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Gershon Baskin
Political and social entrepreneur activist in Israel and Palestine

Keeping Secrets

I know it is really hard to keep aa big secret.  Even more so when you are a politician and you have to publicize your own success so that the public remembers your name. There are people, for instance, in the intelligence community whose whole lives are essentially one big secret.  The sometimes have a second identity. They live in other countries. They meet people and open up contacts with countries which have no diplomatic relations with the country they come from. Okay, politicians are not part of the intelligence community. Sometimes it is even difficult to realize how unintelligent they are.

Secret direct back channels are the juice of diplomacy. They are the hardcore work of diplomats especially from a country which is in a neighborhood where open diplomatic relations are far from the norm. These secret direct back channels are hard to open. They are based on a long process of trust building and can be destroyed by a single leak beyond what is agreed on. I know some diplomats from here and from other countries who have spent their life’s work opening up secret direct back channels. I know people from the intelligence community who have done it too.  They will almost never speak about their work in public, even after retiring.  I have never been a diplomat nor have I worked for any intelligence organization.  I can speak about what I have done in the past.  I have been running secret back channels between Israelis and Palestinians since 1989.  I have run tens of these. Recently a senior member of Knesset from the Likud who I invited to participate in a secret back channel at the request of senior officials from the Palestinian Authority, turned down my invitation stating “In Israel it is impossible to keep anything secret”.  My response based on my experience is that as long as the participants themselves are interested in keeping it a secret, it will remain secret.  At the present time I am running three secret back channels and hope to start another one soon.  I ran a secret back channel with Hamas from one week after Gilad Schalit was dragged off to Gaza in June 2006. Throughout the five years and four months that he was in captivity, there were times when the secret back channel was used by Israeli government officials as a means of transmitting messages to the Hamas leadership. Hamas often used this back channel to pass messages to Israel. From April 2011 until Gilad came home in mid-October 2011, this channel was official and was backed by the most senior officials in the Israeli national security. Prime Minister Netanyahu gave his backing for this channel on the condition that it remained secret. It did and it worked and as a result of it, Gilad Schalit came home.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen just couldn’t keep a secret.  Secret channels are the corner stone of successful diplomacy.  The current relations between Israel and UAE are the result of 30 years of secret direct back channels.  Successful secret back channels always have built into them the necessary deniability that enables the participants to avoid questions and inquiries. The Oslo negotiations were run as a secret direct back channel and whether you think that the original agreement, the Declaration of Principles was good or bad, there is no denying that it would not have been possible to reach a breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians without a secret direct back channel.  The US and the USSR carried out secret direct back channels for years which enabled reaching arms control and arms reduction agreements. The US and Iran carried out secret direct back channels (and are still doing it) which enabled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 which Prime Minister Netanyahu convinced President Trump to withdraw from putting Israel and the world at a much higher risk of a nuclear Iran. That agreement with all of its faults made the world a safer place and limited Iran’s ability to get to where it is today (without the agreement). That agreement would have never happened without the secret direct back channel. The Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement would not have happened without the secret back channel in Morocco between Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Hassan Tuhami. There are so many examples of how secret direct back channels work and how they can eventually transform into direct open channels with full diplomatic relations.

All of the successes of these and many other unknown and unreported secret back channels make it even more difficult to understand why Foreign Minister Eli Cohen had to tell about his secret talks with Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangous putting her life at risk and putting a swift end to this channel that had the potential to lead to something much bigger and important than some secret meetings.  The bottom line is that Foreign Minister Eli Cohen proved that he should not be Israel’s Foreign Minister (or any minister) and if we had a responsible Prime Minister, Eli Cohen would have been relieved of his position in the Israeli government immediately.

 

About the Author
The writer is the Middle East Director of ICO - International Communities Organization - a UK based NGO working in Conflict zones with failed peace processes. Baskin is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to peace between Israel and her neighbors. He is also a founding member of “Kol Ezraheiha - Kol Muwanteneiha” (All of the Citizens) political party in Israel.
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