‘Half a year after Gilad Schalit was kidnapped there was a deal with Hamas for his release,” according to peace activist and Jerusalem Post columnist Gershon Baskin. “The Egyptian- mediated deal that was put forward proposed the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in two different waves.
Gilad remained in captivity because there was no prime minister in Israel who wanted to agree to these terms.”
Baskin, who created a secret channel for dialogue with Hamas for Schalit’s release said that “Ehud Olmert, who was the prime minister during Schalit’s kidnapping, convened the security cabinet on his last day in office and voted against the agreement that was placed before him. The fact that he did not bring about Gilad’s release was a clear failure of Olmert’s leadership.”
And this was not the only failure Baskin points to in his book, Freeing Gilad: The Secret Back Channel that he wrote following his intervention in the efforts to free the kidnapped soldier.
“Experts have established that the first days after a kidnapping takes place are critical, but after the Schalit kidnapping the Israeli side was preoccupied with planning a military operation and we did not think about the possibilities,” Baskin argues.
“It was a failure that 50 days passed from the kidnapping until Ofer Dekel, deputy chief of the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] was appointed as the prime minister’s representative for kidnapped soldiers. Gilad was forgotten amid the atmosphere of near hysteria surrounding the Second Lebanon War and the Kassam rockets that were falling.”
Baskin’s intervention in Schalit’s release began three days after the soldier was taken hostage, while Baskin was attending a meeting of peace NGOs in Jordan. As the IDF pounded the Gaza Strip in reaction to the kidnapping, Baskin received a telephone call from Muhammed Makded, an economics professor and Hamas member from Gaza. The two had met a number of months earlier in Cairo.
Makded requested that Baskin answer a call from one Dr. Ghazi Hamad, then Hamas’s spokesperson and a political adviser for Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
“Hamad insisted on speaking with me in Hebrew, which he learned… in Israeli prison,” Baskin said, adding, “On the same day when this telephone conversation took place, I facilitated another telephone call between Hamad and Noam Schalit, the captured soldier’s father.”
This is how, almost spontaneously, a secret channel of dialogue was opened with Hamas that remained open without interruption until the soldier was released from captivity.
The connection with former prime minister Ehud Olmert was formed through the efforts of his daughter, peace activist Dana Olmert, and Baskin’s daughter.
But according to Baskin, Olmert had his doubts about Baskin’s offers to be a voluntary mediator because of an episode from two decades before when Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem. Back then, Baskin published an outline for dividing sovereignty in the city along demographic lines. “Olmert was firmly a right-wing politician then, and he has hated me ever since,” Baskin said.
“A SOLDIER in the army for peace,” is how Baskin, 57, who made aliya to Israel in 1978 from the US, defines himself. A few years after his arrival in Israel he founded a state commission in the Education Ministry to review education on democracy, and he founded the IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information.
I met Baskin in his study in the basement of his modest home in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Hanging on the wall are memorabilia from the many international conferences he has participated in, and meticulously labeled binders document all of his actions in pursuit of Schalit’s release.
To explain the driving force behind Baskin’s involvement in the Schalit affair we must go back to nine months before the kidnapping. On September 21, 2005, Baskin was in Switzerland at an international conference about the future of Jerusalem, when he received a telephone call from his wife Edna. She informed him that her cousin, Sasson Nouriel, had not returned home from his workplace in Mishor Adumim.
Shortly afterward it was revealed that Nouriel had been kidnapped by Hamas, who executed him less than a week later. His body was found in Ramallah.
“At his funeral, at the Givat Shaul cemetery in Jerusalem, I made a vow that I would not allow something like this to take place again,” Baskin said.
The road to Schalit’s release led him to unimaginable scenarios, such as entering Gaza during a period of violent instability along with his Israeli government press pass, escorted by his partner at IPCRI from east Jerusalem, Hanna Siniora. On that trip, the two met with Hamed for the first time in Haniyeh’s offices. After the meeting, Baskin and Siniora went to enjoy a fine meal at the exclusive Roots Restaurant on the Gaza beach.
“As someone who visits all over the West Bank, the word ‘fear’ is not in my lexicon,” Baskin says, adding, “Unfortunately, since 2007 and Hamas’s rise to power in Gaza, the Strip is closed to Israelis. If Israel would permit me, I would go to Gaza tomorrow.”
Baskin’s efforts on behalf of Schalit crossed borders. He turned to the leaders of Hamas in Damascus, Khaled Mashaal and Musa Abu Marzouk, on a number of occasions. Despite the fact that they did not reply to the “pest” from Jerusalem, Baskin knew with certainty that his messages reached them via a third party, Dr. Azam Tamimi, who lives in London and is close to the Hamas leadership. Baskin even tried to recruit Norway and Turkey as mediators in the days before the Mavi Marmara episode.
The Israeli side did not receive Baskin warmly, either. Early on in the efforts to release Schalit, Ofer Dekel said that he had had enough of the Egyptians as mediators and asked Baskin to go away.
