John Bell, former mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “There is a kind of hijack of religion”

John Bell, mediator and diplomat, director of The Conciliators Guild. Courtesy of John Bell

The experienced Canadian mediator and diplomat of Lebanese origin, John Bell, takes an in-depth look at the present situation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict after the ceasefire.

Bell was director of the delegation in Jerusalem of the organization devoted to solving conflicts called ‘Search for Common Ground’. During that period, he articulated together with Palestinians, Israelis and other international experts a system which would do it possible to manage the Old City together, with sacred places for Jewish, Muslim as well as Christian people. He has also been a Canadian and UN diplomat, with missions in Lebanon, Egypt or Irak, among others.

Now he is director and co-founder of The Conciliators Guild in London. There he applies his experience in a project which aims to “bring humanity back to politics” and start a path for dialogue. “It is important to understand how we think, what we need in life and what we are after. If we don’t understand those absolute basics, life can go off in any direction, including one manipulated by political leaders, by social media… we easily fall into traps”, he tells Salam Plan on the phone during this interview.

John Bell speaks to Salam Plan when ceasefire has finally begun after eleven days of escalation of the conflict, which also caused clashes to some extent in countries like the UK or Spain. Be it either through hate speech, graffities on religious sites, actions like the cars honking against Jewish citizens in London… British monitors said antisemitic hate increased 500% and islamophobic hate 430% these days in the UK.

“If we don’t understand what we need in life and what we are after, life can go off in any direction, including one manipulated by political leaders, by social media… we easily fall into traps”

This conflict goes beyond Middle East. Why does it matter so much to citizens around the world?

I think it matters a lot because of several reasons all combined. The first is, this has gone on for too long. It’s decades that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unresolved, and the Palestinians are under occupation. And people are fed up with it, especially as it evolved into a situation where, despite Jewish and Israelis sense of victimization, most people view Israel as a powerful country and the Palestinians as a very weak people. And therefore, the oppression is clear. It’s just time.

The other issue, though, is a bit deeper. I think it’s in people’s psyches, obviously in the Middle East, obviously in Israel-Palestine, but in the West. And in the West, because actually Israel’s creation is very deeply linked to the West. Both in terms of why Jews went to that area to begin with and the Western world helping to create Israel. So, all this is very in our psyches: there is guilt, there is anger, there’s a sense of injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians… And I think all that is playing out.

I’ll mention other two factors, that, I think, are overlaying into it: one is that there is now a growing trend across the world, global, for fighting against injustice. Whether it’s racism in the United States, injustice for refugees or injustice against the Palestinians. This is a growing trend. What I see is increased attention and concern for the Palestinians from that regard, and they are oppressed people, in my personal view.

Another more practical point, is that Jerusalem is very important. It’s symbolically more potent. And let’s not forget, that although the battle, the extreme violence was in Gaza, it was not really about Gaza: it was really about Jerusalem. Jerusalem triggered it, what Israelis were trying to do in Jerusalem triggered it, Hamas fired its first missiles about Jerusalem… Jerusalem is the symbolic totem of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and even in a religious-political level.

“Putting order into our mental house is a requisite for being, may be, more intelligently religious”

Politics and religion get mixed in this conflict, which -in the end- leads to violence and religion to get mixed as well. How could that be preventable?

In the Middle East, for Israelis in my view as well, identity is on spectrum which can be very, very purely political -example: a communist in Lebanon or Irak-, to the political religious, where ones heritage, whether Muslim, Jewish, or in fact even Christian, weaves into a political ideology.

This is part of the landscape of the Middle East, of today. For the moment, an unavoidable dimension of the nature of Middle East politics is that every single country has religious-political parties, where the party uses religious heritage to develop the political ideology.

Does this reflect well on the original premises of the religion? In my personal view, no. But many would disagree with me: they view their religion as a social justice mission as much a personal mission.

So, I think, your question is rather huge. If you want to disentangle the role of religion in politics, one has to go back to what is the actual purpose of religion to begin with. Religions in the Middle East, even scripturely, all of them -more Islam and Judaism- have had social political components described. So, it’s easy for followers to grab those and run with them in a political fashion. It’s not new, this has been done for ages.

Christians’ scripture is a bit less so, the pure scripture, but we have seen also Christians run with these things at a political level, whether it’s Crusades or otherwise.

So, the disentangle that you are talking about, requires a lot of what I call cultural work in the region to a much deeper understanding of the purpose of religion and its outlook at the world. In my view, this is a kind of hijack of religion.

Where should that ‘cultural work’ start?

I think it’s wrong for me to stall people with ‘here is a formula, run with it’. Because that is actually the opposite of what needs to be done. I think what is important, and this is the purpose of my organization ‘The Conciliators Guild’, to understand how we think, and what we need in life and what we are after. If we don’t understand those absolute basics, life can go off in any direction, including one manipulated by political leaders, by social media… we easily fall into traps.

So, I think that cultural work needs to begin with a much, much -and I’ll say ‘much’ ten times-, much better understanding of the human behaviour. Why we do X and not Y, why we think we are doing X and we are doing Y… We are really unclear about these things, we are chaotic. Putting order into our mental house is a requisite for being, may be, more intelligently religious. People have a lot of assumptions of what religion is, what its purpose is, those who play it politically as we are seeing…

I mean, look at a living example. I am personally against it, but there some of the Jews taking homes in Sheikh Jarrah or who are preventing (Muslim) Palestinians from accessing Al Aqsa mosque, which led to this whole conflict raise… Some, some [he emphathizes] where acting on a religious basis. Meaning in their religion this is correct. I don’t agree with this, but one has to wonder with them, with them what are they trying to achieve, why is it that they’re going about things this way.

