It took more than five years for Israel and Hamas to agree on a deal that would free abducted soldier Gilad Shalit from his Hamas captors, in exchange for releasing Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. During those five years, neither side would elaborate about the secret negotiations being held to secure their release. But as Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem, one man who was key to the negotiations has come out of the shadows to tell his version of what happened.
Gershon Baskin says the deal he helped broker between Israel and Hamas is the pinnacle of his career, and even more than that. "This is the biggest and most important thing I have ever done in my life," he said.
Which is funny, because Baskin was never supposed to get involved in the negotiations in the first place. He's a peace activist, a Long Islander who moved to Israel in 1978. He has a bushy beard and a non-profit think tank, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information.
Baskin has past experience advising two Prime Ministers on the peace process, and he has thousands of Palestinian contacts.
Still, every time Baskin offered to help with the Shalit case, the official Israeli response was "no, thanks."
"I refuse to take no for an answer," said Baskin, in his Jerusalem home. "I will be the persistent pest, and I decided I was going to bring Gilad Shalit home."
In 2006, right after Hamas kidnapped Shalit and Israel responded with airstrikes, Baskin's Palestinian friend in Gaza called, saying that they had to find a way to get things back to normal. He put Baskin in touch with the Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister, Ghazi Hamad, and Baskin got Hamad to talk to the Israeli soldier's father, Noam Shalit.
"Shalit said, 'I want my son, I want to know that he's alive,'" Baskin remembered. "Ghazi told him, 'Your son is well, he's being taken care of, he will be treated well by the Hamas. We will issue our demands to Israel, and when Israel meets our demands, he will be released.'"
It was kind of like in the movies: Hamas demanded ransom — in the form of a prisoner exchange.
But at the time, Israel wouldn't talk to Hamas. Baskin wanted to relay the message to the then-Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. He didn't know the Prime Minister, but he knew the Prime Minister's daughter, Dana, was also a peace activist. She agreed to pass messages from Hamas to her father.
"She said, 'I will, of course I will, but you shouldn't expect anything from him. He's not going to listen. He won't change his mind,'" said Baskin. "I said, 'Let's try.' And as expected, her father's response was, 'We don't negotiate with terrorists.'"
Baskin kept trying — but he got in trouble. Baskin said Israeli intelligence heard Hamas officials tossing around Dana's name. Olmert was furious — and he let Baskin know.
Still, the peace activist persisted. He faxed a list of Hamas' demands to the Prime Minister's official envoy for the Shalit case. The envoy called him.
"He says, 'You're out of the picture now. There are official channels, official tracks working now. Thank you for what you did, we don't need you anymore,'" Baskin recalled him saying.
At that point, the Egyptians had also become intermediaries between Israel and Hamas. Baskin's contact at the Egyptian embassy told him not to give up.
Baskin recalls him saying, "We need someone who is independent, who will be there, who can pass messages. Just ignore him. Keep doing what you are doing."
Baskin kept pushing. A new Israeli envoy took on the case; he also wanted Baskin out. But after two years, that envoy stepped down, and in May of this year, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a new emissary to the Shalit case, former Mossad agent David Meidan.
To make a long story short, Meidan asked Baskin to get something in writing from Hamas. Hamad gave Baskin a document, demanding a release of Palestinian prisoners.
"But in the last paragraph, it had the names of the arch-terrorists. The worst. The baddest and the worst. David said to me, in no uncertain terms, 'Israel will not negotiate on these names,'" recalls Baskin.
Baskin relayed the news to Hamas. "I was very harsh, direct, categorical. They could not expect to get all they wanted. If they were serious about the idea of negotiating, they had to understand, that first thing they had to remove was these names."
And in the end, they did.
On July 14, Hamas sent Baskin a document outlining their final demands for an agreement. The most senior prisoners weren't on the list. Baskin immediately faxed the document to David Meidan.
"David called me back, saying, 'This is exactly what we need. This is a breakthrough.'"
Baskin agreed to help facilitate final negotiations, but Hamas wanted proof that Baskin really represented Israel. So David Meidan typed out a letter, in Hebrew, on a plain white sheet of paper, with the words "private" and "sensitive" on the top.
It's the document that turned Baskin from a freelance nudge with a fax machine, to an official Israeli mediator.
Since the deal was signed last week, Baskin has received a flood of emails from peace activist colleagues, thanking him for proving that the peace camp is still relevant.
And he was all smiles when Ghazi Hamad from Hamas called him on a recent morning. This deal succeeded, Baskin said, because of their rapport.
"Ghazi Hamad and I are friends. We may not agree on things politically, we don't see lot of things eye to eye, but we're friends. And we trust each other. And his happiness today is not just because a thousand Palestinian prisoners have been released. I know that he is sincerely happy because Gilad Shalit is going to be reunited with his family. And that makes a big difference. There's the human element here which goes beyond everything."
Ghazi Hamad declined to confirm Baskin's version of the negotiations, and preferred not to comment on his relationship with the American-Israeli peace activist.
Now, Baskin has his eyes on the big prize: joining the official Israeli Palestinian peace-making team.
"There is no trust between the two parties," he said. "And I guess, that's what I have to do, is work on building trust."
Building trust — one fax at a time.
Gershon with the Hamas document (Photo: Daniel Estrin)
Gershon Baskin on the phone in his Jerusalem home. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)
Israeli newspaper reporting that "Gilad is returning home." (Photo: Daniel Estrin)