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Talking Peace Is Only Language He Understands

When a series of terrorist attacks killed eight Israelis around the southern Israeli city of Eilat, Gershon Baskin knew immediately that the deaths had the potential to escalate into a full-blown conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza. And he saw himself as one of the few individuals who could do something to stop it.

You Say You Want Mediation: Peace activist Gershon Baskin is stepping down as head of the joint Israeli-Palestinian think tank he helped found. He has no plans to stop mediating disputes between the two sides. Image by COURTESY of GERSHON BASKIN

Baskin, the American Jewish co-founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), the only think tank in Israel devoted to the peace process that is run jointly by Israelis and Palestinians, knows everyone who’s anyone in Palestinian politics. He speaks daily to contacts in Hamas, whom Israeli officials shun (and vice versa). So, after the latest round of violence broke out on August 18, Baskin started relaying messages from Hamas to top Israeli officials, and back again.

After days of violence, with rockets raining down in Ashkelon, Ashdod and other southern Israel locales, killing one more Israeli, an on-again, off-again ceasefire finally seemed to be taking hold on August 29. The terrorist group Islamic Jihad, which had rejected Hamas’ earlier agreement to reinstate a long-standing cease-fire, finally bowed to pressure from multiple quarters to stand down. Egypt and the United Nations were among the parties that received major credit for averting a worse confrontation. But the log of calls and text messages on Baskin’s smartphone, casually placed on the table as we chatted in a Tel Aviv café recently, also appears to tell part of the story of how this happened.

Baskin, a 55-year-old immigrant from New York who says that everything he does is out of his commitment to Zionism and his love for Israel, related details of his own involvement in, as he put it, “keeping the tits and tats, the back and forth, at a restrained level.”

As his wife and family celebrated the Sabbath in his Jerusalem home the weekend after the August 18 attacks, Baskin said, he was engaged in long phone calls to Gaza and in frantically tapping out text messages to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.

It is impossible to obtain independent confirmation verifying the importance of Baskin’s role as a conduit between Hamas and Israeli officials. Neither side will acknowledge dealing with the other, even through a third party. Israeli officials will not even publicly acknowledge that the cease-fire between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza that was broken was ever instituted in the first place.

Each side looks on the other as “illegitimate,” noted Yoram Schweitzer, senior counter-terrorism consultant to NATO and senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, adding that their strategies require them to be free to act as and when they wish unbound by written agreements.

For Baskin, the behind-the-scenes labor these rules make necessary is by now second nature. It was in 1988 that he and Palestinian-Christian activist Hanna Siniora co-founded the IPCRI, the first think tank to bring Israelis and Palestinians together as co-equals to promote a two-state solution to the conflict between the two adversaries. Now, Baskin, who has directed the center since its founding, is poised to step down in a few weeks.

The IPCRI, he said, “needs to go through a metamorphosis and bring in a new generation of leadership.” His own transition will see him going to work for a new solar energy company, Palestine Power, working to set up solar fields to serve Palestinians. He will also lecture, write — and, of course, mediate for whoever will talk to him.

Baskin shares in some of the pessimism that abounds on the Israeli left these days. But he is an optimist insofar as he is convinced that talking, even if without reaching a resolution, promotes the cause of peace. He does not think that a formal peace treaty with Hamas is conceivable at the moment, but he does believe that direct talks between Israel and the organization could help to keep a long-term calm.

“When the enemy is talking and has a human face, it is much more difficult to hate them,” he said, adding that he even discusses family with one Hamas contact. “My ability to function as I did over the past days with regard to the ceasefire was because they could relate to me as something other than the enemy.”

As Baskin tells it, his road to a career as a non-governmental catalyst for the peace process started with his bar mitzvah. He convinced his parents to travel from their Long Island home for a celebratory holiday, and after that he became involved in the Young Judaea Zionist youth movement. After finishing high school in 1973, he went on the movement’s gap year in Israel program, and, shortly after his return home, he set up a Zionist commune in New York with fellow Young Judaeans.

There, he became enamored of the idea of a two-state solution. With a group of like-minded friends, he requested a meeting with Zehdi Labib Terzi, permanent observer to the United Nations for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), during which they asked him to recognize Israel and endorse a two-state solution. “His basic answer was ‘over my dead body,’” Baskin recalled.

In 1978, Baskin immigrated to Israel, brimming with enthusiasm for promoting his political vision. But there was a problem. “Israelis thought I was some stupid naïve American.” He decided that to become credible, he needed demonstrable expertise with Arab culture and politics, so he volunteered for the Interns for Peace program, which sends young Jews to live and volunteer in Israeli-Arab villages.

