The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California

Can we talk?: Parleys with Hamas aren’t unusual for activists

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When Hanna Siniora or Gershon Baskin’s phones rings late at night — or even at 3 a.m., Hillary Clinton-style — they never know who’ll be on the other end.

Could it be Israeli or Palestinian teachers searching for coexistence curriculum advice? Possibly.

Could it be European diplomats hoping for help hammering out a Mideast cease-fire? That’s possible too.

Or could it be Hamas officials hoping Siniora and Baskin can act as intermediaries between Israel’s military and the Hamas kidnappers who nabbed Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Siniora is a 70-year-old Palestinian, born and raised in East Jerusalem; Baskin is a 51-year-old Brooklyn-born Israeli Jew. The two are co-CEOs of Jerusalem’s Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

The two men made several speeches throughout the Bay Area last week, all of them sponsored by the living-room dialogue groups founded by Len and Libby Traubman of San Mateo.

The 20-year-old think tank founded by Siniora and Baskin has Israelis and Palestinians working on water rights, border economics and all the esoterica that will have to be settled if ever the Arab and Jewish states will ever really exist side-by-side in a semblance of peace.

And yet, sometimes, they find themselves in the midst of struggles a bit more visceral than where a desalinization plant ought to go. Both have spent much time in Gaza pushing for Shilat’s release, which they talked about in an interview with j.

The two proposed Shilat write a letter to prove he is alive and well. Hamas balked, demanding Israel release all of its Palestinian women and children prisoners. Baskin and Siniora talked them down to demanding one busload of prisoners.

Baskin recalled the cryptic response of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: “‘If they deliver the letter, we will respond positively,’” Baskin said.

In 2006, Hamas did release a letter; the handwriting was confirmed to be Schalit’s. A return letter from Schalit’s family was delivered by Baskin and Siniora to Hamas.

So far, no busloads of prisoners have been released — nor, for that matter, has Schalit.

Baskin added that the Israeli soldier won’t be freed until Hamas and Israel can agree to a broader cease-fire — specifically, one that prevents the Israelis from assassinating a bevy of Hamas leaders as soon as Schalit is back in Israel.

“Israel knows where Gilad Schalit is, they know exactly where he’s being held,” Baskin said matter-of-factly.

“But he’s underground and the place is booby-trapped with explosives. There is no military option here to free Gilad or they’d have done it a long time ago.”

Pushing for peace in the Middle East is a job that leaves one searching for even the most infinitesimal silver lining among a ready supply of dark clouds. The blood-soaked daily reality of the region often begs the question, “What good can dialogue do?”

Siniora, however, said that time is on his side. Twenty years ago, only radical leftists were pushing for the two-state solution. Now even George W. Bush is in favor of it.

Forty years ago, an Arab summit issued the famous “three no’s of Khartoum” — no peace, no negotiation and no recognition of Israel. Yet in 2002, 22 Arab nations offered normal relations with Israel in the Saudi peace plan.

“I want to show there has been a change in the mentality of both Israelis and Palestinians,” added Siniora.

“Golda Meir denied the existence of the Palestinian people. Now even Ariel Sharon said Palestinians should have a state of their own.”

Originally Published in The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California