiar anomaly that with Bell’s encouragement, Canada would promote the creation of two tiny ethnically-based micro-states in the Middle East as a basis for peace, while everywhere else in the world Canada promotes equality, tolerance, inclusiveness and multiculturalism as a way to deal with ethnic tensions.
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