How did a New York-born academic and Jerusalem Post columnist come to play a key role in the most celebrated, and criticized, prisoner swap in Israel's history — the deal to free Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinians?
Since the 1980s, Gershon Baskin, a 55-year-old Jerusalemite, has cultivated contacts among Palestinian academics and civic leaders in the hope of laying the groundwork for an eventual two-state solution.
In 2005, the conflict struck painfully close to home. A Hamas terrorist cell had kidnapped his wife's first cousin, a 55-year-old candy manufacturer named Sasson Nuriel, who was in the West Bank on business. Though Baskin was out of the country at the time, the family asked him to speak to as many Palestinians as he could to try to bring Nuriel home.
It was too late; Nuriel already had been murdered. The incident deeply shook Baskin, and inspired him to do all that he could to help bring Shalit home alive.
In 2006, a year after Nuriel's death, Shalit, then 19, was abducted by Hamas gunman along the Gaza border. Soon afterward, Baskin, who founded and ran the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, got a call from Mohammed Migdad, a professor at the Islamic University of Gaza, whom Baskin had met at a conference.
Migdad claimed he was in contact with top Gaza leadership and said he wanted to do something to stop the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Israel at the time had launched an offensive to halt incoming rocket fire and to try to rescue Shalit. He asked Baskin to become involved in unofficial talks, since Hamas and Israel didn't have official contacts.
So began Baskin's more than five-year involvement in the effort to bring Shalit home. Near the end, before his return home last October, Baskin discovered what many Israelis feared: Shalit's physical and mental condition had deteriorated.
"Shalit was deeply depressed. He basically stopped eating. They tried to force feed him," said Baskin. "Had Shalit been there for another two months, he probably would have died."
The founder of the Israel Palestine Center, a Jerusalem-based, public policy think tank, hopes to write a book about the negotiations and has been speaking around the United States about his experiences, and the lessons learned.
Earlier this month, Baskin appeared at the Gershman Y as part of a program organized by the Interfaith Community for Middle East Peace, a relatively new local group that brings people of different faiths together to discuss religion and the peace process.
In an interview a few hours before the talk, Baskin, who described himself as a "classical Zionist," said that the future of Israel's army depended upon the safe return of Shalit. The father of three noted that he has a son in the army and a younger son who expects to serve in a few years.
"What was at stake here was: Would Israel continue to have an army which is the army of the people?" said Baskin. "I think I'm an average Israeli in the sense that, if the state of Israel would not do everything to bring Gilad Shalit home, including paying that price, then I would have questions as to whether or not I can send my son to the army."
Soon after Shalit was handed over to Israel, Baskin had the opportunity to meet the young man whose freedom he had worked so long to secure.
"When I saw him, he was still very traumatized. He was somewhat dysfunctional, he couldn't look you in the eye and he was very non-responsive," said Baskin. "He was physically weak still, but he's much better now. He has color in his skin now, he gained some weight. He has gotten out. He is getting back to normal."
Baskin, whose involvement in Shalit's release has been reported but not widely publicized, explained in the interview that by September 2006, he had received a handwritten document from Hamas that spelled out an agreement very similar to the one that was reached five years later.
But, he said, the top leadership of both Hamas and Israel weren't ready to cement it. He also said he gave Israelis the first letter signed by Shalit, providing reasonable proof that the soldier was still alive.
Baskin said the Israeli leadership under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert didn't take him seriously and "pushed me out." He said he maintained contacts with Hamas officials, as well as Egyptian diplomats, while other third parties, such as German diplomats, conducted negotiations.
"I was trying to convince the Israelis to listen to me," said Baskin. "For all of 2010, things were completely dormant," he continued, adding that he thought Hamas was inflexible and the Israelis were hoping to free Shalit though a military operation so as not to be seen as rewarding terrorism.
Then a few significant developments shifted the situation. In April 2011, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed David Meidan, an Egyptian-born, retired Mossad official as the main envoy dealing with the Shalit situation. Meidan was eager, or at least willing, to make use of Baskin's contacts with Hamas, he said.
At the same time, he said, following the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, officials in Egypt were ramping up the pressure on Hamas to make a deal.
Shalit's abductors also were pressured by the young captive's declining health, he said.
The pieces all fell into place, leading to Shalit's return home in October.
These days, Baskin maintains that Israel should not talk directly with Hamas until the rulers of Gaza adhere to conditions laid down by the diplomatic Quartet — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. They have demanded that Hamas renounce terrorism, recognize Israel and adhere to previous agreements with the Palestinians.
But that doesn't mean civil society actors like himself shouldn't make contact with group members, he said.
Contrary to the belief of many Israelis, Baskin asserted, Hamas — which is considered a terrorist group by Israel and the United States and is openly anti-Semitic — is much more concerned with pragmatic politics and Palestinian nationalism than pan-Islamic concerns or establishing a theocracy.
"Hamas is seeking legitimacy. They are seeking acceptance by the West," he said.
The Israeli, a staunch proponent of the two-state solution, added that Hamas officials have told him that they recognized the high price Gazans ultimately paid for the abduction of Shalit and that they had made a strategic decision, at least in the near term, to refrain from kidnapping and ransoming Israeli soldiers.
Baskin said that he disagrees with Netanyahu's assessment that the recent accord between Hamas and Fatah represents a blow to peace. He said that Israel conducts all its negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Mahmoud Abbas runs and of which Hamas has never been a member.
"This conflict is resolvable," he said. "That's my bottom line. There is nothing in the conflict that is not resolvable."