WINDSOR — Michael Bell, former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Egypt and Jordan, says that, despite myriad rounds of negotiations in the Mideast peace process, no one has come up with a relatively straightforward plan for shared governance of Jerusalem’s Old City.
“It does sound surprising even to me, and I’ve been involved in this stuff since 1975, pretty well continuously,” he said. “But the simple fact is it has not been done.”
Bell, a Windsor native and currently the Paul Martin Senior Scholar on International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor, is co-founder of the Old Jerusalem Initiative, a university-based attempt to find “creative options” for governance and management of the walled city. In the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, he and Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, put forward a proposal for a “special regime” that would be administered jointly by Israelis and Palestinians.
Currently, Israel claims sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, although its claim over the Old City and eastern Jerusalem isn’t recognized by many nations.
Bell said initiative members have spoken to “many, many people” on both sides, including Gilead Sher, Israel’s lead negotiator at Camp David in 2000, and Canada’s Jean de Chastelain, who played a pivotal role in drafting Northern Ireland’s Good Friday accord. Those officials “seem to recognize that this may be something worth looking at if and when” there is an opening in the peace process to adopt it, he said.
The reason for focusing on Old Jerusalem is obvious. The less-than-one-square-kilometre area is home to some of the most sacred sites for Jews and Muslims, places that are physically linked and inextricably shared, including the Temple Mount and Western Wall and the Islamic edifices the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
“We’re not trying to ram anything down anybody’s throat,” said Bell, who started the project earlier this decade at University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies. But the team, which includes other former Canadian Middle Eastern foreign affairs officers Michael Molloy and John Bell, came to the realization that previous plans remained contradictory to the unique social and physical environment that is the Old City, with its Muslim and Jewish quarters.
Those other options include one or the other side having full sovereignty “or they split too vertically or horizontally,” Bell said. The team didn’t think those proposals “would really work, be viable, be sustainable” because of the region’s instability.
Under Bell’s group proposal, “we tried to develop a regime that ultimately Palestinians and Israelis would be the masters of what would really be a separate authority that could deal with crises, what have you, independently.”
Under the proposal, Israelis and Palestinians would choose an executive board, would decide how the board is configured, and would choose a chief administrator – who might be someone from neither camp to allay suspicions of each side – with the official being responsible to the board.
The regime’s mandate would be determined jointly, but two key areas of administrative control would be security and holy site management, “which the regime wouldn’t take over from the proprietors of these sites, but would really, I suppose, replace the Israeli government in its role.”
Bell said the proposal could be part of wider two-state negotiations and could be taken off the shelf whenever Israelis and Palestinians begin such talks.
“Yeah, I suppose it is asking a lot,” he said. “But our belief is that absent something like this, there will be no peace.”
According to Bell, previous attempts at structuring control such as this decade’s Geneva Accord set up a system that would be too unstable. Certain streets would be blue for Israel, green for Palestinian and one with Palestinian sovereignty but Israeli police control.
“Well, we just don’t think that would endure for very long, given the inevitability of some kind of tensions and conflict,” he said.
Bell said the plan isn’t a form of internationalism, as some critics have called it. “It’s not internationalism in any classic sense, because Israelis and Palestinians would come up with the ideas. They would determine the mandate.”
Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Canada-Israel Committee, said that while Bell’s proposal is “sincere and it’s perceived that way by everybody he presents it to,” there are weaknesses.
“I think the Israeli perspective is that it has only been under Israeli sovereignty that every religion has been able to ensure free access…to their own particular religious sites.”
He noted that while the Temple Mount has significance for Muslims, it’s “not comparable” to how important it is for Jews.
“For us it’s the only holy place,” while to Muslims it is “a distant third to Mecca and Medina,” Fogel said.
Nevertheless, he added, Israel ensures the sanctity of the Dome “and controls access in favour of Muslim sensitivities. And I think that’s the kind of evidence that suggests an authority that takes seriously the rights of all stakeholders to a sense of ownership of their own particular site.”