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The secret talks that won Gilad Shalit's freedom

Three days after his brazen abduction by a small group of Palestinian commandos, Private Gilad Shalit became the subject of secret talks between Hamas and an Israeli activist.

It would take five frustrating years, countless rejections, one war and several false starts, but that secret channel of communications made it possible for Israel and Hamas to agree on a deal for Tuesday's exchange of Palestinian prisoners for the release of now-Sergeant Shalit.

In the beginning

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"He was the first Hamas person I had ever spoken to," said Gershon Baskin, co-chairman of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, referring to the Gaza economist he had met at a conference in Cairo in early 2006. "I was the first Israeli he had ever spoken to."

Mr. Baskin hadn't expected to hear from the Islamic University professor again. But soon after Pte. Shalit's abduction, Mr. Baskin's phone rang. It was the Hamas economist calling from Gaza: "Gershon, we're being bombed. We have no electricity. There's a siege on Gaza. Ever since we picked up Gilad Shalit, our life has been turning into hell. We have to do something. Do you think we can open up some kind of communication?"

"What do you suggest?" Mr. Baskin asked.

"Do you think the father of the soldier would be willing to speak to Haniya?" the professor said, referring to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.

"I said, 'Okay, I'll try to find the father's phone number.'"

About 90 minutes later, Mr. Baskin got a call from Ghazi Hamad, a political adviser and spokesman for Mr. Haniya who would be his Hamas contact.

"I think anyone who looks at my phone bills over the last five years will see that I have more phone calls to Ghazi Hamad than to anyone else in the entire world," Mr. Baskin said, laughing.

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Mr. Baskin then reached Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, and put him in touch with Mr. Hamad. "Since that moment I've been involved," Mr. Baskin said.

Looking back, Mr. Hamad describes Mr. Baskin as a "logical intermediary," someone who "views our position with respect."

Unsure of the best way to approach then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, Mr. Baskin contacted the prime minister's peace-activist daughter, Dana Olmert.

"'I don't think my father will listen to you,'" he recalls of her response. "'But I'm willing to do whatever I can to help.'"

The first message wasn't long in coming: "I got a request from Hamas for a package deal," Mr. Baskin said. "They wanted a ceasefire, they wanted an opening of the passageways [through the border]and they wanted a deal [for Hamas prisoners]on the soldier."

First sign of life

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Mr. Baskin knew enough about such dealings that he asked Hamas for "a sign of life" from Pte. Shalit, but Mr. Olmert wasn't interested.

"'One,' he said, 'we don't deal with terrorists, and two, we don't need a sign of life because we already know he's alive.'"

Mr. Baskin said he told the prime minister: "You might know that he's alive, and you may say you don't negotiate with terrorists. But at the end of the day you're probably going to have to negotiate for his release and you have to know that you have a channel that can deliver the goods."

So Mr. Baskin went to Gaza, met with Mr. Hamad and Mr. Haniya and asked them for a handwritten letter from Pte. Shalit.

They agreed, but when days went by and no letter arrived, Mr. Hamad explained that the Damascus-based Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, had stopped the letter.

Mr. Baskin drove north to the small community where Noam and Aviva Shalit live. "I suggested that they write a letter to Khaled Meshaal, father to father, family to family."

"Noam wrote a very intelligent letter. He had an Arab friend take some quotes from the Koran. We translated it all to Arabic and sent it off to Khaled Meshaal, by fax and by e-mail."

Three weeks later, in late August, 2006, a letter was delivered to the Egyptian representative's office in Gaza. Israel's security service verified the handwriting. It was the Shalit family's first confirmation their son was alive.

"I then received a fax with [Hamas's]written demands," recalls Mr. Baskin. "They wanted 1,500 prisoners released; they wanted the ceasefire; they wanted the opening of the passages."

Israel cuts out and Egypt comes in

Mr. Baskin forwarded the fax to the prime minister's appointed negotiator, Ofer Dekel.

Two days later, he received a call from Mr. Dekel telling him: "You're out. Your involvement is over."

Feeling he must reluctantly comply, Mr. Baskin was surprised to get a call the very next day from Nader al-Assar, consul at the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv. He wanted to meet.

In east Jerusalem a couple of days later, Gen. al-Assar, a senior official in Egyptian intelligence, leaned forward and told Mr. Baskin: "Gershon, don't listen to Ofer Dekel. We need someone independent, we need someone who can transmit messages. This is important that you play this role. … Don't listen to them."

Mr. Baskin has no idea how the Egyptian learned about his situation.

It's worth noting, however, that five years later the Egyptian negotiator who closed the deal between Israel and Hamas in the past few weeks was Gen. al-Assar, who holds the Israel file in Egyptian intelligence.

Dark days

Mr. Baskin and Mr. Hamad kept up their line of communication, kept sending letters and kept talking to people.

By 2007, Hamas's demand was reduced to 1,000, but still Israel wasn't biting.

Israel's 22-day war against Hamas in Gaza came and went. Apparently, Israel knew the whereabouts of Gilad Shalit, now made a corporal, well enough to avoid hitting him in their bombing and artillery attacks.

Not long after the war, Mr. Olmert tried to reach a deal for Cpl. Shalit as part of a ceasefire with Hamas. Mr. Baskin continued to carry messages during those negotiations. It didn't happen.

"Olmert got cold feet," Mr. Baskin said. There were just too many arch-terrorists on Hamas's list of prisoners to be released.

Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a new negotiator and he, too, rebuffed Mr. Baskin and his channel to Hamas.

A glimmer of hope

In April of this year, senior Mossad official David Meidan took over as Mr. Netanyahu's negotiator, and things changed.

Mr. Meidan wanted to meet with Mr. Baskin and use his channel of communications. It had become clear that Mr. Hamad led to Ahmed Jabari, head of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the group holding Cpl. Shalit. The message from Mr. Jabari was that they wanted a deal.

Mr. Baskin was instructed to reply that Mr. Netanyahu wanted a deal too.

Mr. Baskin said: "David Meidan told me that in his first conversation with Netanyahu, before he agreed to take the job, Netanyahu said to him, 'I'm opposed to this deal, I'm opposed to negotiating with terrorists, I'm opposed to releasing terrorists from prison. But there is no other way of getting Gilad Shalit home and it's time.'"

"That is what convinced David to take the file." Mr. Baskin said.

And that's what convinced Mr. Baskin too.

The real deal

Mr. Meidan wanted to know the Hamas position on a 150-page proposal from the Germans, who were attempting to mediate. Hamas replied that five of the most violent prisoners held by Israel had to be included in any exchange.

Mr. Meidan was furious, Mr. Baskin said. "He says, 'Tell Ghazi Hamad I refuse to accept this document, that Israel will not relate to this document, that these names will never be accepted.'"

"I conveyed that to Ghazi Hamad. I think it was the most vocal and difficult conversation we ever had. I kept repeating myself, to make the message indelible. So he would tell Jabari there was no way."

A few days later, Mr. Meidan asked Mr. Baskin what it would take to close a deal with Hamas. He told him to "get a document from them that says on it 'Final Proposal For Closing a Deal.'"

It was something Hamas had never done, never even talked about.

"On July 14," Mr. Baskin said, "they faxed me that document, and it said on it those exact words."

The document demonstrated Hamas's flexibility toward Israel keeping certain arch-terrorists from release and insisting that many of those released be deported.

"With this document in hand," Mr. Baskin said, "David Meidan went to Bibi Netanyahu and said, 'We have a framework for negotiations.'"

Those final negotiations took place in August and September in Cairo.

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