On October 18 we mark two years from the remarkable day when the world waited with great anticipation to see Gilad Schalit stride from captivity into freedom, back onto Israeli soil and reunited with his family.
Earlier this month, Schalit began his first term as a university student at the Interdisciplinary College Herzliya, studying economics and sustainability. Over the past year he has spoken to Jewish communities around the world, thanking them for their support while fundraising for Israel. Schalit has announced through his Facebook page that he has a girlfriend and that he is very happy.
But recall for a moment where we were just a few short months before Oct. 18, 2011.
On April 17, as the Schalit family was preparing to spend a fifth Passover with Gilad in Hamas captivity, headlines splashed throughout Israeli proclaiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had appointed Mossad official David Meidan as the government’s special representative for efforts to release Schalit, replacing Hagai Hadas.
I spoke to Meidan later that day. Schalit’s release seemed no closer to taking place than it did when he was abducted on June 25, 2006. I had never heard of Meidan and he had never heard of me. But I told him I had been in contact with senior Hamas officials about Schalit as early as six days after his abduction and on September 9, 2006, some two and a half months after he was taken, I got Hamas to deliver the first sign of life from Schalit – a hand written letter.
Despite this clear channel of communication, I was instructed by the Israeli official in charge of the case – who had been appointed 50 days after Schalit was abducted – to stand down and not interfere with negotiations.
Over the next five years, I never ceased my efforts to create a secret, direct back channel between Israel and Hamas. With Meidan, I was finally being listened to. Skilled and intelligent, he had the authority to take a chance on me and see if the back channel I proposed could produce results. When he was sufficiently convinced that this channel was a “live wire” he received authorization from Netanyahu to use it and to complete the deal to bring Schalit home. Months later, Gilad crossed the border from Gaza to Egypt and then into Israel’s waiting arms.
Roughly 80 percent of Israelis supported the deal that exchanged one Israeli soldier for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, some 400 of whom had killed Israelis. This is more than amazing. The toughest part of the negotiations was forcing Hamas to accept conditions that would minimize security risks to Israel by releasing so many convicted terrorists. This was done by removing a large number of names from the list, deporting others and sending West Bank prisoners to Gaza.
Right-wing extremists in Israel warned that because of the deal, hundreds of Israeli citizens would pay with their lives. Thank God that did not come true. In fact, not one of the released prisoners has engaged in violence against Israel. About 15 have been rearrested for parole violations and most of them have been re-released.
My role in saving the life of Gilad Schalit is something that I think about every single day. It is something I feel is a tremendous accomplishment, demonstrating that seemingly impossible things can happen when one has one’s mind and heart focused on a particular goal.
Gershon Baskin is co-chairman of IPCRI, Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI), formerly known as the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, a nonprofit think tank that combines research with peace-building actions and advocacy across Israel and Palestine. He is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew, and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.
Originally Published at http://www.momentmag.com/opinion-gilad-shalits-negotiator-gershon-baskin/
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.