Michael Bell, key architect of Canadian mid-east policy, dead at 73


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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  1. “the basic Zionist idea of a Jewish state in historic Palestine”. Shouldn’t that be “OF historic Palestine”?

  2. Hi Peter. I’m surprised to read your claim that Canada promotes equality, tolerance, inclusiveness and multiculturalism everywhere in the world except in Israel/Palestine. My own observations of Canada’s foreign policy suggest that this is not a fair characterization of the way Canada conducts its foreign policy.

    Does Canada promote multiculturalism, inclusiveness and tolerance in Saudi Arabia? What programs or measures does Canada have in place to do that? Is Canada promoting multiculturalism in Iraq? As far as I can tell, Canada’s main role in Iraq is in helping the Kurds to defend and consolidate their own Kurdish proto-state. This is not a criticism. I think the Kurd’s should get their independence and I support Canada’s role in Iraq, but promoting multiculturalism is not what Canada is doing there.

    Is Canada promoting multiculturalism in China? Has Canada taken any measures of any kind to protest China’s occupation of Tibet? What about the oppression of Chinese Muslims? What is Canada doing to help them? In fact, other than some lip service in favour of human rights, Canada works closely with the government of China to promote trade, and leaves China to run its internal affairs in its highly ethno-nationalist fashion.

    It’s true that Canada supports multiculturalism in Europe, in those countries that have embraced it. They are rightly critical of American moves under President Trump that tend to undermine minority rights.

    In lots of other situations Canada’s foreign policy has adapted to the complex history and imperfect reality of the situations that we encounter. Canada supported a two state solution in Serbia and joined the rest of the world in backing the independence of Kosovo. Canada also supported a two state solution in Sudan, though there, the “solution” is proving something of a disaster.

    In my opinion, there is nothing unusual or surprising in Canada’s support of Israel as a Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jews, nor in its support for a two state solution to try to address the legitimate concerns of the Palestinian Arabs. It constitutes a balanced treatment of competing claims which both have legitimacy. Once all the parties to the conflict recognize that, I believe that peaceful coexistence and territorial compromise will be possible.

    1. David, your point is well taken. Canada is indeed selective in its promotion of human rights. In general we say we support multiculturalism and tolerance, though we don’t always follow through.

      You are right that Canada promoted separation in Sudan and Kosovo. I stand corrected.

      Whether that was a good idea, I am not in a position to say. It certainly is not a clear victory for resolving ethnic tensions in those areas.

  3. Peter, I was surprised by your conclusions, based on the article. In short, “Bell was a decent Canadian trying to defend Canadian values.” He was indeed a decent Canadian, but trying to defend liberal Zionist values as you point out.

    Israel’s values are not Canada’s values. Neither are liberal Zionist values ours. That prejudice with which he approached his job and his public writing undermined an approach based on Canadian values at the time as a middle power and the refugees gavel-holder. It’s difficult to say how much Bell played a role in numerous missed opportunities for Canada to constructively engage the conflict.

    Before 9/11, I explained to an interested PM Chretien that there was an opportunity for him to be remembered as the architect of “the Ottawa Accords” to bring to a just conclusion the promise of “the Oslo Accords.” However, it could only happen if Palestinians and their rights were equally valued, not Zionism prioritized, liberal or otherwise.

    I cannot admire any Canadian diplomacy that does not appreciate that principle, perhaps deeply Christian, crudely stated — the equal God-given dignity of all, rather than the superiority of some.

  4. Palestinians and Jews both have the right for self determination. A two state solution is the only way to guarantee self determination to both.
    The one state solution can only provide self determination to one nation, Mr. Bell understood that, liberal Zionists and many of the Palestinian in Palestine understand that and prefer the two state solution.

    On the other hand, most Palestinian refugees and the Jewish settlers oppose that and prefer the one state solution thinking that the other nation doesn’t have the right to self determination.

    1. Ahik,
      I find the call for self determination for both Palestinians and Jews problematic.

      The notion of the “right to self determination” was popularized by Woodrow Wilson in his famous 14 points following WWI. It seemed to apply pretty well in Western Europe, where countries were fairly homogeneous, but hasn’t worked so well in Eastern Europe where populations were much more mixed – including for the Jews who were excluded in many countries.

      How would you apply it in Israel/Palestine?

      Who would qualify as Palestinians? Those in the WB and Gaza, for sure. Those living inside Israel? The refugees? If all those who call themselves (self identify) as Palestinians have a collective right to self determination, on what territory do they exercise it?

      A similar issue arises for Jews. Who would you include in a Jewish nation? Only those who live in Israel? How about those in the West Bank? What about Jews in the “diaspora”? If all those who call themselves Jews have a collective right to self determination, on what territory would they exercise it?

  5. Sadly Bell’s efforts to see a two-state solution ran into the one hurdle Canadians see so often when it comes to issues of international affairs. Our politicians are known world-wide for caving in to domestic calls from folks who don’t represent or really have Canada’s needs in mind, but rather representing foreign regimes that use their diaspora to achieve what their own politicians and diplomats can’t.

