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Michael Bell Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Linda and Michael Bell Photo by Rhonda Spivak.

Canada’s Former Ambassador Michael Bell: Olmert and Abbas Were Close To Agreeing on Borders

“Each leader too Weak politically”

By Rhonda J Spivak, B.A., L.L.B. Feb 4, 2009

“I am not very optimistic that there will be peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab world in the near future,” said Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Jordan, in a recent visit to Winnipeg on Jan. 28. 

Bell, who gave the keynote address at the University of Manitoba’s Middle East Conference  said that “the problem in arriving at a two state solution has been that both Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas were too weak politically to sell an agreement to their people.”

However, Bell said that the Olmert government and the Palestinian Authority’s Abbas “had been very close to reaching an agreement” over which territory was to be come a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Bell also said that the Israeli “barrier” [separation fence] built in the West Bank  which “resulted in a significant decrease of terror attacks,” was not  exactly going to be the  final border, because it was “accepted”  that there could be  land swaps.
Bell, who is the  Paul Martin Senior Scholar in Diplomacy at the University of Windsor, and has lived in Israel with his family for 9 years, was interviewed after the event.

In the interview, Bell referred to a map that is on the website of The Foundation For Middle East Peace (, which is titled “Projection of Prime Minister Olmert’s final Status Map-October 2008.” Bell considered this map to be an accurate reflection of what Olmert and Abbas had generally agreed to, albeit not publicly.  

As Bell noted, in the map, the Israelis would keep major settlement blocs, including Ariel in the West Bank, and would swap other land to be given in place to the Palestinian Authority.  The Palestinians would get land in the Negev, near Gaza and also in the Jordan valley south of Beit Shean. 
“The idea is that the Palestinians would get 22% of what was Palestine between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River under the British Mandate,” Bell said. 

In his address, Bell said that the Israeli “barrier” [separation fence] that was built in the West Bank  was built to reduce terror attacks, and, “ like it or not, a government has to protect its people.”  However, he said, “critics are concerned that  the barrier  will be the final line ..That doesn’t mean that there can’t be land swaps.”

Although Bell did not specifically deal with the issue of Hamas in his talk, in an  article in  the Globe and Mail on January 2, 2009, Bell wrote:
 “Hamas is a radical, political-Islamic organization. There are those who think that bringing its leadership into dialogue and negotiation would facilitate concord and in the longer run pave the way to a comprehensive peace between Israel and Palestine. They suggest reconciliation between Hamas, on the one hand, and the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, on the other. There is, however, nothing to indicate this is possible, except perhaps wishful thinking. Hamas and Fatah are rivals … These rivals will not work together, nor can Hamas, which rejects the very concept of a Jewish state, be trusted to negotiate in good faith.”
Bell also wrote: “If there are Palestinian partners for peace, they are the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, despite their many imperfections and weaknesses. If Western countries ever want to see peace in the Middle East, they must embolden Israelis to meet the basic needs of Palestinians for dignity and self-respect. Without real movement on West Bank roadblocks, Israeli settlements and the prospect of real independence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his supporters will be viewed more and more as Israeli quislings. Moderates must be bolstered and empowered. They must be seen by their populations as able to deliver on basic aspirations. Only in this way will extremism lose its appeal.”

Bell said there was only one Palestinian leader “I can think of” who might be able to “sell a two state solution”, but he didn’t say whom.
In an interview after the event, Bell said that he was referring to “Marwan Barghouti”, the  Fatah leader who is serving a prison sentence in Israel for murder.
Bell added “I think Marwan Barghouti should be released but, of course, Abbas doesn’t want to have that happen because he doesn’t want to be replaced….It is time for Abbas to go.”

When the Winnipeg Jewish Review asked Erez Rotem, a former journalist for Israeli Channel 2 Television, and the JNF Prairie Region emissary  about the notion of releasing Barghouti, Rotem responded “Even if  Israel was willing to release Barghouti, there’s no way that Barghouti could take  Gaza away from the Hamas. It can’t be done.” 

Bell grimaced when asked  by this reporter about Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he hoped that  Netanyahu, the “ ideologue” didn’t become Prime Minister.
According to Bell, for a long time Canada thought all would be well “if only King Hussein of Jordan could go back and take over the West Bank again… [The] King was a Hashemite, an Arabian, and he’d never be accepted [by the Palestinians] ...  This could have led to the overthrow of the Kingdom  and  led to the end of  [Jordan’s] peace with Israel. .. It took me 15 years to realize that.”

Bell said that each side has demonized the other. For example, when he lived in Israel, he said Israelis used the phrases, “Arab work” to mean “shoddy work” or if they wanted to tell someone off  they would say “Go drink the sea in Gaza.” Bell said the Palestinians also have demonizing phrases , but he did not give examples.

According to Bell, “both Israelis and Palestinians have identities as victims,” and neither   wants to recognize that the other is a victim, out of fear that this would be seen as weakening ones own claim to the land.

For example, Bell said when Golda Meir said that the Palestinians weren’t a people, “ it was egregious to them because it denied their ability to define themselves.”

When Yassar Arafat denied that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was the site of the Jewish Temple, despite the “strong” archeological evidence, Bell said “it was a cheap shot.”

Bell’s  said  religious beliefs  have fueled the conflict. In his power point presentation  he showed a poster of Itzhak Rabin with a Kafiyah ,which the religious right in Israel had used to portray Rabin as  traitor after  the Oslo Accords. 

Bell didn’t show any photo of Palestinian extremism, however. Yet,  Bell spoke of  a conversation he had with the current Foreign minister of Egypt, Aboul Gheit regarding Jerusalem.  Bell said “He [Gait ] said that we [Moslems] gave up Spain and according to our religion we can’t give up any land that was once Islam’s.  He [Gheit] was almost in tears. Many in this room wouldn’t be, but he was.” 

Bell  supports U.S. involvement in mediating the conflict since there is “not enough trust between the parties.  “ [At Camp David in 2000] Ehud Barak was afraid that if a proposal appeared to be an Israeli one that the Palestinians wouldn’t accept it, so he had Clinton make some proposals

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.