Gershon Baskin, Ph.D. and Zakaria al Qaq, Ph.D. Directors
February 2000
In December 1987, after 20 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian territories erupted in a mass popular revolt for freedom and for internal societal and political reforms. The intifada emerged from the most dispossessed part of Palestinian society - the refugee camps. The intifada was directed externally against the Israeli occupation, but also internally against the political and societal stagnation that existed within Palestinian society itself.

At that time Gershon Baskin interpreted the intifada in a very different way than was the standard consensual Israeli understanding. Many Israelis were pretty convinced that the State of Israel had devised the ideal occupation. They even termed it 'the benevolent occupation'. They were convinced that the relative calm for 20 years after the 1967 war meant that the local Arab population - as they called the Palestinians, were basically content - certainly better off then Arabs in other Arab countries. The intensity of the intifada shocked them. Gershon Baskin says "I remember an Israeli school teacher saying to me 'how could they do this to us?'.
 I viewed the intifada as the Palestinians standing up for themselves, speaking in their own voice and not waiting for others to solve their problems. I believed that the intifada was essentially the beginning of a new Palestinian political movement that would have to lead to a peace process."

In March 1988, in the fourth month of the intifada, Gershon published advertisements in the 3 main Palestinian daily newspapers. The ads read:

"If you believe in the possibility of Palestinian-Israeli peace on the basis of a two-state solution, if you believe that Palestinians and Israelis can work together on programs of active conflict resolution, if you're a person with initiative, a university graduate, and you're curious - call me".
The ad was published on a Friday morning, by Saturday night, Gershon had received 42 phone calls. He arranged to meet anyone who was interested and during the course of the following week, he met with 23 Palestinians. During those meetings the idea for the establishment of IPCRI - the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information was born. 
The first challenge in establishing IPCRI was in setting the institutional mandate. This was defined as follows: IPCRI is a joint Palestinian-Israeli public policy think tank aiming to aid in the development of Israeli-Palestinian peace based on the principle of self-determination, security and prosperity for all Palestinians and Israelis. IPCRI aims at developing public policy options in cooperation for the political leadership of both sides and to create mechanisms for ongoing sustainable cooperation between both peoples. 

The main principles which guided the established of IPCRI were: 

  • IPCRI would be established as a fully joint organization based on equal partnership and ownership. 
  • IPCRI would be managed by two directors - 1 Israeli, 1 Palestinian and on the basis of full parity. 
  • IPCRI would have a Board of Directors comprised of equal numbers of Israelis and Palestinians, with two Chairmen, 1 Israeli and 1 Palestinian. 
  • IPCRI's work would be constructive in nature, aimed at proposing political policy options that would enhance the mutual interests of both sides. 
  • IPCRI would direct itself at enlisting the support and the involvement of people from the center of both societies and not from the fringes. 
The first task undertaken by the founders was the writing of a document that laid out the parameters for the work of the new institution. This paper attempted to define what were the primary issues in conflict between the sides written in such a way that would find agreement on both sides of the conflict line. This paper then served as the guidelines for the establishment of the center. The next main challenge to be undertaken by the founders was the attempt to institutionalize the organization through the establishment of a Board of Directors. One of the first of more than 100 meetings held was with a prominent member of the Israeli Parliament from the radical left MK Matti Peled. The advice given by Matti proved to be crucial, at least with regard to the Israeli side. He said "if you want to be successful, stay away from me - you have my full support and I am willing to advise you, but if you include me, you will not be successful at enlisting the support of Israelis from the establishment." That advice was very true. 

Enlisting Israelis, while problematic, was easier than enlisting the support of Palestinians. Israel was the dominant society, ruling the occupied Palestinian territories and in general a less centralized society than the Palestinians'. Most Israelis were skeptical about the ability of such an idea to take hold and work, but even more right-wing Israelis were willing to take part if important Palestinian personalities could be enlisted. The main challenge was to enlist Palestinian support. Here the main problem was that the Palestinian leadership was in exile and an Israeli law prohibited contacts with them. Many of the important local Palestinian personalities were either under arrest and in Israeli prisons or very cautious and suspicious because they were all too familiar with the tactics of the Israeli security forces who had attempted to co-opt Palestinian leaders in the past. 

The attempt to convince Palestinians to join in proved, at that early stage to be "mission impossible". Most Palestinian personalities' response was "this is a great idea, but its time has not yet come". Almost a full year was spent trying to create a Board of Directors. A crucial breakthrough occurred when Faisel Husseini was released from Israeli prison. Faisel brought the issue for discussion with other local personalities representing the four main factions that comprised the PLO. Yet one of the four factions refused to support the idea. A meeting was arranged between the founders of IPCRI and some of the leadership of that faction. In the end, while no agreement on their participation was forthcoming, there was an agreement to allow us to work and to prove our intentions and our abilities. 