Baskin lived for two years in Kfar Qara near Haifa, most of the time as the only Jew in the village, running youth programs and organizing the building of a community center. “I joke that I made aliyah to an Arab village,” he said.

After his stint there, he wrote to the government, which was then led by right-wing Menachem Begin, arguing that it was folly that Israel had not a single civil servant tasked with improving Jewish-Arab relations, and offering his services. To his surprise, he was appointed Coordinator of Educational Programs Between Jewish and Arab Schools at the Education Ministry, and given a free hand to run programs that brought the two populations together. After a year in that post, he founded an organization to further this work, the Institute for Education for Jewish-Arab Coexistence, which had the backing of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Education Ministry.

When the First Intifada broke out in 1988, Baskin hopped on his motorbike and rode to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem to find out for himself what it was all about. He pulled up outside a school and started talking to a small group of villagers that quickly grew to a group of 30. “The most amazing thing that day was what I didn’t hear,” Baskin recalled. “The ‘over my dead body’ that I had heard years previously wasn’t there anymore. There weren’t demands for the right of return or to throw us into the sea, but for the end of the occupation.”

This experience convinced Baskin that the “moment for dialogue had come.” He placed an advertisement in three Palestinian newspapers, asking Palestinians who were interested in promoting peace to come forward, and he received 43 phone calls.

He came up with a plan for a joint Israeli-Palestinian think tank, which aroused great interest among Israeli government officials and, once he secured the support of senior PLO leader Faisal Husseini, enjoyed significant Palestinian support. Hanna Siniora, a renowned Palestinian journalist who became his co-director in 2005, bought in to the idea when Baskin went to see him in 1988, and immediately agreed to become chairman of the board. The think tank established various working groups to examine practical questions related to a possible two-state solution.

From the start, Baskin pulled in the top people from both sides — often on a clandestine basis. The first meeting of the IPCRI’s economic working group included two senior Likud ministers and two Bank of Israel officials.

Israeli authorities handled Baskin with a mixture of suspicion and admiration. For his first four years in the IPCRI, he underwent special searches and questionings at the airport whenever he left Israel. Then, in 1994, Baskin’s travel aroused concern again. He was ordered to report to the Israel Defense Forces after visiting Jordan, which had not yet signed a peace treaty with Israel.

It turned out that the only regulation he had violated had been to travel without informing his army reservist unit. After questioning him, the interrogator continued talking to him about his work, and then asked permission to give his contact information to acquaintances. Two weeks later, Baskin was summoned to the office of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“It turned out that Rabin had decided to create a secret staff made up of five people from five different branches of the intelligence community to advise him on a peace process. So, for the next couple of years I became a secret adviser to the secret team,” Baskin said. “So I went from being on the security list — from being a traitor — to being an adviser to the minister in the course of a month.”

By this time, Baskin already had the rare asset of a comprehensive set of contacts in the PLO and other Palestinian factions. In 1990, the PLO had invited him to Tunis. That round of meetings was different from others that the mostly fearless Baskin discussed during our interview. “I was really scared,” he admitted.

Baskin’s worries peaked when a PLO official he was sitting with in a hotel got up to leave. “He whispers in my ear, ‘I left a package of cigarettes for you on the table. After I go, stay here for five more minutes, take the cigarettes and go up to your room.’ So I was sitting there staring at this package of cigarettes wondering when it’s going to explode.

“I go up to my room and open the package of cigarettes very cautiously, waiting for a bomb and there were 10 $100 dollar bills inside,” he said. He had not been able to afford his travel expenses, Baskin explained, and this was the official’s off-the-books way of reimbursing him.

Now, as back in the early days of his involvement in dialogue, what defines Baskin is his ability to think outside the box. A question about the impending bid for Palestinian statehood does not bring forth the usual assessment of security or diplomatic fallout, but an intriguing suggestion. “I’m trying to convince Palestinians that they should try to symbolically open up an embassy in West Jerusalem, making Palestine the first country in the world to recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” he said.

Now, as back in the early days of his involvement in dialogue, what defines Baskin is his ability to think outside the box. A question about the impending bid for Palestinian statehood does not bring forth the usual assessment of security or diplomatic fallout, but an intriguing suggestion. “I’m trying to convince Palestinians that they should try to symbolically open up an embassy in West Jerusalem, making Palestine the first country in the world to recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” he said.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at [email protected]


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