Gershon Baskin believes in the power of people to be good, in the power of compassion, which is much stronger than hatred.
As a peace activist for more than 30 years, I am frequently interviewed.
After getting through the political analysis of the moment, the subject inevitably turns to the personal. One question that repeats itself constantly is “how do you keep doing it?” It is a very good question, since peace seems to be so constantly moving further towards the distant horizon.
Sometimes the question is more open-ended: “what gives you hope?” Sometimes I am simply asked “are you optimistic?” This past week a young person interviewed me with a new and refreshing approach. She asked “what is your dream?” And to make it more complex, she added “what was your dream when you were a child?” The questions provoked my imagination.
First, I usually say (borrowing the words of my friend Dr. Yehuda Paz) “it’s a genetic defect; I can’t help it. Every morning I wake up optimistic.”
To some extent, it’s true, it is a trait that I inherited from my late great mother. There are optimistic and pessimistic personalities. I have never met a pessimistic peace activist. To believe in peace, one must be optimistic.
ONE THING that gives me hope is the memory of where we were when I first began to understand the nature of our conflict. Back then, some 25 years ago, after the beginning of the first intifada, it seemed quite clear that the Palestinian movement was on the verge of a revolutionary shift that would transform its national goals from “one secular democratic state” to the two-state solution. In 1976 I met the PLO ambassador to the UN in New York.
Together with other Jewish Zionist students, we suggested that the time had come for Palestinians to recognize Israel and accept the two-state solution. Ambassador Zehdi Labib Terzi’s response was “Over my dead body. We will never recognize Israel.
All you Jews should go back where you came from!” In 1988, I met ambassador Terzi in Geneva, and by that time he was prepared to recognize Israel and accept the two-state solution.
That’s when I founded IPCRI – the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information. After spending a day in the Dehieshe refugee camp in March 1988, I published an ad in three east Jerusalem papers. I wrote: “If you believe in the two-state solution, you believe that Israelis and Palestinian can work together for peace… Call me!” I gave my home phone number.
The ads went in on a Friday morning.
By Saturday night I had received 43 calls. I made appointments with anyone willing to meet me. I spent the next five days in the courtyard of an east Jerusalem hotel and met 23 Palestinians. In preparation for those meetings, I wrote a one-page paper in which I suggested that our conflict was no longer existential, but rather about specific issues. I suggested that there were seven key issues (I would add an eighth today): Palestinian statehood and the nature of its sovereignty, the delineation of borders, the future of Jerusalem, the future of Palestinian refugees, the physical link between the West Bank and Gaza, the nature of economic relations, and natural resources – mainly water. Today I would add security arrangements. Every person I met agreed with my proposal. I knew then, as I know today, that agreeing on and defining the issues in conflict is the first step toward conflict resolution.
In 1989 we began bringing together groups of Israeli and Palestinian experts to start figuring out how to resolve the specific issues.
TODAY IN 2011, I completely believe that there is not a single issue on the list that we don’t know how to resolve. Let’s face it, this is the most researched conflict in the history of conflicts, and there are more detailed peace plans out there than for any other conflict in the world. Amazingly, the answers are not known only to the experts; any thinking politician knows the answers as well.
There are no more secrets.
So one thing that gives me hope is the deep belief that this conflict is resolvable; every single issue, to the minutest detail, has solutions based on research, dialogue, precedents and “home-grown” Israeli-Palestinian ingenuity.
What is lacking, and is absolutely essential, is any semblance of trust.
Israelis and Palestinians have definitely earned their mutual distrust.
The most crucial aspects of each of the five Israeli-Palestinian agreements have been breached systemically by both sides. There is no clear “good guy” and “bad guy” when it comes to implementation of signed agreements. And no artificial “confidence- building measures” can replace such earned lack of trust.
I have borne witness to the overriding importance of trust, and this is the primary thing that gives me hope: the personal relationships I experience, every day, throughout the region – in Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and even in hard places like Syria and Lebanon, prove to me the importance of integrity, honesty, sincerity, respect and compassion. From my two years volunteering as a community worker in the Israeli-Palestinian town of Kafr Qara, where even today, 30 years later, I am treated as a “son of the village” when I come to visit, I am reminded of the warm human contact and ability to overcome cultural gaps.
In all my encounters, my Arabs friends and colleagues know me as a proud Israeli patriot, a Jew and a Zionist. This has never prevented me from listening to them, empathizing with their pain and recognizing that we can live together in peace through mutual respect, recognition, compromise and understanding.
It has also never prevented them from, in turn, from hearing my story.
That’s why I didn’t experience fear living in Kafr Qara with no lock on my door, or when I travel in Ramallah, Nablus or even Gaza. I am not so naïve as to believe I have no mortal enemies, but I don’t allow myself to be constrained by fear, or allow fear to sour into blind hatred.
I believe in the power of people to be good. I believe in the power of compassion, which is much stronger than hatred. And I will always be true to myself and to the belief that making peace is first and foremost a decision – one that we have apparently yet to make.
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.