So on August 1, 1989, one year and five months after the initiative was born, IPCRI opened its doors and began working. IPCRI's first activities were the establishment of three Palestinian-Israeli working groups: one of economists and businesspeople, one of water scientists, and one discussing the future of Jerusalem. All of the working groups held monthly meetings in the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem. All of the groups worked under the agreement that there would be a press blackout. Even several journalists participated in the working groups and agreed to that they would not report about the meetings. There was an agreement that substantive reporting of issues raised could be done, if the working group agreed. One such example related to the inability of the Palestinians to see and review the Israeli army's budget for the military government/civil administration that taxed the Palestinian public and provided services from those tax revenues. An article was written by a member of the economics working group in one of the main Israeli dailies about this issue and subsequently the journalist was given a copy of the budget by the army that he then made available to the working group. 

From the very first meeting of the first working group - on economic issues, it was clear that the basic strategy of the founders was correct. The participants in that group represented some of the most important economic players and economists in Palestine alongside of key officials from the Israeli side, including senior civil servants from the central Bank of Israel, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Economy and even the Israeli military. IPCRI taped all of the meetings and prepared word-for-word transcripts for the use of the participants. People were offered the opportunity to speak off the record as well at which times the tape recorder was shut. But, very interestingly, most people chose to speak on the record almost all of the time. These transcripts became very useful for both sides when formal Israeli-PLO negotiations on economic issues took place in Paris during 1994. IPCRI had successfully created joint forums that were safe and secure for establishment Israelis and Palestinians to begin to learn about each other's positions and to begin to develop new ideas for creating peace between them. 

From late 1989 and onward, IPCRI began writing and distributing what was called "A Political Memofax" that was sent to a select list of about 20 high level officials from both sides. These Political Memofaxes spelled out the concrete ideas that were being discussed and developed in the working groups as well as ideas being developed "in-house". The distribution list included the key players in Washington as well. In 1990, Gershon began being invited by the Research Department of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to give briefings on the ideas being presented and developed. This presented an interesting dilemma for IPCRI. While it was IPCRI's stated goal to influence the policy making process of the two sides, providing official briefings for the Israeli Foreign Ministry seemed to be too much like collaboration with a regime that IPCRI was interested in seeing transformed rapidly into an artifact of history. But the invitation to provide the Foreign Ministry with ideas and data was exactly what IPCRI was seeking to do - have direct access and the ability to influence official decision making. The Foreign Ministry official would begin each meeting by stating: "This meeting is not taking place - if you claimed that it happened, we will deny it completely." The meetings, by the way, were held in the Foreign Ministry itself. When papers were distributed to the Foreign Ministry officials they were accepted by stating: "We did not receive this paper from you!" Such briefing meetings were also held with Palestinian officials as well. After the change of governments in Israel in 1992, such briefing meetings became more regular and were held with the Prime Minister's office and other ministries and were no longer started with the denial of their taking place. 

Throughout its history IPCRI has tried to shape the agenda of Israeli-Palestinian deliberations. When we have many time been told that we are ahead of our times we have come to realize that this signals to us that we are doing the right thing. Taking on issues which are deemed "too sensitive" has also been a guide to us instructing that we are moving the dialogue forward. Yet we also realize that this must be done with great caution, a lot of common sense and always involving highly respected individuals from both communities. In a conflict situation, people are very cautious not to be perceived by their own societies of collaborating with the enemy. Each side of the conflict very carefully constructs its own intellectual boundaries of what is acceptable and what is too risky. Frequent consultations are necessary in order not to overstep acceptable intellectual boundaries, but even here, taking into account that our goal is to shape the agenda, cautious overstepping is recommended. One of the risks involved in overstepping boundaries is that the work may not seem as immediately relevant as you would like. But our experience has shown that if your political assessment is wise, what appears to be less than relevant today will be extremely relevant tomorrow. 

It is also critically important not to be seen as being disloyal to one's own society and political establishment and culture. For us, our primary address or our main constituency or target audience is the leadership and government of both sides. It is their hearts and minds that we are primarily seeking to influence. It is very important to be perceived by them as a valuable asset who's input is sought and respected. Achieving this task is compounded by being a joint institution that crosses the conflict lines. We have found that what would seem to be common wisdom whereby the Israeli director would address the Israeli political leaders and the Palestinian director, the Palestinian leaders, is not always true. Often we have had successes in briefings or in enlisting the participation of leaders by reversing roles. Particularly within our political setting, it is more difficult for an Israeli leader or public figure to turn down an invitation to participate in a meeting, conference or event, if the invitation comes directly from the Palestinian director. The Israeli public figure doesn't wish the Palestinian to think that he is acting against him or is disinterested in peace, so he or she will more often than not accept the invitation. We have exploited this tactic frequently. 