    We see this with issues involving Britain, Ukraine, Haiti, Israel and more often than not with the US. as politicos in Ottawa fear their home base constituents will turn on them over old-country politics, rather pathetic reality for a nation founded on immigration.

  6. Hi, Peter.

    We have to separate means and ends. Michael Bell supported the two-state solution. That’s an end. He also called for negotiations between Israel and the PLO. That’s a means. As far as I know, Bell never suggested that Israel be forced to accept, for example, the very reasonable Arab Peace Initiative.

    If the U.S. and Europe were willing to threaten and act, to cut funding and end special trade agreements, to boycott and sanction Israel (as they did South Africa), or, in the end, to use force (as they did to get Iraq out of Kuwait), they could make Israel accept a one-, two- or seven-state solution.

    For fifty years, the U.S. and Europe have begged, pleaded, urged, nagged and bribed Israel. The problem has not been the end; it’s the means. It’s time to threaten and to act.

  7. Peter,

    I consider that you are incorrect or at least inexact in speaking of “Canada’s long-term strong support for the basic Zionist idea of a Jewish State in historic Palestine”. To my recollection the Canadian government has never specifically supported the idea of a Israel as a “Jewish state”, (other than in UNGA Resolution 181, 1947, which also spoke of an “Arab state”, and which clearly was speaking of predominant ethnic composition, not religious attributes of the states). Canada’s support for a two state solution implies that one of the two states will be predominantly Jewish in its ethnic composition, and predominantly Jewish in the religion of its population, and the other predominantly Palestinian in its ethnic composition, and predominantly Muslim in the religion of its population. However, this is quite distinct from the concept of a “Jewish state” as now used, which implies a different status for its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. And I don’t know of any Palestinian leader who would advocate that Palestine be defined as a “Muslim state”. Because of this double meaning of the adjective “Jewish”, it is a potentially slippery slope and the term “Jewish state” is best avoided or at least qualified, as I have above. In the “Canada’s Policy on Key Issues..” document, (of which Michael Bell was one of the early custodians) http://www.international.gc.ca/name-anmo/peace_process-processus_paix/canadian_policy-politique_canadienne.aspx?lang=eng , there is not now, and there never has been, any mention of support for the concept of a “Jewish state”.

    In particular, I am sure that Michael Bell never supported the idea that Palestinian leaders or others should support the idea of a “Jewish State” in the sense that it is now used.

    Michael’s comment at the U of O panel discussion that “the Israelis will never accept” a single state solution reflected the views of an experienced diplomat with an insightful understanding of Israeli politics. Since ultimately no agreement can be imposed upon Israel, the challenge for those countries including Canada who seek a just and lasting solution is to help to fashion one which the leaderships of Israelis and Palestinians can be persuaded to accept.

    1. Andrew Robinson, you write: “Since ultimately no agreement can be imposed upon Israel …”

      What do you mean? UNGA 181 was imposed on the parties. Why couldn’t “those countries including Canada who seek a just and lasting solution” impose the Arab Peace Initiative, for example, on the parties?

      1. ” UNGA 181 was imposed on the parties.” Not so. Overtaken by events. Never saw the light of day. Dr. Google is your friend.

      2. “The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was a proposal by the United Nations, which recommended a partition of Mandatory Palestine at the end of the British Mandate. On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted the Plan as Resolution 181(II).[2] The resolution recommended the creation of independent Arab and Jewish States and a Special International Regime for the city of Jerusalem” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Partition_Plan_for_Palestine).

        You can quibble, if you like, but the Partition Plan was imposed by the UN, rather than reached through negotiation by the Arabs and Jews of Palestine. The Arabs rejected it, but that didn’t stop it from happening. “Those countries including Canada who seek a just and lasting solution” could start by similarly imposing the Arab Peace Initiative.

      3. Mr. Robinson, I beg to differ. The UN has imposed “solutions” on Iraq (sanctions) etc…etc… not to mention peacekeeping forces in the region. For this conflict, it is nothing more than a matter of will.

        Canada could easily propose, and impose, the “S” in BDS, peacekeepers on the Green lines, whether Israel likes it or not, bringing up Israelis on war crimes charges as is our obligation under the IV GC. A wee bit of that by a couple of western countries and would quickly spell the imposition of the international law dictated solution: the end of the occupation, leaving Palestinians there to create their own state without Israeli interference.

        The the final piece is the refugees, for which Canada was, and in theory still is the gavel-holder and had proposed excellent solutions which would have been acceptable to both sides in the context of an overall settlement.

  8. Hey Andrew, thanks for your always thoughtful comment.

    As you mention, UNGA resolution 181 called for the creation of a “Jewish State”. I agree that that notion was not clearly a “religious” one, as many of the European Jews were secular.