“This was like receiving a punch in the stomach,” Baskin said. “It especially pained me that Dekel led the Schalit family to believe that I had nothing to do with the letter from Gilad, the first sign of life that they received from their son, which was due to my intervention.”
Incidentally, the Egyptian intelligence official, Gen. Nader al-Aser, advised Baskin to disobey Dekel’s request to end his role in the negotiations.
Baskin speaks favorably of Egypt’s role as mediator in the deal to free Schalit.
“They knew how to soften… [Hamas military head] Ahmed Jabari’s positions, which sometimes gave the impression of posing insurmountable obstacles for the negotiations.”
In November 2012, a year after Schalit came home, Jabari was assassinated by the IDF in what was considered to be the opening salvo of Operation Pillar of Defense.
“The assassination prevented the realization of a long-term cease-fire agreement that I drafted with Razi Hamed, one month after Schalit was freed,” Baskin reveals. “In my opinion Jabari’s assassination did not have any deterrent effect, and, aside from Jabari, we did not harm their leadership. People came out from their hiding places after the assassination and declared victory,” Baskin said.
Now, Baskin is convinced and wants everyone to know that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a true partner for peace.
“The Israeli public does not know the extent to which Abbas is committed to peace. From our perspective, Abbas is Israel’s man with regard to Gaza as well. It is irrelevant for us that the regime in Gaza does not accept Abbas’s authority. Contrary to Abbas, at least at this stage, Hamas is not able to abandon the armed struggle.”
IT IS hard not to wonder if Baskin has become obsessed with the deal to free Schalit.
“I have wondered to myself if I went overboard with my around-the-clock activity to free Schalit,” Baskin admits, saying that, at night, he could not stop thinking about what else he could do for the cause. “The effort even affected my health, causing me neck and back pain, but I continued my life as normal.”
His worry for the captured soldier increased as the days passed.
“When I saw, on television, the return to Israel of the coffins of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, I could not erase the image of Gilad’s coffin returning from Gaza. My worry became acute during Operation Cast Lead in 2008. I worried that if Gilad was not killed by an Israeli bomb, Hamas would kill him in revenge.”
When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was elected in March 2009, Baskin was certain the saga was coming to an end.
“A moment before Netanyahu’s election I wrote to Khaled Mashaal, and I said that it would be wise for Hamas to act, because Netanyahu said he would not negotiate with terrorists. Mashaal was not convinced. In the end it was Netanyahu who brought Schalit home.
Netanyahu appointed Hagai Hadas in place of Dekel, and Hadas pushed me out of the negotiations.”
“Hadas’s replacement, David Midan, said Hadas had made a big mistake by excluding me,” Baskin said.
What in your opinion was whispered in Midan’s ear about you?
“There were those who sang the old song: Peace activist, anarchist, anti- Zionist, Arab lover and more. It is fortunate that he did not believe them.”
In your book you emphasize your Zionism. Is this coming from a feeling that people don’t trust you?
It stems from a misunderstanding. In the past there was a Zionist Left in Israel which included people like Luba Eliav, whose book Land of the Deer became my second bible. But the Zionist Left has disappeared, and in its place have come the extreme Left and the concept of post-Zionism. These ideas do not speak to me. I believe that so long as more and more people believe that my motives are positive, I will be able to contribute more to peace in the region. This is what I want. I am not seeking praise.”
WHEN THEY met for the first time, Midan was curious to know if Baskin would be seeking payment for his efforts, but all he asked for was the opportunity to be present when Schalit was released.
In the end, Baskin had to watch the historic event on television like everyone else. “I was disappointed,” he admits. But Baskin got over his emotions, and on the day of the release, congratulated Netanyahu in a letter for showing “courage and leadership in his decision to authorize the secret negotiating channel that I opened with Hamas.”
After eight days, Netanyahu replied to Baskin in an official letter in which he thanked him for his commitment to the cause of freeing the soldier. Apparently no one considered receiving Baskin in person to shake his hand.
Baskin continues to stay in touch by telephone with Hamad, today deputy foreign minister of Hamas in Gaza.
Baskin’s request for Hamad and his wife to visit Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem was denied.
Baskin is still friends with Midan, who is in private business today.
Sasson Nouriel’s family angrily protested the mention of their deceased relative in Baskin’s book.
Baskin argues that he feels compassion for the family’s feelings, but could not agree to their request to leave the story of the tragic death out of the book.
“I identify with their tragedy, but in its wake, I helped prevent an additional tragedy.”
The connection with the Schalit family has become weaker over the years, but the family came to the launch of Baskin’s book.
“Gilad and I are friends on Facebook,” Baskin notes. “When he posts photos of his travels around the world, I click ‘Like.’”
Translated by Nathan Wise.
Published in the Jerusalem Post as http://www.jpost.com/Diplomacy-and-Politics/Schalit-deal-was-already-in-place-6-months-after-capture-315951