We have found that due to the ups and downs of the political process is becomes necessary to use creative name calling to achieve our goals. For example, during the period of the Netanyahu government when Palestinian-Israeli relations reached one of the lowest points, we had arranged for a group of Palestinian and Israeli police officers to tour police facilities and installations in Germany. A week before the delegation was to travel, President Arafat issued a declaration ceasing all joint delegations of Palestinians with Israeli officials. Facing this dilemma head-on we created a new concept that enabled the police officers to participate in the tour - we called it DTT or Delegations Travelling Together, whereby rather than a joint delegation, there were two separate delegations which happen to be traveling together - in the same plane, on the same bus, in the same hotel and to the same places. Needless to say the trip was a great success. 

Another frequent problem that we face due to the ups and often tragic downs of the political process is the tendency of many people to want to postpone or cancel activities and meetings. From very early on, we adopted a policy of not canceling meetings. Even if it meant having very few participants, we recognized that if we allow the outside political day-to-day events and shifts to shape our agenda, we would very quickly become prisoners of the very agenda that we are working to change. Over the past ten years there have been fewer than 5 meetings, conferences or events that we postponed due to external factors. Even in the aftermath of violence - terrorism emerging from the Palestinian or the Israeli side, we have refused to give in to our own emotional tribulations and have gone ahead with meetings and conferences. The point to be made by continuing with our agenda is often driven home harder under such circumstances. 

But it is difficult to remove oneself entirely from the conflict. We are all a part of it and we are influenced by it - no matter how hard we try to insulate ourselves - outside influences infiltrate our hearts and minds. We ourselves, for a period, fell into the trap of becoming a microcosm of the conflict. In fact, this happened as a peace process began emerging in the region following the signing of the Oslo Declaration of Principles. Zakria's perspective was one of great skepticism about that agreement. He had a lot of criticism of what the Palestinian political leadership had accepted and felt that an interim agreement would work against the national interests of the Palestinian people. GershonI believed that since there was a signed agreement, our task in IPCRI should be to support the official process and work within its frameworks. We found ourselves arguing all of the time. In fact, for more than a year, our office became similar to a battlefront. We were almost not even speaking to each other. About a year and half after Oslo, we held a conference in London where the tensions between ourselves were so apparent that some of our good friends there decided that for the sake of IPCRI they would try to intervene. At what could be called a therapy session for disenchanted married couples, our friends mirrored to us the relationship that had developed between us. We saw that we had become a microcosm of the conflict itself. We found that we both began elaborating political positions to each other that were, in fact, more extreme than those that we really held ourselves. That three-hour long therapy session was a crucial turning point for us. We then recognized that not only the content of our work was important, but perhaps even more important, was the example that we ourselves could become by living a peaceful coexistence between ourselves as true partners. Even if we still have political difference between ourselves, sometimes even significant ones, we have found the ability to confront them and each other without falling into the trap of blaming each other and taking positions that are against our mutual interests. 

In 1996, after the election of Binyamin Netanyahu and a new government in Israel that did not fully embrace the peace process, we were faced with another new dilemma: what should our position be vis-a-vis the new government. IPCRI was founded before there was a peace process and then it was easy to view the Israeli government of that time as our primary target audience. But in 1996, after already getting used to a more sympathetic government in Israel, the arrival of the right-wing government in Israel presented us with new challenges. Throughout the years of the Labour government we had made outreach efforts to the Israeli right-wing, however, we were unsuccessful of bringing even one member of Parliament from the right-wing to meet with Palestinians. Many wanted to but were too afraid of their constituencies to risk being seen with Palestinians. When they came to power, they accepted the Oslo peace process, at least rhetorically. We then had to make a decision about our relationship to the new government. We decided that IPCRI was not in the opposition. We were not established as a protest organization, we do not organize demonstrations or sign petitions. Our job is to work with the government and to try to influence it, regardless of what positions they represent. We want to influence them to support the policies that we develop and advocate. This was a very wise decision. As there was a general breakdown of the official peace process during the Netanyahu years, there was still a need to have contact and to deal with day-to-day problems and issues that were created as a result of the peace process. Ironically, we then found ourselves being "used" by the sides to convene unofficial meetings of officials or UMO's as we call them. We gladly took on the task. This process occurred as the result of our own initiative. 

