One on One with Munib al-Masri: His Palestinian estate

Munib al-Masri tells about his goal of seeing a two-state solution materialize during his lifetime.

al masri 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
al masri 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'My whole life I've hoped for a two-state solution," says Muntada (forum) founder Munib al-Masri in fluent, slightly accented English. He pauses to speak Arabic to his driver, who is skillfully maneuvering the winding, potholed streets of Nablus - taking us from the neighborhood of Balata back to "Beit Falastin," Masri's majestic mansion at the top of Mount Gerizim. It is a short ride - maybe 15 minutes at most. But the contrast between the squalor of the Balata refugee camp and the splendor of Masri's castle is so great as to make the trip feel like time travel. The divide is as surreal as the sumptuous house on the hill itself, with each of its dozens of rooms lined with furniture and objets d'art from centuries past and countries present. Outside, where one or another of Masri's 10 dogs approaches for a pat on the head from their doting master, the wind is blowing so furiously that it is hard to keep one's gaze focused on the phenomenal panoramic view, extending beyond the speckles of Jewish settlements and Arab tenements to Amman. Yet another example of the East-meets-West paradox of this area in general and of Masri's persona in particular. Like the fact that the self-proclaimed "health freak who walks 10 kilometers a day, never smokes or drinks coffee" has just returned from prayers at his local mosque. (About this he quips: "I have eight stents in my heart - four for Palestine and four for [the late PLO chairman Yasser] Arafat - and there's no room for a ninth.") The contents of the Palestinian palace - which the 72-year-old entrepreneur says he envisioned as far back as his days as a struggling geology student in the United States - have been collected over the course of decades. And though his appreciation for his endless extravagant acquisitions is as clear as the shine on the baby grand piano proudly placed under a large Palestinian flag in one of the foyers, Masri is adamant about not being referred to as a billionaire. "I absolutely hate it when I'm called that," he says, suddenly switching tones from courteous to curt. When asked how he would prefer to be described, he smiles. "I'm a Palestinian," he asserts, matter-of-factly. Nor does he like his less-than-humble abode compared to a museum, though it contains enough original paintings, sculptures and antiques to fill one. "It is a Palestinian home," he insists, as though stating for the record. Which is why, he explains, there is a statue of Hercules smack in the middle of the circular entrance hall - directly below the skylight at the tip of the dome ceiling: "It represents the spirit of the Palestinians, who were said to have come from Crete." MASRI HIMSELF hails from Nablus. The son of middle-class parents, he attended college in America. The BA in geology he received from the University of Texas stands in a frame in his lavish, leather-couched library, next to a large embroidered map of "Palestine" in the shape of the entire State of Israel. It was in Texas, too, where he met his American wife - also a geologist - whom he married in 1954, and then brought back to Nablus when the first of their four children was a baby. (At the time of our day-long interview last Friday, Masri's wife was in London visiting one set of grandchildren. At its close, Masri was heading to Ramallah, where his award-winning documentary filmmaker daughter, Mai, was having a screening.) It was after his return to his home town that Masri, who became an Arafat loyalist, began to flourish in a big way, helping to establish the Palestinian stock exchange, and phone company Paltel, and landing oil contracts in the Gulf States. A virtual history in pictures, spread out on practically every surface of his house, which he began building over a two-year period "just before the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000," tells this story of his family, friends and financial exploits. The late PLO chief - whose coffin Masri accompanied back from Paris - features prominently in this grand gallery. Conspicuously absent among the hundreds of photos, standing on tables and hanging from walls, are Israeli faces, save for a single snapshot, taken in Paris, of former prime minister (and current Defense Minister) Ehud Barak, walking with Arafat and Masri. Masri says that though he "used to occasionally meet with Israelis," he doesn't "have much connection with them now," adding: "But they know me." Who really knows Masri are the Palestinians, however, both those he has helped through his various industries, and those whose support he is courting for the Muntada. "Membership is vertical, so it's a popular forum, including anyone from laborers to professors. The leadership, however, is horizontal, which means there is no one man at the top. After Arafat, it's very difficult to bring back a one-man leader." Perhaps. Though given the reception I observe Masri receiving - first at a meeting with local leaders to discuss the construction of a new health center in Balata donated by the governor of Dubai, and afterward, when visiting the site of the actual building - he might be being a bit too modest. For while he may see himself as merely the forum's facilitator, he is treated with the kind of respect usually reserved for a head honcho. Masri nevertheless insists he has no political ambitions. Which is why, he says, he is considered by both Fatah and Hamas as "the common denominator." To an Israeli observer, this seems like an impossible feat, considering Masri's positions, which include accepting Israel's existence alongside a Palestinian state - something Hamas has rejected, hands down. "We were very close to achieving this - until the second intifada," he says, almost wistfully. "I didn't like the militarizing of the intifada. I thought we should have had peaceful coexistence, like that envisioned by [the late Yitzhak] Rabin, and peaceful resistance - like that of [Mahatma] Gandhi and [Nelson] Mandela. But things went wrong." You were quite close to Arafat, weren't you? Very close. You say that you wanted a peace like that "envisioned by Rabin." What happened, then, at Camp David? Did you think Arafat should have accepted Barak's offer? No, because Barak didn't know the situation. Even [former US president Bill] Clinton didn't know the real situation - the spirit of the thing. They [the Israelis] did not