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Gershon Baskin: The Israeli peacemaker?

Gershon Baskin has both Netanyahu and Hamas on his cellphone. Yet hardly anyone's heard of him.

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A rainbow arcs over Gaza City. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Two days after the targeted assassination of Ahmad Jabari, the Hamas strongman Israel held responsible for months of missile fire from Gaza, one Gershon Baskin published an editorial in the New York Times entitled, "Israel's Shortsighted Assassination."

Baskin, who is not a household name in Israel, said the government “made a grave and irresponsible strategic error by deciding to kill” Jabari.

He is not a glossy-eyed Pollyanna. In the article, he starts out by saying that "Mr. Jabari was not a man of peace; he didn’t believe in peace with Israel."

Still, he argued, "I was able to learn firsthand that Mr. Jabari wasn’t just interested in a long-term cease-fire; he was also the person responsible for enforcing previous cease-fire understandings brokered by the Egyptian intelligence agency. On the morning that he was killed, Mr. Jabari received a draft proposal for an extended cease-fire with Israel, including mechanisms that would verify intentions and ensure compliance. This draft was agreed upon by me and Hamas’ deputy foreign minister, Ghazi Hamad, when we met last week in Egypt."

It is difficult to know how to evaluate such a statement or the significance of the draft proposal. Jabari was by all accounts a proud and prodigious killer. Even Baskin cannot say what the draft might have produced, or when. No one knows who in the Israeli government or in Hamas' fluid political structure might have known of its existence, or would have considered it.

But Gershon Baskin seems to be making a habit out of creating waves.

His first appearance in international headlines came a little over a year ago, with the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held captive by Hamas for more than five years. (In his column, Baskin adds: "It is important to recall that Mr. Jabari not only abducted Mr. Shalit, but he also kept him alive and ensured that he was cared for during his captivity.")

The day after Shalit's dramatic exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, with its cold war aura, Baskin's name floated to the surface as the ubiquitous, but barely known and entirely unlikely "man who negotiated Shalit's release."

Many questioned who Baskin was and what happened to David Meidan, the head of Israel's negotiation team.

Baskin is accustomed to such skepticism. To the extent that his name was known before the Shalit release, it was as the co-chairman of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a think tank devoted to the quixotic task of Jewish-Arab understanding.

He was recently received in the office of the Minister of Defense for a private word of thanks. "I know many doors were kept closed to you," the defense minister, Ehud Barak said to Baskin, in Baskin's recollection. "And I thought, 'yeah, the biggest one was yours!'"

The code name he was given by Israel's secret service was "Phoenix," a moniker that brings a rare childlike delight to his face.

He chuckles when relaying how at a critical moment in the Shalit negotiations, Hamas leaders, who do not recognize the state of Israel and were doubtful of his credentials, demanded to see his Letter of Appointment, signed by Meidan — in Hebrew.

Such improbable things happen in the life of Baskin, 56, who grew up on Long Island and who was galvanized to political action at the age of 9, when on a family trip to Virginia he noticed restaurants admitting "Whites Only."

In 1976, while still a college student at New York University, where he studied politics and history of the Middle East, Baskin met with Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations Zuhdi Labib Terzi to ask him to “recognize Israel and the two-state solution." He was with other members of Young Judea, a Zionist organization, who were frustrated by the stalemate in the Middle East.

Terzi was courteous, Baskin said, but responded "over my dead body. We shall have a secular, democratic Palestine from the Jordan to the sea. No Israel."

Over time, Baskin has learned that people and their leaders respond in different ways, in different times.

In 1988, in the fourth month of the first Palestinian uprising, Baskin jumped on a Vespa and drove from his Jerusalem home to the refugee camp of Daheisheh. He ended up spending six hours there that first day, talking with more than 30 individuals.

"Not one person uttered the words of Ambassador Terzi," he said, recounting what for him became an epiphany.

"They all said they needed this, and demanded that. They were angry at Israel over this or over that. But not one of them said what he had said. Not one had said, ‘Palestine from the Jordan to the sea.’ I knew I had arrived at that place where they were ready to negotiate with us."

It may appear that negotiating for high stakes, while not representing any actual party is an impractical, dim quest. But Baskin has bet his life on it.

"We used to call this 'track one and a half,' in that, if the government itself ran track one negotiations and unofficial groups ran track two talks, we were the bridge for that," he explained.

Track one and half talks are the only thing that can provide a government with "absolute deniability but an open line of communication," he maintained.

Baskin is a bearded, soft-spoken, low-statured, sturdily built man. His voice rises and hardens only when he says that, "Without any doubt — no question at all — Shalit could have been released four years earlier. I don't know if the Israeli public would have accepted it in the same way — eventually 80 percent accepted the release of those 1,000 prisoners — but we had the same deal on the table. And no one in the prime minister's office was ready to listen."

These days, he meets occasionally with Shalit in Tel Aviv and invites the young man to lunch. "I have a need to feed him," he mutters.

Baskin is now involved in renewable energy sources and is waiting, his cellphone ever at the ready, for Hamas' deputy foreign minister to call back.

"Hopefully, hopefully …,” he said.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/israel-and-palestine/121126/gershon-baskin-israel-hamas-gaza-peacemaker