Munib Al-Masri is an iconic presence in the Palestinian world. After reportedly twice turning down overtures by Yassir Arafat to succeed him as president of the Palestinian Authority, Al-Masri focused his efforts on creating the institutions that would form the infrastructure necessary to support statehood, including the stock exchange, telecommunications company and largest holding company. Attesting to his stature, Al- Masri has been relied upon by both sides as a key mediator in the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation efforts, while his larger-than-life presence is reinforced by the sight of his Venetian palace – House of Palestine - built high atop Mt. Gerizin, overlooking the city of Nablus from its perch 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) high.
The Media Line’s Felice Friedson interviewed Munib Al-Masri at his Nablus home.
TML: Munib Al-Masri, we’re sitting in your palatial home overlooking the city of Nablus. What inspired you to build this magnificent home?
Al-Masri: The story started in Chicago, where I was working in the summer of 1953, and I was visiting a place called “Palladium” – it was a restaurant and dance hall. I was inspired by this beautiful place and I said when I go back I must do something of this sort. It had a rotunda inside. It took me quite a few years to do that, but I collected all the things I wanted to put in this house for over forty-years. We were ready and began digging in 1999, and were finished during the Intifada. We brought a lot of wood, a lot of tiles, a lot of furniture. We brought the collection from more than 40 years from all over the world and we made this place. And Arafat, our president, my hero – he and I called it “Beit Phalastin” – the “House of Palestine.” It was fun building it; it was very very difficult. Sometimes I came to despair because of the occupation, because of the army, because of the checkpoints, the harassment of the Israeli army; but I never gave up the idea. So, in two and a half years we built this place with a rotunda and called it “House of Palestine.”
TML: What was the most difficult situation – it was during the height of the Intifada –you encountered as you built this home?
Al-Masri: The most difficult thing was the checkpoints, and we had to bring things from the ports. We had difficulties that I don’t have enough words to describe. And after we finished it, the Israeli army occupied it for one month and left it in a mess. But we are here and I’m very happy we built this place. It’s fulfilled a lot of what I wanted. I was born on the other mountain, Mt. Ebal, which means ‘mountain of curse.’ But I asked, “What about the other mountain, it’s Jarzim (Gerizim)?” It means “Mountain of Mercy.” So I said, “I will come to Mercy.” And that’s where my neighbors are the Samaritans and the Samaritans believe that the Temple is here; that the Jewish temple is on Mt. Jarzim; and Abraham sacrificed a sheep for Isaac - we say Ishmail - but this is where we are, on top of Jarzim, about a thousand meters above sea level, and it’s been nice.
TML: Munib, a lot of people will look at the wealth your family accumulated and ask, “Where did it all start?”
Al-Masri: I came from a simple family: my father was the sheriff of the town, a mukhtar, they call it. I have 11 brothers; I was the youngest. My father died at 54, when I was a year-and-a-half; my mother was 24 or 25 and she brought us up. I went to high school in Nablus, and in 1949, I went to school in Lebanon for one year when the schools were occupied by the refugees who came from the occupied territory. I finished high school in Nablus and in 1952 I went to University of Texas at Austin and I graduated in 1956. I went [to America] with $200 and in 1956, I came back with a wife, a car and a baby. I worked for Philips Petroleum Company in Jordan and then in Algeria. I worked in oil and gas all my life – I’m a geologist and my wife is a geologist. All my life I worked very hard and I committed the work of 50 years of very very hard work and luck. In 1993-1994, Oslo started and I came with Arafat to Nablus and decided to build this house and to live here.
TML: You’ve created a lot of the infrastructure for a state: a stock market, phone company. What is needed for a Palestinian state?
Al-Masri: In 1994, when we finished the Oslo Accord, we decided – a group of Palestinians from the diaspora – to see how we could make Oslo succeed. Each of us put one million dollars into a company we called Palestine Investment and Development Company – PADICO – and we came here and we said we are not going to compete with local industries and local trade. We said we’ll work on tourism, so we built 5-star hotels. We said we need communications, so we built this PalTel company. We said we need industry, so we have an industrial company. We built industrial zones, industrial parks; and the stock market. We spent the $200 million in ’94, ’95, ’96 in building infrastructure. Now, PADICO controls maybe 25% of the Palestinian economy – we’re responsible for the well-being of 500,000 to 600,000 people. About 30 companies are losing money because of occupation; we have maybe four or five companies making money. One of them is PalTel and sometimes the stock market. It’s been very difficult; there have been a lot of challenges, but we are here to stay. We were looking for a two-state solution and I’m still working for a two-state solution and I hope that the Israeli public opinion and the Israeli government will join us in making this two-state solution a reality.
TML: Munib, since you bring up a two-state solution, Prime Minister Netanyahu has recently made some overtures to President Abbas and for some reason President Abbas says he’s not willing to sit with Netanyahu.
Al-Masri: It’s the other way around…
TML: Why do you think things are stagnant?
