The Washington Diplomat / May 2012
By Larry Luxner
Until last year, few people had ever heard of Gershon Baskin — a 55-year-old New Yorker who moved to Jerusalem in 1978 in order 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 — 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,” he said. “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 the window for a peace deal with the Palestinians is rapidly closing — and that Israel must act quickly to secure 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, entitled “Is Peace Still Possible?” was co-sponsored by AU’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 U.S. and Canada ranging from Washington to Phoenix and Vancouver.
Baskin lamented what he sees as a worsening “trust deficit” between the two sides.
“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. That was never a precondition to negotiating. But during those years of the Oslo peace process, the settlement population tripled.”
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, founder of the Jerusalem-based Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (ICPRI).
“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.”
Even so, Baskin noted, 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 said. “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.”
Unfortunately, said Baskin, 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 was featured in a November 2011 article in the New York Times Magazine — says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must 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 1,027 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% 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 certainly has an unusual resumé. Before establishing ICPRI more than 22 years ago as the world’s only Israeli-Palestinian think tank, he 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 Cavaliere della Ordine della Stella Solidarieta Italiana (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 Prize for Middle East 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.
Shalit was a shy, 19-year-old soldier from the northern town of Nahariyya 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.
Because of his previous contacts with Hamas intellectuals, Baskin offered his services as an intermediary, even though he was never asked to do so. Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spurned his offers, though Netanyahu — who replaced Olmert in 2009 — was more receptive to Baskin’s involvement. He eventually began passing messages between Israeli envoy David Meidan and Razi Hamed, the Hamas deputy foreign minister in the Gaza Strip.
Shalit — a dual Israeli-French citizen who’s been made an honorary citizen of Paris, Miami, Rome, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Baltimore — was finally released on Oct. 11, 2011, in 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 torturous negotiations 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.”
As for the power of civil-society organizations like OneVoice that advocate a two-state solution, Baskin remains skeptical.
“These groups have done some very good things but they still have no real impact,” he said, suggesting that last summer’s demonstrations in the streets of Tel Aviv were a “cottage cheese revolution” that attracted 300,000 angry protesters — but had nothing to do with the Middle East’s intractable problems. “It was not about deep-rooted political inefficiencies in Israeli society. It was a middle-class uprising by young people who have difficulties making ends meet.”
Asked to comment on the GOP presidential primaries dominating the airwaves in this country, Baskin snickered.
“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.”
That certainly doesn’t bode well for the immediate future — especially in light of Iran’s relentless attempt to enrich uranium to make nuclear weapons and Israel’s determination to stop the Ahmadenijad regime in Tehran from doing so.
“I think Israel has made a decision to hit Iran militarily. The U.S. has given Israel a green light to do it,” said Baskin, adding that in principle, he doesn’t oppose an Israeli military strike on Iran’s underground nuclear bunkers. “The main threat of a bomb is not the fear that they would use it. Rather, the main fear is the launching of an arms race where every single country in the region will want a nuclear bomb.”
In the meantime, he said, Israel must work toward 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 said. “This is what I think we’re headed for. And as a Jew, an Israeli and a Zionist, this is national suicide.”