These questions are not asked sufficiently, so I think the cultural work begins there. I don’t think it begins by law. It’s necessary, but in a way it’s a superficial answer. Human behaviour is more important than law and rights.

“What matters, is that a political solution is found that satisfies core needs on both sides sufficiently, but not infinitely”

Jerusalem is a holy city for Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike. It should be a place for peace, as all these religions stand for it, and yet it is a place of conflict instead.

That’s right. I have lived in Jerusalem, and it’s a city which I am very, very fond of and scared of, both at the same time.

Jerusalem is what you say it is: it is a triptrych faith city, it’s also potentially and probably should be the capital of both Israel and Palestine. And it’s also a city, meaning people just live there and they need water, electricity, schools… There are human beings living there who need normal functioning.

It’s all those things, and it needs to be attended to in all those levels.

My view is, and it is very difficult to get people off this idea, but I think it’s worth working on: as long as any single group wishes to look at Jerusalem as only theirs, the exclusivity dimension, it will be a problem. We’re sharing it in some fashion or another, a tremendous amount of work needs to be done there as the how.

Jerusalem doesn’t belong to any of the three and to all of the three. And if people can’t get their minds around that statement, with its own contradiction, people have to learn to live with these contradictions. People want simple answers: ‘this is mine’, end of story. I just think that is a fantastic emblem of how we need to think differently in the future.

You have been working for years in different projects and diplomatic delegations for peace. One of them was with the NGO ‘Search for Common Ground’ in Jerusalem. What did you find?

I worked on a very long project in the Old City of Jerusalem, which is important, because that is where all the major holy sights are. What we did was a project developed by Canadians working closely with Israelis, Palestinians and other international experts. We designed a ‘special governance system’ for Jerusalem Old City, with the heavy involvement of third parties, non-Israelis, non-Palestinians in the security, the archeology and some of the other managements of the hot issues in the Old City. I still think that has value, it is part of the mix.

Further work needs to be done on something, which is very difficult to tackle, but critical: how does one look at the religious attachments to the Old City and the holy sights in a different way. And then, how does that translate politically. I know people who have begun to work on it. Whatever is done on that level, it needs to pursue mutual needs’ satisfaction: Jews, Muslims and Christians, all have to be satisfied sufficiently in the Old City through that results.

Is that possible? My view is yes. It can be. The issue is not if they can be satisfied, the issue is how extensive are their demands. If their demands are too intense, too extreme, than you cannot get mutual needs’ satisfaction. One party dissatisfied, and that’s a cause of conflict. Then, it’s a law of life: you will have fighting, killing. Whereas if you do have an arrangement that is satisfactory to the basic needs of the sides, then there would be much more calm.

“As long as any single group wishes to look at Jerusalem as only theirs, it will be a problem. We’re sharing it in some fashion or another; work needs to be done there as the how

Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmud Abbas have been the leaders of both sides for very long now, and with no elections on the Palestinian side and with too many elections in Israel (five general elections in just a couple of years). Do you think new leaders could possibly help to restart a path to peace?

Yes, with all respect to these individuals. I hope that Palestinians and Israelis now know who these people are and what they can do. Because they have been around for a while, so they’re know entities. Their capacities, their wishes, their strengths and weaknesses are known. And we are where we are. Therefore, I would say yes: there is absolutely a need for new blood.

There are no magical solutions, new leaders do not equal sudden positive, because societies are always fragmented and divided and fight each other. That risk exists on both sides, that new leaders may improve things, but it can also be -if they are strong enough- we may find a lot of problems on both societies too. Nevertheless, I don’t think these current leaders are providing any more value at it. So the risk has to be taken, despite what I said.

What, do you think, would be the first step for the stuck peace process to start again?

I’ve always felt that the idea that Palestinians can a have a normal democratic electoral system while occupation remains, is false. Because the occupation creates so many strange, aberrant behavior patterns for the Palestinians. Any people, not only Palestinians, would not respond to normally. Checkpoints, control over people’s lifes, inhability to make decisions on most basic things in life, such as economics, very limited control over your future… do not equal the right basis for a democratic system.

But, and I blame the West here, it’s the West which mixes everything up. It’s Oslo [Accords of 1993] and the West, and half measures on occupation plus half measures on democracy… I don’t think it’s the right sequence. I think what needs to be done is the creation of a Palestinian state first, first! So, there is clarity on that, and then the Palestinians can go about running their own lifes, which is what an election is about, after all. I think we are still suffering of the assumptions of Oslo, twenty years on, which were wrong, in my view.

“I’ve always felt that the idea that Palestinians can a have a normal democratic electoral system while occupation remains, is false”

Would you stand for a two-state solution, as the UN recommends?

I think the two-state solution has become a slogan, and I think the one-state solution is a slogan. What matters to me, for the Palestinian people and for the Israeli people, is that a political solution is found that satisfies their core needs on both sides sufficiently, but not infinitely.

You cannot have everything, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. You have to give stuff up. Giving stuff up, in my view, means because Israelis currently have a lot more than Palestinians, Israelis have to give things up. This is for me a given. And it’s not easy for Israelis for a million reasons, but they have to face that to have stable neighbours, Palestinians and beyond, they need to give things up.

Whether that plays out as a two-state or a one-state, or two-state plus…, or one-state minus…or a confederation. I don’t care. I can probably take a guess as how it is gonna play out, if it ever plays out, if the political will is there. But do I care about the ultimate form? No. What I care is that the peoples on both sides are satisfied sufficiently, not totally, because they won’t be.

So, is it likely to be the classical two-state? No. Is it gonna be one-state? No. Probably something in between.

And will we see it in our lifetimes?

I have a feeling you are younger than me. You might see it, I am unlikely to see it. But, may be, I might see progress.

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