One Palestinian billionaire's vision of unity

Al-Masri's new Palestine Forum reflects public desire to reconcile Hamas and Fatah.

Heidi Levine/Sipa Press/NEWSCOM
Reconciliation: Munib al-Masri stands in front of his house in Nablus. The billionaire's new political initiative grew out of disillusionment with the fractious status quo.

Munib al-Masri says if he were smart, he would have retired and moved to Tuscany by now. Instead, the billionaire businessman is using his golden years to launch al-Muntada al-Filistin, the Palestine Forum, through which he hopes to bring his society's warring political faction to a point of national reconciliation.

On Thursday, Mr. Masri's used the nascent forum to create a platform aimed at putting secular Fatah and Islamic Hamas on the same state-building team. Among the main points, the initiative calls for new elections in six months to a year – for both the Palestinian legislative council and the office of the presidency – in what could amount to a move to replace President Mahmoud Abbas. Within two months, Muntada plans to bring together Palestinians at a big reconciliation conference. The initiative also calls for a complete reform and integration of the various Palestinian security forces, which are each allied to different political groups and militias.

"We do not have a magic wand, and the situation is extremely difficult, but the forum's initiative will have to succeed," Masri, a tall, slim and blue-eyed Nablus native, told skeptical reporters yesterday. In a separate interview, he explained why he hasn't retired to Italy, or to England, where his son and wife live.

"This is what I've wanted for a long time. We want to be the conscience of the people. We want to say to the government, to both sides, you are making a mistake," he explains. "We met many people in all the districts of the West Bank, and they are all in favor of this."

The move could not come at a better moment. On Thursday, violence flared again as the Israeli air force struck targets in the Gaza Strip, killing seven Palestinians, including the son of a hard-line Hamas leader. In recent days, Hamas militants have been pounding the Israel town of Sderot with dozens of missiles and rockets, killing an Israeli on Wednesday, and on Thursday, injuring the bodyguard of an Israeli cabinet minister. In the past two days, 17 Palestinians have been killed.

At the root of the initiative is a recent poll, taken by Bir Zeit University, which shows that more than 80 percent of Palestinians want to see Hamas and Fatah reconcile and move on together. Taking this as its mandate, the forum will do what is "difficult, but doable," Masri says. Relations between Fatah and Hamas, hostile for a few years, were severed when Hamas overran the Gaza Strip last June in a violent coup. Militants connected to Hamas, which swept to power in a landslide election just over two years ago, attacked all security forces and posts in Gaza connected to Fatah.

Of course, many Palestinians say they've heard it all before. At an event to launch the initiative, members of the press wanted to know why this would be any different from the Mecca Accord, in which Saudi Arabia brought Fatah and Hamas to an agree in February 2007, only to fall apart soon afterwards.

"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."

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."

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