Until last year, few people had ever heard of Gershon Baskin, a 55-year-old New Yorker who moved to Jerusalem in 1978 to promote the idea of coexistence between Jews and Arabs.
But it was Baskin who brokered the secret deal that secured the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from his Hamas kidnappers after more than five years of captivity — and now, important politicians are suddenly paying attention to this bearded peacenik from Long Island.
“Fortunately, because of what happened with Gilad Shalit, people at the highest levels are willing to listen to me,” said Baskin. “As long as they have my ear, I’m going to keep on trying.”
What Baskin is trying to do now is warn his fellow Jews that peace talks with the Palestinians are on life support — and Israel must act quickly to resuscitate hopes for a long-term political settlement before it’s too late.
The activist spoke Feb. 16 before 100 people at Washington’s American University. The lecture titled “Is Peace Still Possible?” was co-sponsored by the university’s Center for Israel Studies and the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program. It was part of a month-long North American speaking tour that took Baskin to dozens of cities in the United States and Canada ranging from Washington to Phoenix to Vancouver.
His message: Israel must not abandon the idea of a two-state solution — even if only to preserve the country’s long-term Jewish character.
“If there’s no territorial division and Israel remains a one-person, one-vote democracy, then the Israeli national identity of the Jewish people will be threatened. The solution of democracy is compelling, but Israelis won’t be willing to give up their identity, and we will have violence,” he predicted. “This is what I think we’re headed for. And as a Jew, an Israeli and a Zionist, this is national suicide.”
Before establishing the Jerusalem-based Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) more than 22 years ago as the world’s only Israeli-Palestinian think tank, Baskin was an “Intern for Peace” and lived for two years in the religiously mixed village of Kafr Qara. He’s also been an adviser on the peace process to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and for many years has written a political column for the Jerusalem Post.
In recognition for his peacemaking efforts, Baskin received the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity in 2007, as well as the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute’s International Relations Prize for Peace (2004) and the Eliav-Sartawi Award for Middle Eastern Journalism (2005 and 2007).
Yet outside of the academic world, however, Baskin was a virtual unknown until the Shalit kidnapping exploded onto Israeli headlines in 2006. And the resume of this longtime peace activist certainly made him an unlikely mediator between Israel and Hamas. Yet Baskin’s dogged efforts to create a secret back channel that led to Shalit’s release succeeded where countless other diplomats and negotiators had failed.
Shalit was a 19-year-old soldier from the northern town of Nahariya when he was ambushed on June 25, 2006, by Hamas militants in a cross-border raid near Israel’s border with Gaza. He was held as a hostage for more than five years — with the only contact between Shalit and the outside world in all that time consisting of only three letters, an audiotape and a DVD that Israel received in return for releasing 20 female Palestinian prisoners.
Until Baskin came along.
In the November 2011 article “Gilad Shalit and the Rising Price of an Israeli Life,” the New York Times Magazine detailed Baskin’s involvement in the difficult negotiations, stemming from his contact with a Hamas professor he’d met at a Cairo conference shortly before Shalit’s abduction
“Through the professor, Baskin was put in contact with Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, and it was this relationship, which took place largely through computer chats over a number of years, that ultimately led to the Shalit deal. Starting days after the abduction, through a relentless series of text messages, e-mail and phone calls, Baskin tried to convince the [Ehud ] Olmert government and all other parties involved that he could help broker a deal. For years he was rebuffed as a nuisance by the Israeli officials dealing with the case,” wrote Ronen Bergman.
Baskin tried again when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose David Meidan to be his envoy in the Shalit case last spring.
“Meidan says that it was almost inconceivable that he would enter into a dialogue with the peacenik who said he could mediate a deal on Shalit, but because there was nothing to lose, he decided to try an experiment to see if Baskin’s channel of communication could be trusted. He asked Baskin to convey a message asking Hamas to prove that Shalit was still alive,” Bergman wrote. “Israeli intelligence tracked Baskin’s messages and found that the pipeline was reliable and accurate.”
After tortuous back-and-forth negotiations marked by mutual distrust, Shalit was finally released on Oct. 11, 2011, in return for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners — a complex, delicate operation that had the entire nation of Israel glued to their TV sets day and night.
One thing Baskin is sure of, thanks to his years of painstaking mediation on behalf of the Israeli government, is that it’s still possible to negotiate with Hamas.
“Almost everything I thought I knew about Hamas is wrong. Hamas is not an Islamic movement. It’s a Palestinian national movement with an Islamic flavor,” he said. “It’s more political than religious. That’s really good news, because if it’s a political movement, it’s capable of change. If they are acting in the name of God, then change is impossible. It’s not a religious conflict, and we have to avoid — at all costs — it becoming a religious conflict.”
Extremism is not a uniquely Arab trait, however.
“A spoiler assassinated our prime minister and killed the peace process,” Baskin said, recalling Nov. 4, 1995 — the day a religious Zionist Jew named Yigal Amir shot Yitzhak Rabin to death at a Tel Aviv peace rally. “On the Palestinian side, spoilers killed Israeli citizens and turned them against the peace process. They have a great deal of power.”