Shortly after the Israeli elections that brought Netanyahu to power and even before the new Israeli government was formed, we arranged for a meeting of Israeli members of Parliament from the right wing with members of the Palestinian parliament. Initially, we planned the meeting to take place in a Jerusalem hotel, but we encountered two problems: 1 - somehow the press got word about the meeting and were planning to meet us there - something that we were not interested in, and 2, several of the Palestinian legislators did not have permits from the Israelis to enter Jerusalem. We resolved that problem by arranging for the meeting to take place in the home of Zakaria's mother-in-law on the outskirts of the Palestinian city Ramallah. The Israelis were met on the road by Gershon and traveled together in a convoy to the Palestinian area. 

Our relationship with the media has been a difficult issue for us throughout the years. We must be very careful not to allow the media to control our agenda. We have to be in charge of determining when and in what way we want publicity. We have often paid the price of anonymity and of not being able to claim responsibility for our input in the official process. But we have determined that the price is worthwhile. We must be capable of providing "good offices" for both sides, even if it means that we are not famous. We are, however, freer with our exposure in the international media than we are with the local press and television. This is part of the price we must pay for being able to work closely with both sides. This policy of having a low local press profile further complicates our ability to raise funds, because we are not as well known as we deserve to be, however, we try to compensate for that by having a higher profile with the international diplomatic community. For them, we serve as a reliable source of information and assessments for the embassies and consulates and are frequently called upon to meet with foreign representatives of governments concerned with the region. 

One of our main challenges is to walk the "tight rope" of being critical of what the local governments are doing, or not doing, and at the same time, maintaining high level access to them. We are a non-governmental organization straddling two sides of a conflict line trying to influence the decision making of both sides. This is extremely complex. We attempt to tackle this task by verbalizing our critique through constructive suggestions. It is easy to be critical. It is easy to blame the governments for every problem. It is much more difficult and complex to offer alternatives solutions and policy options. It is very important not to be viewed as always taking the position of one side against the other. Criticism must be balanced, as much as possible. This is easier to do with the double identity that we have than if we were only made up of representatives of one of the sides, however, the tendency to take sides is very easy and very dangerous for the general welfare of the institution. Sometimes it is easier to offer criticism of one's own side when it is coupled with a firm critique of the other side. Sometimes it is easier for my Israeli colleague to critique the policies of the Palestinian side and vice versa. But more often than not, it is the task of each side to present the critique of their own side - once again coupled with sound policy alternatives as advice. 

One major advantage that is inherent in an organizational structure that is joint - there is never a need to search for a partner from the other side - it is built in. On any given day, you will find Israelis and Palestinians in IPCRI's office. Every activity is planned and implemented as a partnership. It becomes irrelevant where the sources of initiatives come from, because they are always presented, developed and implemented jointly. The balance in presentation and in the public face of the organization is crucial. This must be taken into account on a daily basis. Furthermore, the balance must be real and not only image. In IPCRI, for example, all financial and management decisions are made together. All allocation of funds are implemented together, with two signatures on all documents. All letters and announcements are jointly signed. This is not the most efficient means of conducting business, but the institution cannot exist in any other way. This also raises the cost of running such an institution - there must be two directors, co-facilitation, joint decision making; this basically doubles the cost for much of what we are trying to accomplish. This is part of the price that must be paid for the success of working together. 

Lastly, it is very important that the two leaders or directors of the institution be equally strong willed people. It is not be possible to succeed when one director overtakes or out-shadows the other. Each must stand on firm ground in terms of their own political and cultural identity. There is no room for people with confused identities or people who do not identify with their own side. If it is to succeed, the institution must not become a new breed of half-and-half people. If the institution is to successfully work on both sides of the conflict, both sides must be represented by the personalities of those who determine the organization's self-identity. Both people must live in their own societies and feel that they are part and parcel of that society. It might be easier to work together if both partners felt alienated from their own societies and countries, however, this will not enable them to have the kind of access necessary to succeed as proponents of alternative public policies. 

The proposals developed must be based on a firm understanding of the primary interests of each side. The challenge is to successfully identify the points at which the self interests of each side cross over or merge with the interests of the other side. The job of the joint public policy think tank then becomes to place a magnifying glass on the intersection of those interests and to develop policy options that accentuate the mutual benefits. Those merging points are often very difficult to see. Many times they only become apparent when looking at the larger picture or by seeing further into the future. Policy makers are often blinded by the pressing and the immediate and have acute myopia with regard to the wider and more distant picture. The job of the joint public policy think tank in a conflictual situation is to help the decision-makers to try on a different pair of glasses - one that will enrich his or her vision.