Al-Masri: It’s the other way around because Mr. Abbas said you cannot negotiate. We negotiated for 19 years…Israel was building…building. Building settlements; building colonies; building houses…building all over the place. You cannot do this while you are negotiating. Mr. Abbas says – and I agree with him wholeheartedly – he says, “We talk, we stop building completely…he calls them settlements, I call them colonies. But Mr. Netanyahu is insisting to keep building and Mr. Abbas is ready to sit down and negotiate on these terms because the Quartet and everybody says that this, the 1967 border, is the border."
TML: Do you think the Palestinians will ever look past this and try to move forward?
Al-Masri: Yes, but more important is the political solution. Our problem is political, it’s not economical. About what Mr. Netanyahu is trying to say, to move economical measures and this is okay, this is the other side of the coin. But the most important part of the coin is the political solution. We need to know, are we going to have a state? Are we going to have a two-state solution? Like the entire world wants us to do this. 140 nations want to see a Palestinian state. Except Israel. And Israel is pulling America and some Western countries with it. It’s too bad that Israel is not realizing that time is not in its favor; time is working negatively because in a year or two-years’ time, I don’t think there’s room for the two-state solution. What Oslo said; what [UN Resolution] 242 said: Israel must accept 1967 borders; east Jerusalem is the capital for Palestine; west Jerusalem is the capital for Israel; and the amicable solution for the refugees problem. And that Gaza and the West Bank should be connected with a passage of some sort; and we live happily after. We need to do that…I’ve been working for that for 40 years of my life, to realize a two-state solution. We are destined to live together: Israelis and Palestinians are destined to live together.
TML: Things seem to be status-quo in terms of nobody budging. What is it going to take to move things ahead?
Al-Masri: To move things? The will of the Israeli public to say to Mr. Netanyahu, “Let’s have peace; let’s have a just peace.” A peace that’s like a peace of the brave, as they said, a two-state solution. That’s what the Quartet – that’s what everybody wants, except for Mr. Netanyahu and the Likud. And I think that Mr. Netanyahu still is able to make peace with Mr. Abbas. Our president always talks about peace; Mr. Arafat always talked about peace, and we want to see a peaceful solution.
TML: Do you think that President Abbas will, despite your feeling that things have not moved forward the way you’d like, make an overture, try to see if he can move forward?
Al-Masri: He’s doing it every day. We had an audience with him, what we call the independent Palestine forum – this is the independent group of people that are trying to do reconciliation and move things forward. We had a meeting with Mr. Abbas and he said he had used all kind of inducement, all kinds of gestures to Mr. Netanyahu. There’s no movement from Mr. Netanyahu’s side.
TML: What were these gestures?
Al-Masri: The gestures are “We are ready to talk, ready to come to see you – or you’re ready to come to see me – but please say where the Israeli border, the 1967 border is.” Three things he’s asking Mr. Netanyahu: What 242 stipulates, what the Quartet stipulates, what the Oslo Accord stipulates, that the 1967 border with east Jerusalem as its capital; and a very amicable solution to the refugees. Three things he’s asking and that’s it. And Mr. Rabin; late Mr. Rabin, he had accepted, in rough terms, these things. After that, Mr. Barak, Mr. Olmert, we flirted together but nothing happened of this sort. I think it’s time. The time is very opportune now to move forward, but it needs a courageous move from the Israeli public.
TML: The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund disagree over whether Palestinian institutions are capable of supporting statehood. You created much of the state’s infrastructure. Do you think statehood is viable?
Al-Masri: I think so. I think we’ve been ready from maybe a few years back. I think we were ready for the final talk in 1999. And we were promised that we would start talking about the final status, but 13 years have passed and we are in a terrible situation in trying to do what Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Shamir had said at Madrid, that “we’re going to take the Palestinians to the woods and they’re going to get lost for so many years,” - and they succeeded to do that. But the will of the Palestinians is there; we want to have a state. And we hope that the Israelis will – the Israeli public will – realize that it is in the interest of both of us to have a state. We are ready.
TML: What’s still missing? What still needs to be done?
Al-Masri: It’s a courageous decision from Mr. Netanyahu to say, “I want to move forward.” It’s difficult; it’s a decision that could be easily done by the leader. The leader will have to take a little bit of a shock, but the results of having this will be immense. Can you imagine the cooperation between the two states? The Palestinian independent state and Israel? The limit is the sky by cooperating in the region here; outside the region: they can do wonders. And the Arab world; the Arab world and the Muslim world, have given Israel a chance which they missed in 2002, which is the Arab League and the Islamic initiative which was thrown away and we hope that we might try to revive it back with the help of the Israeli public and the Israeli people.
TML: Particularly now, after the Arab Spring and the changes that are going on, particularly in Egypt, and looking around at what’s happening in Syria, do you think it’s most important for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to be solved right now?