And just as his Hamas and Israeli interlocutors barely trusted one another, Baskin laments the plummeting “trust deficit” between Israelis and Palestinians.
“For many years, I’ve believed that it takes three to tango. We need someone else at the table with us,” he said. “The problem is that today, we have no one at that table.”
Specifically, Baskin said the United States has not been an effective mediator between the two sides. He pointed out that in his first few days in office, President Obama called for an Israeli freeze on settlements in the West Bank — a position that not even Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, had openly demanded.
“Abbas was trapped into a position that had not been the official position until then,” he argued. “That was never a precondition to negotiating. But during those years of the Oslo peace process, the settlement population tripled.” In fact, when the Oslo peace negotiations began in the early 1990s, there were 200,000 settlers in areas the international community considers illegally occupied by Israel. Today, there are well over 500,000 Israelis living in the West Bank and in Jewish neighborhoods built in Arab East Jerusalem.
Even so, Baskin argues that the most serious issue isn’t Israeli settlements, but rather the final border between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
“Under international law, there’s no difference between Gilo, a suburb of Jerusalem, and a settlement in the middle of the West Bank. Gilo has 50,000 residents. It will never be a part of the Palestinian state. If Israel builds another 1,000 houses there, it’s not going to change anything,” he claimed. “But today, the Palestinians are locked into a position where they cannot negotiate if Israel builds more — and I know of no situation in the world where problems are solved by not talking. I say forget about the process. Start dealing with the issues.”
On that note, Baskin said he originally had high hopes for Sen. George Mitchell, a Democrat from Maine who in 2009 was appointed special envoy for Middle East peace by Obama.
“He was an elder statesman who had had success in Northern Ireland. But he was doomed from day one because he forgot that he was no longer in Northern Ireland,” said Baskin.
“Sen. Mitchell believed, as he did in Northern Ireland, that the challenge was to get the parties — Protestants and Catholics — to the table, and that once he did that, he could figure out a way to get them to work together. In Northern Ireland it was about process, not final status. In Israel and Palestine, it’s not about process at all. We’ve had 20 years of process. What we’re lacking is substance.”
He added: “The five Oslo agreements didn’t deal with any of the permanent status issues: the future of Jerusalem, refugees, a land link between the West Bank and Gaza, economic relations and water rights. What was dealt with were the interim issues. Sen. Mitchell also had something else in his pocket. For the first time in the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, there was an agreed-upon mediator who set the agenda and controlled the process. At Camp David, Jimmy Carter was a mediator. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat never talked to each other. They did not sit in the same room. Jimmy Carter’s team did 26 drafts before they reached an agreement.”
Today, unfortunately, Baskin says both sides are “stuck in a situation where there’s no trust or public support for an agreement on either side.” Even though he sees no alternative to a two-state solution, he says the clock is ticking.
“The real problem is the change in leadership that’s going to take place soon on the Palestinian side,” Baskin said. “When President Abbas steps down and there are new elections in Palestine, the competition for leadership will not be among those claiming more moderate positions. The current leaders who control the PLO and are ready to negotiate with Israel will offer other solutions.”
The problem is much the same on the Israeli side. Baskin — who for years was a forceful critic of Benjamin Netanyahu — says the Israeli prime minister must now show the same kind of leadership in dealing with the Palestinian issue that he did in bringing home the 25-year-old soldier Shalit from five long years of captivity in the Gaza Strip.
“In the case of Gilad Shalit, Netanyahu rose to the occasion and made a historic decision that demonstrated a rare form of leadership,” said Baskin, referring to the prime minister’s approval of a controversial plan to win Shalit’s release in exchange for freeing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some of them guilty of murdering Jews in terrorist attacks.
“Bibi went against everything he believed in his whole life, and ended up having the support of 90 percent of the Israeli people. This was remarkable,” he said. “Now we need Netanyahu to be the person who makes peace. Call it Nixon in China. He’s the only one who could do it and not create divisions. The problem is that until now, he has not made the decision. Mahmoud Abbas is ready to move forward, but Netanyahu has rejected the offer of a secret, back-channel negotiation. I don’t know where we’re heading.”
Baskin is equally unsure of the prospects in the United States, where presidential leadership in reviving the long-stalled peace negotiations seems to be sorely lacking in an election year. Asked to comment on the GOP presidential primaries dominating the airwaves in this country, Baskin snickered, though he was just as dismissive of the current occupant of the White House.
“I really don’t know the difference between the various Republican characters running for president. But it looks like they’re all stumbling over their feet trying to prove who’s a bigger friend of Israel,” he said. “You’ve all heard of the expression, ‘friends don’t let friends drive drunk.’ Well, they’re putting bigger tanks in the hands of Israel rather than acting as good friends. I don’t know what a Republican victory would mean, because the Obama administration has been a failure in terms of Middle East peacemaking.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.