    But whether “Jewish” was a religious term or an “ethnic” one, the result was the same. From the get-go most of the non-Jewish citizens of Palestine were expelled. Those who remained in what became Israel were put under martial law for 20 years. Their rights were restricted and in many cases, property confiscated by the new Jewish State.

    In recent years, as it slides to the right, Israel has become more and more openly assertive that it is a “Jewish State”. But has been effectively acting that way, since 1947, with Canada’s approval.

  9. It is arrant nonsense to state that the late Mr. Bell was in any supporter of Israel, any more than Mr. Larsen is.

    Mr. Bell, like his friend and ally, Mr. Martin, Mr. Larsen and almost all of those who have commented are either ignorant of or have forgotten that, according to International Law, Israel has the legal right to all of the lands west of the Jordan River.

    The Mandate for Palestine, granted by the unanimous vote of the League of Nations (including Arab country members) established the right of the Jewish People to a national home in the lands from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. Enemies of Israel also conveniently forget that concurrently with that Mandate, similar Mandates granted to Britain and France was intended to and, in fact, led to the establishment of no less than four new Arab new – Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. The United Nations, on its creation, adopted all of the League of Nations decisions. The State of Israel is the representative of the Jewish People.

    That right was also based on the fact that the Jews were the indigenous people of those lands, as evidenced in the Bible and in history.

    Israel is neither an “occupier”, nor an “oppressor”.

    That is history. That is fact. No amount of distortion can change that.

    If the State if Israel determines that it will compromise its legal rights for the sake of peace, that is the right solely of that State.

    Allegations such as “from the get-go most of the non-Jewish citizens of Palestine were expelled” demonstrate another acceptance of distortions of history by enemies of Israel.

    To champion the “Arab Peace Initiative” is also a farce. Those who represent Palestinians – who are likely the only ones who can assure peace – have avoided each and every Israeli offer of peace, from the original acceptance of the Partition Plan, to the proposals after the 6 day war and subsequently.

  10. Andrew Robinson, I know you are an experienced Canadian diplomat and I recognize your expertise.

    However, I do agree with both Robert Assaly and Arthur Milner that it would be rather easy for the UN to impose a solution on Israel… if the US were in agreement to do so. In fact, I think that if the USA were to impose on Israel the same kinds of sanctions it imposed on Iran, Israel would have to back down rather quickly.

    So, the question is, WHY DOESN’T THE USA DO THAT? The answer to this lies in both internal politics and global geopolitics. Will the internal situation ever change in the USA on this issue? Will the world geopolitical situation ever change? I think the answer to both questions is – YES.

    There is lots of evidence that US political opinion (even among US Jews) toward Israel is changing. And we all know that the world political situation is in flux, with America being pressured to focus more of its forces in Asia.

    Could all this lead to a lessening US support for Israel? Your guess is as good as mine, but I don’t think its out of the question.

  11. For more than 40 years, Michael Bell was the main Canadian diplomatic expert and in retirement a respected commentator on the Israel Arab Palestine conflict.

    He believed in a two state solution of Israel and Palestine existing side by side along the lines of the 1948 armistice (essentially reflected in UN resolutions and the Arab peace plan which Israel has rejected) and had a developed a plan for common cooperative administration of the old city of jerusalem which would allow both entities to have Jerusalem as their capital.

    He was sensitive to the needs of all parties (he served in israel Palestine and Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states that had made peace with Israel) and reluctant to criticize openly, having lived through both the high and low points and the ongoing violence. But while helping to rescue Canada from a very bad policy to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he was not able to orchestrate a very decisive Canadian role in the various peace efforts. With the failure of the Kerry initiative and the seeming unwillingness of the new right wing Israeli government to give up anything in the way of settlements etc to allow the creation of a sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state, he allowed that Israel seemed no longer to be much interested in his views on a two state solution and sharing of Jerusalem.

    He must have been similarly disappointed that the Trump administration seemed to be backing away from the effective “two state” solution. He probably observed that Canada, after enduring 9 years of Harper’s blatantly pro Israel policy, under the Trudeau government (which he advised pre election) has said and done little about a “two state” solution for Israel Palestine.

    While Michael Bell must have passed somewhat disillusioned about the prospects of achieving a two state solution, he must have recognized like President Obama that 6 million jewish Israelis could not go on ruling over an even greater number of Palestinians and achieve security and respect and human rights. Eventually a “two state” solution would come by diplomacy and/or force. Mr Bell certainly preferred diplomacy. Blessed are the peacemakers and may he rest in peace.

  12. George Jacoby wrote: “Eventually a “two state” solution would come by diplomacy and/or force. Mr Bell certainly preferred diplomacy.”

    Well, who wouldn’t prefer diplomacy? But “eventually” can be a long time, especially if you’re Palestinian. The problem with Mr. Bell and with Mr Robinson, and presumably Mr Jacoby, is not their preference for diplomacy but rather their unending patience. It seems they would be willing to be diplomatic with Israel forever and never consider sanctions, threats or force.

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