Al-Masri: Felice, you’re asking very excellent questions and you have put your finger on the most important thing. I think this is the best time. It took us a long time to take the hatred from the Israelis and Palestinians and the Arabs and Jews in Oslo. And now with the Arab Spring coming, I’m very afraid that this hatred and this feeling will come back again. Most of the Arab Springs will be diverted toward Israel and this will be really, really, very black things coming unless Israelis and Palestinians take things in their hands to say, “Let’s use the Arab Spring to the benefit of the whole region and make peace, as a result of the Arab Spring.” We had enough suffering. As I said before, we are destined to live together. Let’s make the best out of this; let’s make the two-state solution. We could make wonders.
TML: You’ve been involved in trying to bring reconciliation to Fatah and Hamas. Does media have it right? Is there as little progress as they say?
Al-Masri: Well, we made some progress and this progress is in Doha and Cairo, and then we went back. I’m confident the new Egyptian leadership is going to do something to reconcile and bring Fatah and Hamas together because without it the Palestinians will never really have unity and without unity we won’t have a state.
TML: The Palestinians themselves don’t make light of the problems of bringing Hamas into a government with Fatah because of some of the Islamist views. The street is divided. What do you say?
Al-Masri: I think we have this as a beauty about Palestine: we have so many parties like you have in Israel. You have Likud, you have Labor, you have Kadima – that’s what makes democracy. And if the people want to be Islamists, let it be. They can be whatever they want: Independent, Fatah…This is what makes democracy. Israel has to realize that just like they have their 20, 25 parties, the Palestinians are entitled to have their parties. They should not make conditions to say you should not have Hamas in the government. If people want to see Hamas in the thing, then let them have a government with Fatah, and Hamas and independent. So many walks of life. I don’t think it’s a handicap.
TML: Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat was livid at American presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he was here. Are you concerned about a Romney victory in November?
Al-Masri: I think it was shameful that all the candidates who came to this area came to Ramallah except for Mr. Romney. I was hoping he would do it. I had written letters to his party to make sure they should have this candidate come and visit us. But he didn’t do it and he was mis-informed and he was quoting something as if he didn’t know. It’s a shame, really. Very shameful. And then saying that the Jewish culture is superior to the Palestinian culture. Why this is, I don’t know. He compared the GDP of the Israelis around $30,000 and for the Palestinians $10,000 per year. He missed, he added a zero there; it’s really $1,000 to $30,000. He didn’t know and he demonstrated that he was racist in this thing. We want a president to say what is best for this region; what is best for the world; and what is best for America. An American president should be a president of the world. And [Romney] demonstrated [that he was] a very ill-informed candidate. I hope he’ll correct his information. I hope his advisers will do the same. I hope he’s not using the AIPAC [Israel’s American lobby] and the Jewish money and Jewish influence in America to influence his thinking here.
TML: One part of the US election campaign has been “Who is the better friend of Israel?” Are Palestinians concerned that the US has become too one-sided?
Al-Masri: You know, after President Eisenhower and President Carter, all presidents of the United States, their administrations, and Congress is one-sided. We don’t mind to have one-sided, but not to 90%. Give them 55%; give 60% to Israel -- just give us 40% on the balance of things because we are here and we like to be friends of the United States. And so many Arabs are in America and the interest of America is in so many places in the Arab world. Why they would do something of this sort, I don’t understand it. I think it’s very very tough. I blame the politicians; I blame the Congress that they look at their personal benefits and forget about the interests of the United States.
TML: You were reported to be involved with Israeli supermarket mogul Rami Levi in a project that would benefit all residents of the region. What can you tell us about this?
Al-Masri: We hope we can broker peace. I met him; he’s a Likudist; he understood that we need to make peace, and I hope he’d be convinced to adopt what the United Nations adopted, which is 242, and the Arab peace initiative. I don’t want to do business with him, we liked him although he’s in settlements, but he didn’t know. I mean, part of the thing is educating the Israelis that lots of these settlements are illegal land and should go. And I hope that in the process that we’re going to make peace according to the Arab peace initiative.
TML: Are you planning to do any business with him in terms of bringing any Palestinian products into Israeli supermarkets…
Al-Masri: That’s not my business. But my business with him – he said it and I said it – we want to do peace. Without peace there is no business, there’s nothing. Peace is the most important thing and I think, I hope that we’re going to have more talks, more visits to see whether we can broker peace together on the Arab peace initiative. I think that if I was an Israeli I’d take it and run with it because it’s the best that will be ever offered to Israel. To the Israelis I say, the Arab peace initiative says to agree; agree to 1967 borders and the rest of 242 and Jerusalem and the refugee problem – make a solution to them and in return, in the process, Israel will have full recognition, full relationships with 57 Arab and Islamic countries which President Abbas worked very hard to implement this. And I hope they can realize that.
TML: Are you going to be visiting with President Morsy of Egypt?
Al-Masri: I have written him, and I have an answer that the independent group the jumwah, which I have the privilege of being part of, will be going to see him directly after the feast. Mr. Morsy will be a very important element to bring unity to the Palestinians and that’s what we need.
TML: Thank you, Mr. Munib Al-Masri. For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org