A great many diplomats and intelligence officials from Egypt, Germany, France, Turkey and other countries tried for more than five years to broker an agreement between Israel and Hamas for Gilad Shalit's release. Yet the breakthrough in July that led to the deal came from Gershon Baskin, the Israeli co-director of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information. He became the intermediary between senior Hamas officials and Israeli envoy David Meidan.
On July 14, Baskin passed on to Meidan a one-page document from the Deputy Foreign Minister in the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, Razi Hamed. Baskin has been in close contact with Hamed since Shalit's abduction, in 2006. In the document, headed "A Proposal to Finalize the Deal," Ahmed Ja'abari, the head of the Hamas military wing, signaled to Israel for the first time the organization's willingness to demonstrate significant flexibility in its position.
For more than five years Baskin has been involved in efforts to obtain Shalit's release, despite never being asked to do so by the Israeli government and frequently getting the cold shoulder from the military establishment and the Prime Minister's Office.
Three days after Shalit's abduction Baskin received a phone call from a teacher at the Islamic University of Gaza with close ties to Hamas he met at an academic conference in Cairo a few months earlier. Israel had responded to the abduction with a major military operation in Gaza. The academic put Baskin in touch with Hamed, a spokesman for the Hamas government, with the idea of opening a communication channel with Jerusalem.
Baskin, taking advantage of his acquaintance with Dana Olmert, the daughter of Ehud Olmert, delivered messages over the next three months from Hamas to the prime minister via Dana Olmert. "I didn't get the impression that the messages influenced Olmert, and at one I realized he had asked his daughter to terminate contacts with me," Baskin told Haaretz yesterday.
Three months after the abduction went to Gaza and met with Hamed and other top Hamas officials. Their discussions focused on efforts to get a letter from Gilad to his parents, Noam and Aviva Shalit. On September 9, 2006, as a result of Baskin's meetings in Gaza and messages delivered to the Hamas political leader in Damascus, Khaled Meshal, the organization delivered a handwritten letter from Gilad Shalit to an Egyptian intelligence official in Gaza.
Baskin's efforts to establish contacts with Olmert's office were rebuffed on the grounds that Israel was negotiating exclusively via official Egyptian mediators. "Don't interfere with us," Baskin was told. He continued his efforts on Shalit's behalf after Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister. When Netanyahu appointed Meidan, in April, as his special envoy on Shalit's release, Baskin tried to contact him. He asked Pini Meidan, a former Mossad officer, whether he was related to the envoy. "He said he wasn't, but that he knew him and could introduce me to him," Baskin recalled.
Meidan agreed to meet with Baskin. "[He] was cautious at first, and didn't know whether I was serious," Baskin said. Meidan realized the value of the alternate avenue of communication after receiving, and obtaining confirmation of authenticity from the Shin Bet security service, a few messages from Hamed through Baskin.
In the July 14 document, Hamas agreed to accept the release of fewer of the more dangerous prisoners, ones directly responsibly for killing Israelis in terror attacks. After studying the offer, Meidan realized it was a genuine breakthrough. He asked Egyptian officials to mediate between Israel and Hamas, using the letter as a basis for the negotiations.
"Netanyahu created the big change when he decided to move ahead with the deal and bring Shalit home," Baskin said yesterday. "Meidan showed determination and willingness to think outside the box. Hamed displayed courage and commitment, based in part on his empathy for the suffering of the Shalit family and of Gilad," Baskin said.