Washington Jewish Week

Gershon Baskin: Behind-the-scenes broker

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One thing Gershon Baskin seems sure of — thanks to his years of torturous negotiations on behalf of the Israeli government — is that it’s still possible to negotiate with the (Hamas) terrorist group.

Until last year, few people had ever heard of Gershon Baskin — a 55-year-old New Yorker who had made aliyah in 1978 in order to establish a nonprofit group dedicated to coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

But it was Baskin who brokered the secret deal that secured the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit 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 Schalit, 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.

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 had high hopes for Sen. George Mitchell, a Democrat from Maine who in 2009 was appointed special envoy for Middle East peace by Obama.

“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,” he said. “In Northern Ireland it was about process, not final status, but 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 was 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 Katoum 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.” The problem, he said, is that he sees no alternative to a two-state solution, but that the clock is ticking.

“The real problem is the change in leadership that’s going to take place soon on the Palestinian side,” he 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 Schalit from five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip.

“In the case of Gilad Schalit, 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 Schalit’s release in exchange for freeing 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, many of them guilty of terrorist attacks against Jews.

“He 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. “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.”

One thing Baskin seems sure of — thanks to his years of torturous negotiations on behalf of the Israeli government — is that it’s still possible to negotiate with the terrorist group that abducted Schalit.

“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.”