The man who brought Gilad Shalit home is an immigrant from New York.

Gershon Baskin was the crucial negotiator in the secret talks that brought the captured soldier back to Israel in October after more than five years of imprisonment by Hamas.

Baskin will be speaking about the negotiations and Shalit’s release Monday night at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, in an event also sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and several area schools and synagogues (see box.)

image
Gershon Baskin

“I made aliyah in the framework of Young Judea,” Baskin said in an interview. “One of the things we learned is that the primary goal is not only to make aliyah, but to make a difference to Israel,” he said.

His chosen path: peace-making and dialogue.

When he arrived in Israel in 1978, after graduating from New York University, he found that Palestinians in the territories “weren’t ready to dialogue with us.”

So he embarked on a career of dialogue with Israeli Arabs, which included living in an Arab village for two years, and then working for the Israeli Ministry of Education under Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In fact, he was the first civil servant responsible for Israeli-Arab relations, coordinating educational programs between Jewish and Arab schools in Israel.

The first intifada, in 1988, changed Palestinians’ relationship with Israel, and “there was a willingness to talk about recognizing Israel and creating a two-state solution,” recalled Baskin.

He founded the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, advertising in Palestinian newspapers to recruit Palestinian partners for the think tank. Baskin retired as head of the center at the end of last year, and is now devoting his time to writing a book about the Shalit negotiations.

Advocates of citizen diplomacy say that informal contacts lay the groundwork for peace between warring countries. In Baskin’s case, it was a relationship with a Gazan academic he had met at a conference in Cairo that opened the unofficial back channel to the leadership of Hamas, which was holding Shalit captive. The Gazan had reached out to Baskin, desperate to relieve Israeli pressure on Gaza; and Baskin reached out through unofficial channels to Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister at the time.

Why, however, did it take five more years to obtain Shalit’s release?

“Israel wanted a military operation” to rescue Shalit, said Baskin, who agreed that that would have been a good option, if it was possible.

“There was a reluctance on both sides to agree on a secret back channel,” said Baskin. Officially, both Israel and Hamas refused to negotiate with each other, publicly relying on foreign mediators from Germany and Egypt.

During the five years of negotiations, “while the negotiations were mostly concerned with Shalit, five separate times we also negotiated a cease-fire,” said Baskin. Most of the negotiations were conducted by fax, e-mail, internet chat, and text messaging, but Baskin was in Gaza three times and met with Hamas people in several European capitals.

“My experience taught me that most of what I thought I knew about Hamas was wrong. Most of what the Israeli public thinks it knows is wrong,” he said. “Hamas is first and foremost a Palestinian national movement, not an Islamic movement. They are focused on politics, not religion; their arguments with Israel are primarily political, not religious.”

Baskin believes that “Hamas is changing, and Hamas’ change can be accelerated through engagement.”

Engaging Hamas will be difficult, he admits. “They’re not ready for direct engagement by Israel. They are ready for engagement by American Jews,” Baskin said. “The process of engagement needs to be done very quietly. They’re seeking recognition and legitimacy. They need to be exposed to Israelis, they need to be exposed to Jews. Most of them have never met Israelis. The big difference between Hamas and Fatah is their lack of knowledge of Israel, their lack of exposure.”

Baskin is emphatic that engaging Hamas doesn’t mean retreating from international demands that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence, and recognize previous Palestinian agreements with Israel.

“That’s between governments,” he said. “The work of civil society is paving new grounds, softening conditions. Civil society can do things that governments can’t do; if I see Hamas, I’m not breaking any rules of diplomacy.

“The government of Israel can’t back down from its demands vis a vis Hamas. The demands are reasonable. I tell that to Hamas people when I meet them.”

“We need to reach an agreement on a Palestinian state that includes Gaza, and in the chapter on Gaza, it would say it would take effect when the regime recognizes the agreement. How long do you think it would take to depose the Hamas government if the people knew they could have an agreement that would let them live in peace and freedom? The Hamas government would have to change, or they wouldn’t last there.”

Does the failure of the negotiations and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the west bank mean that a two-state solution is no longer possible?

“We’re very close to that,” said Baskin. “I fear that tremendously. A two-state solution means it is a territorial conflict. One state means continuation and escalation of the conflict. It is no longer a territorial conflict; it is existential, it changes to Bosnia.

“If that’s what it comes down to between Israel and the Palestinians, the conflict becomes very bloody. We get into a fight that is much more acute, much more dangerous. In Bosnia, in four years, 150,000 people were killed.

“I see our failure to extricate ourselves from control over another people and their land as national suicide.”

Save the date
Who: Gershon Baskin

What: The story of the talks that led
to Gilad Shalit’s freedom

Where: Kaplen JCC on the Palisades

When: Mon. Feb. 6, 8 p.m.

Admission: Free

Cosponsors: The Center for Israel Engagement & the JCRC of the Jewish Federation of NNJ; Congregation Ahavath Torah, Temple Avodat Shalom, Congregation Beth Sholom, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, Temple Emeth, Jewish Center of Teaneck, JCC of Paramus, Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, Congregation Rinat Yisrael, Temple Sinai of Bergen County, Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, Yavneh Academy