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Review of Gershon Baskin's "The Negotiator"

The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas
by Gershon Baskin
The Toby Press (2013)

It all began in June 2006 when a nineteen year old Israeli army conscript, Gilad Schalit, was kidnapped by Hamas loyalists—“rogue groups” Gershon Baskin calls them-- in the continuing tit-for-tat violence between Israeli occupiers and occupied Palestinians. The Israelis have imprisoned thousands of Palestinians, some of whom committed heinous crimes and many others whose nonviolent challenges to their subjugators ended up in a prison cell, much to the dismay of their families and supporters. Schalit, nineteen, was only one Israeli Jew, but in Israel his capture was taken personally. To set the stage, Baskin tells us that one year earlier, his wife’s cousin was murdered in Ramallah by a Hamas member.

Enter Baskin, an American-Israeli, who has spent virtually his entire professional life in Israel working with other peaceniks for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, having co-founded with a Palestinian ally a public-policy think tank and where he now writes a column, “Encountering Peace” in the Jerusalem Post.

When he first heard of Schalit’s abduction he had what can best described as a revelation. He possessed one thing Israel’s spymasters and officials didn’t have, namely extensive contacts with Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, which he had developed over the years in his peace work. Seated on the shores of the Dead Sea in neighboring Jordan, learning of the abduction, he reflected on the kidnapping’s possible consequences, asking himself, “How many innocent Israelis and Palestinians would be killed as a result of this attack”? --- retaliation being the name of the game.

He decided to act on his own, without government support, to free Gilad Schalit. Thus begins the extraordinary tale of one man and how his contacts on all sides of the bitter ideological-political divide eventually helped free the soldier. “I had no idea how the capture of Gilad Schalit would change my life and how, over the next five years and four months, his life and mine would intersect.”

In the end, his absorbing and dramatic book, The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit From Hamas (Toby Press) is the first-person story of an indefatigable lone wolf mediator and negotiator who, against all odds, managed to work with Israelis, West Bank Palestinians and above all, Hamas, the confrontational, passionately anti-Israel group once supported by Israel to counter the PLO, and now seemingly unapproachable.

His first step was to contact Dana Olmert, the dovish daughter of the hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Dana Olmert had recently participated in a demonstration against the IDF Chief of Staff whose air force had bombed the home of a Hamas military man, killing his family and injuring, Baskin claims, 50-100 more. When questioned by tough-minded Israeli reporters about harming civilians, the General said he had no regrets. Baskin sent her an e-mail congratulating her for her humane principles though she was never able to persuade her father to take an active role in rescuing Schalit. Apparently, both the kidnappers and murderers of his wife’s cousin felt the same about their victims.

He then turned to people he knew, worked with, or not at all.  At a conference in Madrid marking the 0slo process, once a serious effort to work out a deal with Palestinians and Syrians, he found himself in a hotel elevator with two Syrian officials and the Israeli reporter Akiva Eldar, who tried to shake hands with one of them, a legal advisor to the Syrian Foreign Ministry, who turned away. Baskin knew that Syria offered Hamas a sanctuary and was therefore a possible link to Schalit’s captors, so he prevailed on a Palestinian friend to have the Syrian meet him in a secluded section of the hotel. They did, Baskin talked, but all the Syrian said was “Okay” and was never heard from again.

Deeply frustrated, back and forth he went, to Schalit’s parents, initially advising them to disregard the Israeli PM and bureaucrats (much later they protested publicly, setting up a tent at Passover in front of PM Netanyahu’s home), as he slowly, very slowly, developed connections with some moderate-- at least to Baskin--Hamas officials in Gaza. In one instance one of them asked him to intercede with the Israeli air force to stay an attack because a child injured in the bombing needed to be escorted to the hospital without being strafed, a request that was granted. In time he was assisted greatly by two men, the Israeli David Meidan, one time head of “Tevel,” a Mossad office, who came with Netanyahu’s blessing (he had succeeded Olmert as PM), and Dr. Ghani Hamid of Gaza, a spokesman and advisor to the Gaza prime minister, who insisted on speaking with Baskin in Hebrew. He proved to be extremely helpful and Baskin ends up praising him as “the man who made it [the release of Schalit] happen” and reprints an honest and insightful interview with him in the book, a rare and peaceful journalistic exchange in the ongoing civil  war.

The Negotiatoris replete with back channel exchanges, secret meetings, frenetic messages and persistent phone calls.“ It was all so difficult and horribly maddening,” Baskin confesses. “I kept telling myself not to give up[and] I vowed not to give up until Gilad was home.” Finally, with Egyptians acting as a go-between, a deal was consummated. “Sworn enemies had managed to meet in the middle,” writes Baskin, as the final list of Palestinian prisoners to be released in return were agreed upon. David Meidan told Baskin that without him the swap could never have been completed. Everyone—Gilad Schalit and a large number of Palestinians went home. It appears Baskin knows nothing about the fate of the Palestinians but he has followed Schilat. who spent years hidden underground,  but was never abused, and was even given a TV and allowed to watch sporting events with his captors. Early on he was offered his freedom provided he converted to Islam and marries a Moslem woman. When he reached home, observers said he seemed to be suffering from PTSD but now travels abroad and is interested in sports writing, having once covered the NBA.

But what of ordinary Israelis whose family members had been killed or maimed by the freed prisoners? The widow of his wife’s cousin who was murdered in 2005 was furious at Baskin, seething and weeping because four of the six men who killed her husband had been freed. “The man who had butchered her husband with his own hands,” Baskin notes, not without remorse but without apology. The scene was most recently repeated in October 2013 when 26 Palestinian prisoners, all of whom were jailed for killing Israeli civilians, were released, presumably in a trade allowing the construction of some 1,500 new apartments on the West Bank and also to ease Americans concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

The new deal brought the same cries of Israeli anguish as the earlier one, horrified by the killings of family members.. One grieving relative asked, on Ynet, the daily newspaper Yediot Achronot’s blog, Why? “For what? One thousand houses?” A McClatchy report about the latest release describes a woman whose father was stabbed to death in 1991 crying out “The justice system did no justice. They stuck one last knife in our back.”

Still, ordinary Palestinians are victims too. Driven out of their homes in 1948 and their properties on the West Bank taken by Jewish settlers, the mutual fears and hatreds continue. In Baskin’s interview, Ghazi Hamid explains the Palestinian side: “We are still under occupation, we have no borders, we have no sovereignty, and we have nothing. I think Israel has to end the occupation over us and get out. After that you can talk about peace.”

All the same, echoing Israelis like Baskin, Mahmoud Damouni, the brother of Ahmad, one of the freed prisoners, who was convicted of killing an army reservist and civilian in 1990, told Israel Radio in Hebrew, “Enough, we were killed and you were killed. Every house in Gaza and the West Bank has a prisoner, someone who was killed…and There are many such Jewish houses. And I say to the two sides, enough.”

So the argument goes on endlessly, with far too many on both sides persuaded of the absolute justice of their case. Gershon Baskin, the eternal peacemaker, believes there are pragmatists on both sides and he remains hopeful that Israelis and Palestinians can reach a peace agreement someday. How? Only by negotiating “via a secret direct back channel. So I continue my efforts.”