[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]
July 9, 2006
This week in Israel….. behind the news with Gershon Baskin
On June 15, I published a call for a bilateral ceasefire that was aimed at preventing the escalation that we are witnessing now. The call was published in Ynet in English on June 15, 2006 (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3263177,00.html) . I decided to go public with the call after becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress of behind the scenes attempts to get the sides, with the assistance of Egypt, to agree to the terms which included a full Israeli cessation of shelling Gaza, a cessation of all targeted killings and a cessation of the massive arrest campaigns in the West Bank which often lead to deaths. According to the initiative, the Palestinians would have been required to enforce a cessation of all Qassam rockets and all other acts of aggression – to be enforced by the Palestinian President and the Prime Minister together on all factions. The call for the ceasefire was made prior to the attack on the Kerem Shalom base and the kidnapping of Gilead Shalit. The responses that I received from all sides were hesitant. The mutual suspicions of all sides prevented the initiative from making progress and without the active role of Egypt using diplomatic finesse it was not possible to reach an agreement, although all sides indicated interest in the initiative.
After the Kerem Shalom attack and the kidnapping of the soldier, Ynet decided to publish the call for the ceasefire in Hebrew on the day of the attack (http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3267143,00.html) – even though they had the piece two weeks before. After the kidnapping it seemed to me that linking a prisoner release to a ceasefire was the best way to find a rapid end to the kidnapping crisis. Rather than releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the kidnapped soldier, prisoners would be released in the framework of a bilateral ceasefire. The number of Palestinian prisoners released could be linked to the degree that the ceasefire is enforced.
Over the weekend, Israeli Minister of Internal Security, Avi Dichter, the former head of the Shin Bet, also called for a prisoner release in exchange for a cessation of violence and a release of Shalit. The Israeli Prime Minister’s office was quick to respond that there would be no prisoner release and no talk of a prisoner release until Shalit is released – unconditionally. Over the weekend, the Shalit family also called on the Israeli government to negotiate the release of their son in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. The demands of the Hamas, which began with a release of all women and children prisoners, numbering more than 400 plus an additional 1000 prisoners, came down dramatically. Reports in the news now speak about several hundreds and not more.
An editorial in one of the Palestinian newspapers yesterday called on the kidnappers to relieve the Palestinians of the suffering caused by the kidnapping. Even though the Palestinian public strongly supports a prisoner release in exchange for Shalit, there is a growing sense on the Palestinian side that they need to find a speedy solution for the crisis.
I was away in Europe most of last week attending an Israeli-Palestinian conference on Jerusalem. From the tranquility of Switzerland I received repeated phone calls from a friend in Gaza who is very close to Hamas. He wanted me to speak to some of the Hamas ministers to try to convince them to use their influence to release Shalit. The same person tried to organize a phone call, though me, between Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Prime Minister and the Shalit family. I used some media contacts to get the phone number of the Shalit family and I waited for my friend in Gaza to receive a positive response from Haniyeh. All of the phones of the Hamas ministers and the Prime Minister are closed and all of them are underground trying to protect themselves from Israeli attacks. My friend left messages all over Gaza for the Hamas ministers and for Haniyeh, but thus far there has been no progress.
It seems that even Khaled Mashal, the head of the Hamas politburo in Damascus, is behind the most recent call of Haniyeh for a ceasefire. Israel’s response to Haniyeh’s call have been negative. Speaking on IDF radio this morning, Minister of Justice Haim Ramon said that the Palestinians must release Shalit and cease all attacks against Israel and then Israel would also cease it attacks, without any negotiations. This will not work. Without a more formal agreement that would include the commitment of Israel to cease all attacks, including targeted killings and massive arrest campaigns, nothing will have a chance of holding. Without any formal channel of contact between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Egyptians and or others such as Turkey, must play and active and constructive role in reaching an agreement. The agreement must also include some kind of prisoner release, including the release of the Hamas government Ministers and MP’s being held by Israel. It just won’t work without it.
My friend in Gaza told me that the Hamas leadership does not want to harm Shalit and is searching for an honorable way to return him to his family. This must now be the primary interest of the Government of Israel. I will continue my behind the scenes attempts to get people to talk with each other, but there must be a more formal and diplomatic channel for producing real results.
International pressure on Israel has been quite mild. There will be increasing pressure on Israel as each day passes without a resolution of the crisis. Israel is morally correct in demanding the unconditional release of Shalit. On the other hand, Israel must also entertain the need to reach a cease fire agreement with the Palestinians that will put a complete end to the current crisis. Palestinian President Abbas has not been effective in securing agreements from Hamas to release Shalit and to end the Qassam rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza. Abbas’ committeemen to a diplomatic solution must be appreciated by Israel though an agreement to facilitate the ceasefire with Hamas through Abbas. This is Israel’s chance to empower Abbas and to re-engage the Palestinians in a dialogue that can lead to ending the crisis and getting back to diplomatic channel.
Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. www.ipcri.org