Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013...2:34 pm

Editorial: Could peace break out in Israel/Palestine?

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John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, and I were in Israel last week. I didn’t see Kerry — I was in Haifa and Tel Aviv, and he was shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, in his quest to restart peace negotiations. When he left for Washington, he declared that “progress” was made; but the Israeli reporters were highly skeptical of his claim.

Ahead of Kerry’s visit, Gershon Baskin wrote in the Jerusalem Post: “Kerry is expecting to get positive answers from Netanyahu and Abbas today, or in the next few days, and would like to conclude his visit with the announcement of a trilateral meeting of himself with Netanyahu and Abbas, and the beginning of negotiations. It may happen on this trip, but it may take another visit and more intensive pressure to make it happen.”

I talked with Baskin last week, at the swanky American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. He was described to me as someone upbeat about the prospects for a negotiated settlement of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and you don’t find many folks like that in Israel.

We talked first for a bit about his new book, which concerns his role in the secret negotiations between Israel and Hamas to free Gilad Schalit, the young Israeli soldier who was captured on June 25, 2006, and held captive for five years and four months. Our conversation took place seven years to the day that Schalit was abducted. Baskin mentioned that Schalit saw sunlight on one day during that span of time. He was kept underground, literally, and moved from one location to another at night. His Hamas captors stayed with him the entire time; they were sequestered from their families, who did not know if they were alive or dead.

Baskin’s book will come out in an English edition in October, and it will be reviewed in the Jewish World.

Getting back to the idea of peace breaking out in Israel and Palestine, Baskin says that getting a deal done is “not rocket science… I know it can be done. I know what the issues are [from previous negotiations]… The question is: How do you make it happen?”

According to Baskin, who said that he has been involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue for the past 30 years, a successful agreement can only be arrived at through “secret back-channel negotiations.” If the Israeli and Palestinian leaders engage their constituencies in the substance of the negotiations, they will be “demolished” politically, said Baskin.

However, if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “were to negotiate in a secret back-channel and come with a fait accompli agreement, initialed by both sides, and brought to a referendum, or to the electorate on both sides, it will win an overwhelming majority.”

Baskin counts 70 votes in the current Knesset, out of 120, in favor of an agreement to bring peace between Israel and Palestine. “I even counted what’s called — the term I don’t like to use — the ‘Jewish majority’ for an agreement; I counted 61 Jewish votes in the Knesset for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.”

And Baskin, who has been in touch with Kerry’s advisers, told me that there would be an announcement that “both sides had agreed to restart negotiations.”

It didn’t happen last week.

Last Thursday, shortly after arriving in Tel Aviv from Haifa, I took a cab to the Haaretz offices and met Aluf Benn, who was appointed as the newspaper’s editor two years ago. Before that he was the diplomatic reporter for Israel’s newspaper of the cognoscenti. He visited with me at the AJW offices in St. Louis Park, in 2005.

I was eager to get Benn’s take on what I had heard from Baskin.

“He’s an interesting character,” Benn said of Baskin. He characterized Baskin’s approach as “problem solving, rather than just bashing the behavior of the other [side].”

Regarding the secret back-channel negotiation favored by Baskin, Benn responded, “The U.S. never brokered any serious back-channel [negotiation] between Israel and our neighbors — not with the Egyptians, nor with the Palestinians, nor the Jordanians, nor even the Syrians.”

Benn said that the issue of concluding negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians is not a matter of who facilitates what and how, but rather how the leadership on both sides can go back on long-held positions: the right of return to Israel for Palestinians who were dispossessed; and, in the case of Israel, sharing Jerusalem as the capital of both a Jewish and a Palestinian state, and the removal of tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank.

“It’s never been tested,” said Benn, about the outcome from these possible decisions. “And for a reason: It appears to be political suicide and politically impossible.”

Suffice it to say that Benn is not as sanguine as Baskin about a “deal to end all deals.” And then Benn brings in the question of Hamas, the Palestinian faction that rules the Gaza Strip. “Can you bring Hamas on board with that end of conflict, as well? I don’t think so.”

Baskin mentioned that Hamas would be put on the shelf, more or less, as far as a final status negotiation between Israel and the PLO (the negotiating partner established in the Oslo Accords). He said that perhaps there would be a regime change in Gaza, and then the Gazans would be brought into the deal.

A variety of eminent Israelis have told me that the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian negotiated settled are well known, and it’s just a matter of leaders summoning the will to conclude a deal. I’ve been hearing variations on that theme for the past 15 years.

In upcoming issues of the Jewish World, I will be writing stories about the people I met last month in Israel. I talked with political figures and accomplished artists in various fields. It was a busy 10 days, packed with tours and interviews. For example, last Friday I talked with Dror Moreh, the director of The Gatekeepers, the Academy Award-nominated documentary featuring six former heads of the Shin Bet; D.A. Mishani, a book editor and scholar of detective fiction, who writes crime novels — The Missing File was reviewed in the May 24 issue of the newspaper; and Yuval Cohen, a jazz saxophonist and composer, and a member of the 3 Cohens, with his siblings Anat and Avishai. That was quite a day. Then I enjoyed Kabbalat Shabbat in the Jaffa home of Fred Schlomka, who runs Green Olive Tours, and his wife, Sunita Staneslow, a harpist and St. Paul area native.

I returned from the State of Israel with a trove of stories to share. So please keep reading the paper.

— Mordecai Specktor / editor@ajwnews.com

(American Jewish World, 7.5.13)

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