One Palestinian billionaire's vision of unity
Al-Masri's new Palestine Forum reflects public desire to reconcile Hamas and Fatah.
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"We reflect the conscience of the people," said Samir Huleileh, one of the panel of seven prominent Palestinians who came to Thursday's press conference. Dr. Huleileh was formerly the chief of staff of Ahmed Qorei, known as Abu Ala, one of the architects of the historic Oslo Accords the Palestinians reached with Israel in 1993. "We reflect the 40 percent of our society which identifies neither as Hamas nor Fatah," says Huleileh. "And the Saudis have regional interests, while we have only the Palestinian interest in mind."Skip to next paragraph
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BUT what pushes the forum's role into the limelight are the strides Masri and his team say they're making toward getting the Fatah and Hamas to soften their positions on whether they would again sit around a table, put the internecine fighting behind them, and move on as a unified Palestinian movement. A week ago, Masri and other members of the forum met with Mr. Abbas, or Abu Mazen, as he is known. Over the weekend, they went to Damascus and met with Khaled Mashal, the "outside" leader of Hamas, and the man considered to be its chief decisionmaker.
"Khaled Mashal has welcomed this," says Hani al-Masri, a leading analyst and a columnist for the al-Ayyam newspaper, who was part of the forum's trip to Syria. Thursday's Palestinian papers, he noted, reprinted an interview Abbas gave with the Al-Hayyat newspaper in London, in which the Palestinian president indicated he was ready to go into national reconciliation talks with Hamas. In the past, Abbas said that Hamas should apologize and essentially "undo" its coup before the two could talk again.
"The fact that Abu Mazen in this interview expressed an interest in putting lesser demands on Hamas shows that we are on the right track," said Hani al-Masri, who is a distant relative of Munib al-Masri.
It's not just that Munib al-Masri's proposal shows he has friends in high places. Rather, he's one of those friends in high places that other Palestinians have turned to over the years. He was a close friend of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and he acknowledges he helped smuggle Arafat out of Jordan after he came into conflict with Jordan's King Hussein in a famous struggle known as Black September.
The family fortune was built on gold, grain production, and olive oil presses. But Masri himself became a geologist. In the post-Oslo era, he founded PADICO, the Palestine Development & Investment Ltd., which employs more people than the Palestian Authority.
Many are watching Masri's move with a mix of feelings: from awe and admiration to skepticism and scorn.
To some, he is a man who is investing his own time, influence, and money in trying to help rescue the dream of Palestinian independence. To others, he's a super successful businessman who is seeking to advance his own interests, and possibly launch a late-in-life political career.
The overlap of money and power, though natural bedfellows, gives many Palestinians pause. "Any reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah which will create a binding knot," says Muhaned Abd el-Hamid, a political analyst here, "[it] will provide an opportunity to have him [al-Masri] as prime minister."
Yet al-Masri insists this is not the launch of a "third way" political party, but more of a lobby for reconciliation and peace. "I have achieved all that I want, except a Palestinian state. And I am a man who likes to finish things."