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Former ambassador Michael Bell was the face of Canadian diplomacy in the Middle East

Michael Bell.

University of Windsor

Michael Bell, a distinguished Canadian diplomat whose valuable work went largely unknown to most of his fellow citizens, perhaps did more than anyone to define Canada's policies toward the turbulent Middle East. His legacy includes a finely crafted proposal concerning the Old City of Jerusalem that could be the key to ending the eternal Arab-Israeli conflict.

Early in his career, Mr. Bell earned a reputation as a reliable troubleshooter.

As a 37-year-old mid-level official in the then-Department of External Affairs, he was assigned to accompany former Progressive Conservative Party leader Robert Stanfield on an extensive mission to Israel and the Arab World. The purpose was to report to the newly elected prime minister, Joe Clark, on whether the government should carry out Mr. Clark's campaign promise to move Canada's embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

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The unlikely pair travelled the breadth of the Middle East, spoke to countless people and wrote a definitive report that called for Canada to take a fair-minded approach to both Israelis and Palestinians and to use Canada's good offices throughout the region to promote a broad peace initiative. In the interest of peace, the report concluded, it would be best not to move the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv, at least not at that time. The report's wide-ranging recommendations remain policy to this day.

Michael Dougall Bell, who died of liver cancer on Aug. 24, was born in Windsor, Ont., on Sept. 10, 1943. Pushed by his father into studying international affairs, he was educated at the University of Windsor, where he received both a BA and an MA, as well as an honorary doctorate of law in May, 2017.

Mr. Bell recalled his first job at External Affairs as disappointing and trivial – he was to recommend which curtains Canada should give to the Kennedy Center then being built in Washington.

"I thought: What did I do all that studying for?"

Postings to Jamaica and to Trinidad soon came, and he said he began to enjoy the job. Rome was next – "a treat" he called it.

In the mid 1970s he was dispatched as first secretary to Tel Aviv and it soon became his "favourite post." It would remain at the centre of his work throughout his career.

The complexities of Israeli politics and the country's fluctuating relations with the Arab world – Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made his famous visit to Jerusalem during Mr. Bell's first posting in Israel – prepared the young diplomat for the unexpected Stanfield assignment that soon followed.

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His reward for that mission was to be made director of the Middle East Relations Division in Ottawa, implementing the policies he had helped draft.

Mr. Bell's first ambassadorial post came in 1987, when he was made ambassador to Jordan – just the thing to help him establish credentials on both sides of the Arab/Israeli line. It was followed by the post he most wanted – ambassador to Israel.

Mr. Bell arrived in Tel Aviv in late 1990, as the First Gulf War erupted along with Iraqi Scud-missile attacks on the Israeli city. A total of almost 30 missiles fell during the first weeks of 1991.

Ambassador Bell, along with Canadian and more numerous Israeli staff, took shelter in the embassy's underground safe-room or in his residence's bomb shelter.

Those times together, he said, "with the looks of fear" on the faces of his employees, sensitized him to the concerns of many in Israel.

With the end of that war and new efforts to bring peace to the region, Mr. Bell once again found himself in the position of advising his prime minister – this time Brian Mulroney – and having to persuade him to back down from a vow he had made.

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At a meeting in Moscow in January, 1992, the United States asked Canada to lead a working group to deal with millions of Palestinian refugees. Israel, however, was opposed to any such effort, fearing it would be overrun, and so too was Mr. Mulroney. Canada was in the awkward position of having to refuse the U.S. request.

Mr. Bell, however, flew to Washington and met with Yossi Hadas, then director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. According to Canadian officials close to Mr. Bell, Mr. Hadas conveyed to Ottawa his assurance that Israel would not object to Canada chairing such a refugee working group. Canada was, he said, one of the few states Israel could trust to be fair-minded.

Mr. Bell had saved the day; so, it came as a real shock when, days later, he was unceremoniously yanked from Tel Aviv after only 14 months in the job he so loved.

The ambassadorship was being given to Mulroney chief of staff Norman Spector, the first Canadian Jew ever to hold the position.

"I confess I was very bitter," Mr. Bell said 25 years later.

Back in Ottawa, Mr. Bell was named director-general for Central and Eastern Europe, a step up the departmental ladder at a time in the early nineties, when developments in Eastern Europe mattered more than ever. However, when the opportunity arose two years later to take up the ambassadorship in Cairo, Mr. Bell jumped at it.

