Why peace negotiations must be kept top secret

THE man responsible for the behind-the-scenes negotiations which led to the release of Gilad Shalit is an eternal optimist in his quest for a two-state peace solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

For almost 40 years American-born Dr Gershon Baskin has been working towards his dream of a two-state solution.

Yet despite all these decades of frustrations, Dr Baskin is still hopeful that peace will come and that it will be brought about by negotiations headed by present right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"There is an advantage in Netanyahu negotiating," he said. "There is a saying in Israel that you need the right to make peace and the left to make war."

But Dr Baskin agreed that the present right-wing Israeli coalition government would be unlikely to support peace proposals which would probably lead to the fall of the government.

Therefore skilled behind-the-scenes negotiator Dr Baskin, who, while speaking to me, was simultaneously making an appointment to visit a top Palestinian minister the following day, insists that peace negotiations must be conducted in secret.

He said: "There cannot be public negotiations, only secret negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas.

"If the negotiations were public there is no doubt that the Israeli and the Palestinian governments would fall apart."

But Dr Baskin is not fazed by the prospects of Israeli and Palestinian elections, believing that if a credible peace deal were on the table, both electorates would vote for it.

Dr Baskin's almost naive belief in peace as a vote-winner in the Middle East, also extends to Egypt and Gaza.

He said: "I'm quite convinced that if there were a true offer of peace on the table that includes Gaza, enabling Gazans to be integrated into the freedom, liberation and chances of prosperity and peace, they would either force Hamas to change or would get rid of Hamas in the same way that the people of Egypt got rid of Mubarak, the people of Tunisia got rid of Ben Ali and the Libyans got rid of Gaddafi."

He explained: "The street is more powerful today than governments. A Palestinian government that prevents peace from its people when a deal is on the table will not survive."

And he added: "A public opinion poll just came out in the West Bank and Gaza which shows a very strong decline in support for Hamas and a very strong opposition to firing rockets on Israel."

Dr Baskin also believes that secular moderates will eventually gain power in Egypt which is currently ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood.

New York-born Dr Baskin was a political activist from a very early age.

He recalled: "I started getting involved in American politics.

"When I was nine we were in the south of the USA. I saw a sign outside a restaurant which said 'Whites only'. For a little boy growing up in New York that was an eye-opening experience.

"I got very involved in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. My parents drove me to demonstrations.

"I went to our local congressman who was one of the leading people in the Democratic Party against the War in Vietnam.

"In 1968 when I was 13 I met Senator Eugene McCarthy who was running for president and who was a leader against the war in Vietnam. Those were very important experiences in my life and personality."

Dr Baskin's first visit to Israel was for his barmitzvah. Soon after he joined Young Judaea, the USA's largest Zionist youth movement.

From then on Dr Baskin devoted his life to Israeli politics.

By his last year in high school he was president of the Long Island region of Young Judaea.

He went to Israel again in his last year of high school to the movement's Kibbutz Ketura.

After school he spent a year on Young Judaea's youth course programme, half a year on kibbutz and half a year in Jerusalem.

Back in the USA, he studied the politics and history of the Middle East at universities in New Orleans and New York.

As a student, way back in 1975, as he began to understand the Middle East conflict academically and then more as an activist, Dr Baskin came to the conclusion that the only way Israel would achieve peace with its neighbours was through the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.

His first published article in that year called for a two-state solution. The following year he met with the PLO ambassador in New York.

After graduation in 1978 he made aliya, joining Interns for Peace which took Jewish university graduates to Israeli Arab villages to do community work.

Dr Baskin lived in the Arab village of Kafr Qara for two years working with youth, teaching English and trying to make links with nearby Jewish villages.

Then he said: "Very shortly I came to the conclusion that improvement had to be at a governmental level.

"When I left the village I wrote a proposal to the Israeli government asking them to hire me to be the first Israeli civil servant to be responsible for Jewish-Arab relations.

"It took me 14 months to lobby for it, but my proposal was accepted by Menachem Begin's government."

At the age of just 25 Dr Baskin was appointed to the senior rank of inspector of the Ministry of Education.

After a year he proposed to the Israeli Prime Minister and the Ministry of Education that they create an Institute of education for Jewish-Arab co-existence.

His persuasive powers won out again and he was appointed director of the non-governmental body, the Institute for Education for Jewish-Arab Coexistence.

He recalled: "At the outbreak of the first Intifada at the end 1987, I sensed that a revolution was taking place in the West Bank and Gaza, that Palestinians were coming to the realisation that they should recognise Israel instead of declaring their position to be a Palestinian state in place of Israel.

"In March, 1988, I went to see if what I understood politically was correct. I spent a day in a Dheishe refugee camp south of Bethlehem, talking to people.

"They were no longer demanding the original PLO platform, which was a secular state in all of Palestine, but for Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza."

Dr Baskin resigned his position at the institute and placed an advert in three Palestinian newspapers, asking those who believed in a two-state solution to phone him.

He recalled: "By the next night I had received 43 calls. I made appointments with anyone who was willing to sit down and talk to me.

"I sat at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem for five days and met with 23 people. I understood that there was a basis to begin working together to create a two-state solution."

He then set up the Israel Palestinian Centre for Research and Information to advance a two-state solution by creating a platform for Israelis and Palestinians to work together to come up with solutions to the conflict issues of borders, Jerusalem, refugees, water, economy and security.

Dr Baskin was the IPCRI's director for 24 years and is currently chairman of its board of directors.

He claimed: "I have personally facilitated more than 10,500 Israeli-Palestinian negotiating meetings. I introduced thousands of Israelis and Palestinians to each other, including levels of government and have put out policy papers.

"I advised two Israeli Prime Ministers, Yitzchak Rabin and Ehud Barak."

He added: "The high point of my professional life was when I initiated and facilitated the secret back channel negotiations with my Hamas contacts which led to Gilad Shalit's freedom."

Dr Baskin is currently publishing the story of the lengthy and often frustrating negotiations in Freeing Gilad - Back Channel, which will be published in English in October to mark the second anniversary of Gilad's release.

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph