On June 25, 2006, militants from Gaza snuck into Israel via an underground tunnel near the Kerem Shalom crossing and abducted a 19-year-old Israeli soldier: Gilad Shalit. In the first days after the abduction, Shalit’s captors demanded that all female prisoners and all minors who are being held in Israeli prisons be released in exchange. They then requested the release of a thousand additional prisoners. But Ehud Olmert, who was prime minister, was fundamentally against negotiating with Hamas, and the conversation between the Israelis and the Gazans ended there.
But while the politicians stalled, Shalit’s image seared itself into Israel’s consciousness. There was the serious teenage Gilad making a point with his hand raised in gesticulation, posted by supporters as their Facebook profile photo. There was the image of the emaciated boy in military garb reading a script to his government from captivity. There was the Gilad Shalit in a checked shirt being grilled by an Egyptian television personality, her questions like lashes at the newly released Gilad, thinner still and white as a sheet.
Over the five years of his captivity, Gilad Shalit became everyone’s child. And, in the end, the task of securing Shalit’s freedom fell not to military officers or politicians or special envoys, but to an outsider to Israel’s close-knit military-political establishment: Gershon Baskin, a peace activist from Long Island who spent 35 years developing relationships with Palestinian leaders. In his new book, The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas, Baskin writes that, before Shalit, he had tried to rescue his wife’s cousin, Sasson Nuriel, after he disappeared in the West Bank, in 2005, to no avail. Nuriel was killed, and Baskin describes his guilt. “I had worked with Palestinians for decades, but all of my contacts had done nothing to save Sasson. I swore on his grave that if ever again asked to help save a life, I would do everything humanly possible to accomplish that mission. I would not rest until I’d succeeded.”
Today marks the second anniversary of Shalit’s return home. His face has now filled out, restoring something of his lost youthfulness. He is studying economics and sustainability, and he has a girlfriend. “I pinch myself every day, that I played this role in saving a human life,” Baskin said by phone from Jerusalem earlier this week. “It’s so amazing that it happened.”
The story of Baskin’s pivotal role in securing the young man’s life is a reminder that, for all the high-level negotiations and delicate offers of prisoner swaps or land compromises that characterize politics between the Israelis and the Palestinians, real progress rests on the strength of the personal experiences and commitments of the individuals involved. While Shalit’s release was ultimately secured by Israel’s release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, it was only Baskin’s commitment that kept negotiations—and Shalit—alive long enough to reach a resolution.
“Many households left an empty chair at their table for Gilad,” Baskin writes in his book. “This became customary over the next five years, not only in Israel but in Jewish homes around the world.” But for Baskin, “Gilad Shalit had become part of my family. I was always conscious of him, wondering how he was doing, where he was being held.”
Baskin made aliyah 35 years ago with the Interns for Peace program, which sent young people on two-year stints working in Arab villages with the goal of fostering personal relationships between Arabs and Jews. “Israelis were always saying to me, ‘You’re a stupid American, you don’t really know them,’ ” Baskin said. “I needed to gain credibility. I needed to be able to speak with authority.” By the time Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, Baskin knew who to call to reach Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’ deputy foreign minister and the man who ultimately brokered the prisoner swap that saved Shalit’s life.
It turned out to be harder for Baskin to gain access to decision-makers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv than in Gaza. “I felt like I was holding a key to a locked door, that so many people were trying to pick, and I was standing here holding the key,” Baskin said. Eventually, he reached Olmert through the politician’s daughter, Dana, a peace activist. Gilad Shalit’s parents, Noam and Aviva, proved themselves to be locked doors. “Noam has called the first two years of Gilad’s imprisonment his naive period,” Baskin said. “They needed to believe that the government was doing everything they could be doing.” Today, the Shalits are, if not friends, then supporters; they appeared at Baskin’s book launch in Jerusalem earlier this month and offered kind words for his work on their son’s behalf.
But early on, Baskin believes, elements in Olmert’s government turned the Shalits against him, ultimately costing their son valuable time. “Whenever I spoke to [Noam] and Aviva,” Baskin writes in his book, “I was made to feel that I was intruding, that my information wasn’t serious. They always told me my Hamas contacts weren’t the decision makers regarding Gilad.”
The turning point came in May 2011, when Benjamin Netanyahu—who succeeded Olmert as prime minister after Olmert resigned amid a corruption investigation—put a Mossad veteran named David Meidan in charge of negotiating for Shalit’s release. By that time, the Shalit family had been sleeping in a tent in constant vigil outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem for two years. The family held a Seder in their encampment. “It was amazing, enormously depressing, to see the family out there with a few of their friends with them to have a Seder on the street in front of the prime minister’s house,” Baskin said. “It has been reported from more than one source that Sara Netanyahu told Bibi that it was time to bring him home.”
Baskin started over again and reached out to Meidan—who, perhaps miraculously, decided to give the American a chance. “Meidan told me later that he realized from working with me that his most important trait over 30 years of intelligence work was his ability to recognize an opportunity, and I came to him as an opportunity.”
No one expected Netanyahu to be the one to get this done, Baskin said. Indeed, it was the opposite—everyone involved was aware of Netanyahu’s strict no-negotiations policy with regard to Hamas. “He’s preached to the whole world that you don’t negotiate with terrorists, and all of a sudden he found himself in a situation where he’s going to do it, he had to do it,” Baskin told me. “Netanyahu came along and went against everything he believed in. He expected a lot more criticism than he got. That shows true leadership.”
Yet the final negotiated prisoner exchange number—1,027—was very close to the Hamas demands at the beginning of the saga, and Baskin feels that Olmert’s stubbornness robbed Gilad Shalit of five years of his life. “It’s not an easy thing for a prime minister to do, to release one thousand prisoners,” he acknowledged. It wasn’t an easy compromise for Baskin, either: One of the many heart-wrenching moments in Baskin’s book is his description of the moment when he discovered that four of the six people responsible for killing Sasson Nuriel—the man whose death inspired Baskin to get involved in the Shalit case to begin with—were on the release list. Nuriel’s widow, Ronit, called Baskin in tears:
My wife spent almost an hour with her on the phone. Ronit was in deep pain. After less than six years in prison, the man who had butchered her husband with his own hands was about to go free. As I saw it, nothing in the world was going to bring Sasson back to the people who loved him, regardless of whether his killer was in prison. But from her point of view, no one cared about her anguish or that of her children.
I called Ronit back and listened with empathy. I really did feel her pain. I told her that if she wanted to write a letter to Netanyahu, I would make sure he received it. She said it wouldn’t matter. Throughout the call I was thinking: I couldn’t save Sasson, God knows I wanted to, but Gilad is coming home alive. We should all celebrate that. But I didn’t say it, because I knew it wouldn’t console Ronit.
Today, Israelis are again being asked to accept prisoner releases, now as a condition of reviving peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Baskin wishes he could be involved—“I have 35 years of experience, a deep knowledge about negotiations,” he said. Yet there are those who still object to negotiating with terrorists at all, and even some who argue it was a mistake, in retrospect, to bargain specifically for Shalit’s safety: After the death last month of a soldier, Tomer Hazan, at the hands of a Palestinian who hoped to free his own brother in exchange for the body, the columnist Shmuel Rosner wrote, “It’s because we celebrated Shalit’s release that we now have to answer for the Hazans’ grief.”
Baskin acknowledges it’s difficult to think in terms of victory when it comes to releasing terrorists. Yet he feels that in Shalit’s case, Israel came out ahead. “We proved both to ourselves and to the world what a special country Israel is, what a value we place on the life of a soldier,” Baskin said. “Gilad became everyone’s child.”
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