Israel’s bridge to Hamas

Israel’s bridge to Hamas

For five years, Hamas held Sgt. Gilad Shalit in captivity in the Gaza Strip, and the global Jewish community prayed and lobbied for his freedom.

In 2011, back-channel negotiations between Israel and Hamas secured Sgt. Shalit’s release in exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

At the center of those talks was Dr. Gershon Baskin, co-founder and chair of the Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, who for several years has held quiet talks with contacts in the Gaza Strip while reporting back to the Israeli government. Dr. Baskin will speak Sunday at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes about his role in the negotiations and their aftermath. The talk is co-sponsored by Barnert Temple and the American Jewish Committee’s New Jersey chapter.

Gershon Baskin brokered a back-channel deal to free Gilad Shalit.

Dr. Baskin’s visit is part of a U.S. tour promoting his book “The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Shalit from Hamas,” released in October. Dr. Baskin spoke with the Jewish Standard about the Shalit negotiations and Hamas’s role in Gaza today.

A few months before Sgt. Shalit’s capture, while Dr. Baskin was at a U.N. conference on Palestine in Cairo, Mohammed Megdad, who is an economics professor from Gaza and a member of Hamas, approached Dr. Baskin. Dr. Megdad wanted to meet an Israeli, something he had never done. The two began talking about their respective governments’ positions, but when they each sought to expand the dialogue, Hamas vetoed it.

After Sgt. Shalit’s capture in June 2006, the professor again reached out to Dr. Baskin to try to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza from Israeli reprisals. Through Dr. Megdad, Dr. Baskin met Ghazi Hamad, who was then the spokesperson for Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and they began passing messages back and forth between Hamas and the Israeli government.

“From six months after the abduction until Gilad came home I was involved in trying to do something, mainly trying to get the parties to listen to me, that a secret backdoor channel was the best way of moving forward,” Dr. Baskin said.

Dr. Baskin relayed messages to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert until Benjamin Netanyahu ascended to the premiership in 2009. At first, Mr. Netanyahu showed no interest in continuing the relationship, but in April 2011, the backdoor negotiations resumed. That led to the deal that saw Israel release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Sgt. Shalit.

Dr. Baskin’s backdoor channel remains open today, but there is little to negotiate other than maintaining the ceasefire and issues of daily life. Dr. Baskin never receives an official Israeli response to his messages, but he has not been told yet to stop.

“So I continue to do it,” he said. “The motivation is to save lives on both sides of the border. I don’t want anyone to be killed. If we can keep the calm longer then that’s important for me. It’s also important we not have an escalation in the South while Secretary Kerry is trying to negotiate a deal with Abu Mazen” – the nom de guerre of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas’s popularity surged in Gaza after the Shalit deal, but today it is at an all-time low thanks to economics and the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, according to Dr. Baskin.

With the Palestinian Authority in control of the west bank and Hamas in control of Gaza, however, many observers wonder if PA President Mahmoud Abbas has the authority to implement a peace deal with Israel. If Mr. Abbas can negotiate a deal, Dr. Baskin believes a Palestinian public referendum will decide its fate. If a deal can garner at least 60 percent of the Palestinian public’s support, Hamas will be unable to block it, he said.

“At that point the ball will be thrown into the court of Gaza, for the people in Gaza to decide if they want to continue living under the regime of Hamas or if they want to be part of the peace deal,” he said. “If Hamas rejects the deal then the people in Gaza will overthrow the Hamas government.”

The majority of the Palestinian people want to see Hamas and the PA reconcile, he said, but because both sides demand terms unacceptable to the other, Dr. Baskin sees only a small chance for reconciliation unless the peace talks collapse entirely.

“If everything falls apart, then the Palestinians come to the conclusion that there’s no chance of reaching a negotiated agreement with Israel under the current circumstances,” he said. “Then the chances for reconciliation increase, without each side agreeing to the platform of the other. They enter into new elections, where it would be winner-take-all, and we’d have to see if the winner is capable of taking it all. I’m sure Fatah would win and not sure Hamas would so willingly give up its power.”

Since Hamas grabbed power in Gaza, observers have questioned whether the responsibility of government might cause it to moderate its position. Despite its rocket barrages during the early years of its rule, in recent years for the most part Hamas has enforced the ceasefire with Israel. Hamas remains committed to its violent ideology, but it has taken what Dr. Baskin called a “pragmatic attitude,” in contradiction to its ideology, in order to function as a government.

More than 1.5 million people in Gaza still need electricity, health care, water, and communications infrastructure. All of these are paid for by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and facilitated by Israel, he noted, which means that Hamas has to deal with Israel. A prime example is that Gaza’s currency is still the Israeli shekel, so Hamas has to deal with the Bank of Israel.

“The main change is not in their ideology but in their understanding of the need for pragmatism in dealing with Israel,” Dr. Baskin said. “Reality is much stronger than anything else.”

Despite this pragmatism, Dr. Baskin does not foresee any moderation in Hamas’s ideology. Hamas may be trying to prevent rocket attacks against Israel, but it has never renounced armed struggle or accepted Israel’s existence. And that dedication to armed struggle causes a problem for a future state of Palestine, which would have to maintain a policy of one authority with one gun, rather than allowing armed groups to operate outside of the government.

“It can’t have people holding weapons and using violence as a means of waging struggle, and that’s a challenge for the Palestinian leadership when and if they do gain real sovereignty,” Dr. Baskin said. “Hamas today rules Gaza by the power of the gun. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has no ability to challenge that military force.”

While he is in the United States, Dr. Baskin also is meeting with investors on behalf of Gigawatt Global, a Dutch energy company he is working with on solar energy projects for the Palestinian territories and Egypt. The PA is almost entirely dependent on Israel for energy, and as they work toward political independence, the Palestinians must consider energy independence as well, he said.

“Any place on the ground where we can help build the Palestinian economy and create greater Palestinian independence, and in some way include cooperation with Israel, it’s a positive move,” Dr. Baskin said.

“Gershon Baskin’s story of the negotiated release of Gilad Shalit is indicative of the unresolved complex issues that plague the process of peace in the Middle East,” said John Rosen, director of AJC’s New Jersey area. “His story, like so many others, provides hope that no relationship is beyond the power of transformation if we work together in nuanced discussion.”

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