In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine
By Gershon Baskin
Vanderbilt University Press, 2017
Gershon Baskin’s In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine is partially the autobiography of an American boy who grew up with Young Judea, participated in its Year in Israel program, and shortly afterwards decided to make Aliya.
However, Baskin began reading books that offered a different vision of Israel, books that argued for an end to occupation of the West Bank and for a separate state for the Palestinians. For the next 40 years – including his time in the Israeli army – Baskin engaged in the peace process, mainly by creating ways for Israelis and Palestinians to talk and work with one another.
Evidence in support of that approach comes as, chapter by chapter, Baskin describes the various programs and institutions that he has built, or helped to build, in pursuit of peace – often despite opposition from the Israeli government. By the 1990s, the extent of Baskin’s contacts and the quality of his advice came to be recognized. He was invited to join a secret team in the office of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to provide advice on peace initiatives. Some years later, Baskin became the main link between Israel and Hamas (the Palestinian government of the Gaza Strip) during the five years of negotiations that finally led to the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit.
The last part of In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine shifts from specific institutions and programs to the peace process in broader terms. Baskin focuses on lessons learned, such as the proven value of joint stakeholder mediation teams. He also finds that experience argues against dependence on a third party and in favour of direct Israeli-Palestinian conversations. He argues that past peace initiatives show that protracted conflicts require more than detailing how to start the process – they must also indicate principles for final-status issues.
The most striking chapter in this part of the book relates the tough negotiations between former U.S. president Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to Baskin, the two reached agreement that the United States would block Iran’s ability to become a nuclear power and, in exchange, Israel would meet Palestinian conditions for restarting the peace process. In the end, Netanyahu did not believe that the United States had come through on Iran, so he did not feel obligated by his promise on Palestine.
In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine is a fine book that will help readers understand why it has been so difficult to resolve the conflict. I have to challenge one aspect of Baskin’s perspective, however. The latter part of the book focuses too much on high-level negotiations and too little on the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). (Full disclosure: Baskin and I have known each other since about 1990; we worked together on several Israeli-Palestinian projects.)
For example, EcoPeace is a tri-national (Israel-Palestine-Jordan) NGO that focuses on water and environmental issues in the region. It is wrong for Baski to state that water is among the “issues that have not been elaborated previously.” Five years before the publication of this book, EcoPeace published a draft water agreement that continues to play a role in formal and informal peace efforts.
David B. Brooks is a specialist in international water issues. He is the co-author (along with Julie Trottier, another Canadian) of An Agreement to Share Water Between Israelis and Palestinians, which was first published in 2010, with a revised version in 2012.