Friday, 20 April 2018

A lifelong quest for peace

Gershon Baskin’s new book: “In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine” reviewed

Gershon Baskin is a man of extraordinary ability who has not only strong supporters, but also fierce critics.  His new book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, certainly confirms Baskin’s remarkable qualities, but it is not calculated to placate those who oppose the cause to which he has dedicated his life.

Baskin has believed passionately for at least 40 years that peace between Israel and Palestine is attainable provided both have their own state, and he has devoted all his energies in striving to achieve this. The odds he has faced have been formidable, and he has overcome most of them through an awe-inspiring combination of single-minded persistence, unshakeable confidence and invincible optimism. 

Baskin was born in New York in 1956, and reckons he was something of a Zionist from the age of eight.  He came to Israel for the first time in 1969 to celebrate his barmitzvah, and once back home involved himself heart and soul in his local Youth Zionist Movement, Young Judea.  Under its auspices, and later through a new American-Jewish organization, Breira, he began concerning himself increasingly with the Arab-Israel conflict.  The seeds of his subsequent convictions were planted by Breira’s first public statement, which called on Israel to recognize the national aspirations of the Palestinian people by making territorial concessions.  The document was denounced by the governing body of America’s Conservative Jews which declared that Breira was giving comfort to Israel’s enemies.

Not one whit discomforted, Baskin, while still studying at New York University, arranged with a few friends in 1976 to meet the representative to the UN of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  Sustained by his innate chutzpah, he tried to convince the PLO man that if the Palestinians supported the two-state solution, Israel would respond and the peace process could start.

          “Over my dead body” was the response he received, reflecting the unequivocal stance within the PLO Charter that Israel had no right to exist.

From this starting point Baskin charts the slow evolution of his ideas about the  mechanisms through which peace might be established between Israel and the Palestinians.

He started his long journey by spending two years living and working in the Palestinian-Israeli village of Kufr Qara.  During that time he learned to speak Arabic, made many Palestinian friends, and most important perhaps, gained an invaluable understanding, based on personal experience, of what life was like for ordinary Palestinians in post-Six Day War Israel. He emerged with a unique background that was to prove invaluable later in his career. 

Discovering that Israel’s government entirely ignored the matter of Jewish-Arab relations, Baskin wrote to prime minister Menachem Begin proposing such a post and himself to fill it.  Receiving positive feedback from some people in government and a few Members of the Knesset (MKs), he set about an intensive lobbying campaign.  It took fourteen months but finally, with the help of MK Mohammed Watad, the government hired him.  He was the first Israeli civil servant specifically charged with improving Jewish-Arab relations.

Following two years in the army, Baskin next devoted his inexhaustible energy to establishing a new organization – the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI).  In trawling Israeli and Palestinian society widely for members and support, both moral and financial, he laid out the principles that would guide the new body.  The core issue, he insisted, was no longer which people – Israelis or Palestinians – would prevail, but how the two were to live together side by side.

Baskin later found himself involved in secret discussions at the highest Israeli and Palestinian levels communicating between then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.  Years later he was involved in the peace effort headed by then-US secretary of state, John Kerry, engaging with Palestinian Authority president  Mahmoud Abbas, other leading figures in the Palestinian body politic, and the Israeli government . 

But Baskin regards his crowning achievement as the one that culminated in 2011: the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.  Baskin organized the secret back-channels that enabled the discussions to take place, and negotiated personally with several Hamas leaders. It is an achievement that split Israeli public opinion in a serious way.  To secure Schalit’s return Israel agreed to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, most of them convicted of terrorist acts, some of atrocious proportions.  This was a difficult pill for many Israelis to swallow, especially bereaved families.
In his final pages, Baskin, a Jerusalem Post columnist, sets out in some detail his formula for achieving peace. He believes that both the Israeli and the Palestinian people need what he calls the “territorial expression of their identity.”  Israel will never be free from Palestinian violence, he writes, unless Palestinians are free from Israeli domination and control. Expressing only a very occasional doubt about the genuine desire for peace among the Palestinian leadership, Baskin paints an enticing, but not altogether convincing, picture of a possible golden future for the conflict-ridden Holy Land.

Published in the Jerusalem Post magazine, 20 April 2018

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