"I felt I just had to get back to the Middle East," he said, "and if the doorway went through Cairo, so be it." It became his second favourite post.

He and his wife, Linda, lived in the home that once was the residence of the late Queen of Egypt following her divorce from King Farouk. The couple oversaw the renovation of the old place on the island of Zamalek in the middle of the Nile and Mr. Bell held frequent lunchtime salons to which numerous Egyptian figures and select foreigners were invited. It became the place to be.

"The great thing about being the Canadian ambassador to Egypt," Mr. Bell reflected years later, "was that because of our substantial aid programs and our friendship with all parties in the region, no door in Egypt was closed to us."

"This was when Michael became an ambassador for the whole Middle East," said Mike Molloy, then Canadian ambassador to Jordan, "not just ambassador to Israel or Egypt."

Then, in 1999, his final posting took him back to Israel, this time for four years. However, his long-time goal of helping to bring peace seemed far away as the Israeli and Palestinian communities were roiled by the extreme violence of the second Palestinian intifada (uprising).

It was after his retirement in 2004 that the former diplomat launched the most significant of his projects – the Jerusalem Old City Initiative (JOCI). He was joined in this initiative by two other former Canadian diplomats – Mr. Molloy, the one-time ambassador to Jordan and a specialist on refugees, and John Bell, a Canadian of Lebanese heritage who had served under Michael Bell as political officer in Cairo.

Drawing on their broad and deep experience in the region, the three men, funded largely by the Canadian government and by the universities of Windsor and Toronto, engaged interested parties in Israel and Palestine as well as from a number other countries in an exchange of ideas on the subject of Jerusalem's future.

Mr. Bell believed that no comprehensive peace agreement is possible without an equitable and sustainable security arrangement for the Old City, home to some of the holiest sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the sovereignty of which is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians.

Indeed, the status of Jerusalem and especially its Old City has been viewed as so contentious a subject that a succession of peace initiatives preferred to set it aside, focusing on less mercurial areas of negotiation.

But the essence of JOCI was to tackle the controversy head-on and to provide a blueprint that would help a broader peace initiative reach a comprehensive agreement.

The final product, the first volume of which was published earlier this year, calls for a special regime over this square kilometre of territory that is too hotly contested to allow only one side to prevail and too small to be divided between them. It would involve both Israelis and Palestinians shelving, for the time being, their claims to sovereignty inside the Old City and jointly appointing an international custodian board that would oversee an international force of police to preserve law and order and to safeguard access to the holy sites.

In its meetings, JOCI brought Israelis and Palestinians face to face for the first time in years. Its access to key figures in Western countries was also remarkable.

"Nobody refused to see us," said Arthur Hughes, a former U.S. official and former director-general of the Israel-Egypt multinational force in Sinai who became one of many high-level consultants to JOCI. "From the rabbi of the Western Wall to Madeleine Albright and John Kerry, they all welcomed us and the initiative."

"They knew that this was a group of serious and unprejudiced people," Mr. Hughes said. "And that was largely because it was led by Michael Bell."

"Canada was fortunate to have this man as its representative and as an adviser," said David Cameron, professor of political science and dean of arts and sciences at the University of Toronto. As an example, he said, at a conference in 2011, while many academics and diplomats were overly enthusiastic about the so-called Arab Spring bringing democracy to the Arab World, "Michael's clear-headed analysis … was like a skunk at the picnic."

"He cautioned that liberals would not last long" and that the region risked civil conflict and a return to authoritarian rule. "Of course, he was right," Mr. Cameron said.

In the 13 years since his retirement, Mr. Bell shared his clear-headed analysis as a regular columnist on The Globe and Mail's op-ed page. From time to time, his columns were criticized as allegedly being pro-Palestinian.

"That's nonsense," says John Bell, his colleague on the Jerusalem initiative.

"He and I would frequently argue over various points of contention," he said. "But he was the one who more often argued the Israeli point of view."

In an interview shortly before his death, Mr. Bell addressed the issue: "I think of myself as being both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli."

Michael Bell hoped to live to see the Jerusalem initiative put into practice. But he died pessimistic about any kind of real peace.

Mr. Bell, who was 73, leaves his wife of 49 years, Linda; his daughter, Caroline; and his granddaughter, Clara. He is to be interred in Ottawa's historical Beechwood Cemetery following a private family service.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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