offer Arafat even the minimum that he could accept. What do you consider the minimum that Arafat could have accepted - or that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] could accept now - in order for an independent Palestine to come into being? Just what Arafat asked for. Nobody can really take anything less than what Arafat had proposed at the Camp David summit. Which is what? You know, [UN Resolution] 242 - the thing that we understand 242 to mean: the 1967 boundaries. Twenty-three percent of historical Palestine. And Jerusalem as its capital? And Jerusalem as its capital. Like two capitals for two states. In fact, I think it should be an international city. I think it should be for the whole world. What about the right of return for all Palestinian refugees? Yes, the right of return for all the refugees. This is a negotiated point, however, because some of the refugees might not come. But it should be their right to do so. The right of return to Israel or to the independent Palestinian state you envision? This thing has to be talked about and discussed, but our starting point is the right of return. We need to see [how things unfold]. Maybe some refugees won't want to come, and others would receive some form of compensation. But I think Israel has a moral obligation. The Arab states and the world should sit down and say, "What should we do to bring about an amicable settlement of the refugees?" Were you happy, then, about the Annapolis summit, because it purported to be the jump start of a process leading to peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state? No, it did not fulfill my aspirations, because I thought we had already passed [this phase]. But since I'm an optimist, I say let's give it a chance in the coming year and see what's going to happen. If Israel really is not going to take us and make us dizzy again for another 10 years of negotiations - insh'allah [God willing]. I've been waiting to see an independent Palestine before my death. And I'm refusing to die until I see it. Are you as close to Abu Mazen as you were to Arafat? I'm friendly with Abu Mazen. But with Arafat I had a special bond. Anyway, Arafat made everybody think he had a bond with Arafat. He was a fantastic guy. He is my hero. And, although he did many things, heroes you don't question. I differed with him a lot. I cried with him; I laughed with him. We did all kinds of things together. But he was a phenomenon. His is a legacy which cannot be repeated. Abu Mazen is trying. He's a good man. I voted for him. I support him. And he is doing his best. But really, Israel and the Americans aren't giving him a chance. Really? You don't think Israel and America are giving Abu Mazen a chance? Isn't their backing precisely what is keeping him afloat altogether? Mr. [Ariel] Sharon told them that Arafat was not a partner. Then came Abu Mazen. And Abu Mazen wanted to be a partner, but I think, really, if it weren't for his credibility and for his honesty, the Palestinians would not have liked to see him at all. But Israel's not giving him anything. Israel wants to eat the cake and keep it whole. The Israelis must understand that the Palestinians want to have a dignified life. We haven't had any dignity. Nablus is closed with so many gates. You see checkpoints and roadblocks when you enter Nablus and when you go to Ramallah. It's a mess. It's about time to say, "Let's sit down and make real peace." And I feel sorry for the moderates from both sides who are losing their children for no cause. We just celebrated 60 years since the UN acceptance of a partition plan for Palestine. In retrospect, do you think it was a mistake for the Arabs to have rejected it? Yes and no. At that time, it was not just, because there were one million Palestinians, and very few Jews. But, in retrospect, I wish we had accepted it. So what now? We say that we accept 23% of the land. We accept Resolution 242 - and the French translation, which says a withdrawal from all the land that Israel occupied in 1967, and east Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. We in the Muntada are very realistic. Let's talk about the Muntada. Is it a third-way party offering an alternative entity to Fatah and Hamas? Not really. The entity is already there. It is made up of all the independent Palestinians who have never been in a party. Why haven't they? Because they are not politicians, and maybe some of them didn't like either party. There are a lot of business people, a lot of teachers and a lot of laborers who have never been affiliated with a party. The membership is vertical, so it's a popular forum, including anyone from laborers to professors. The leadership, however, is horizontal, which means there is no one man at the top. After Arafat, it's very difficult to bring back a one-man leader. This is something Abu Mazen can understand, because he has tried to make an institution. But Arafat was trying to create a situation. Our real president, Arafat, was a true revolutionary and a first-class statesman. He had a vision. He did it all himself. And while he was doing it all himself, everybody was happy. He was like a father. He carried the tent all by himself. That was when he was alive. Now he's not. Do you think that's why Hamas became so popular? How do you feel about Hamas? Hamas gained because of its focus on social welfare issues, such as clinics, schools and so forth. And people maybe were tired of Fatah rule. A lot of people who voted for Hamas did so because they wanted a change. Are you saying it wasn't necessarily an Islamic vote? It was partly an Islamic vote, and partly a secular vote. I'm one of the people who told Hamas not to form a government. I told them to have an independent man to serve as prime minister and a Christian woman to become foreign minister. I even gave them names at the time. But, they decided to [do things differently]. I wish they had stayed a legislative council. Maybe they would have done a better job. When you are in the government, you need to show that you have a political platform. But Hamas didn't have a political platform at the time. I was an intermediary between Fatah and Hamas to create a national unity government with all factions of life - to be a government of all of Palestine. Is that kind of unity even possible, if some Palestinians, like you, say you're willing to compromise on the entire territory, and live side-by-side with Israel, while others, like Hamas, say they will never live side-by-side with Israel or compromise on anything? I can live side-by-side, but there should be no compromise. We already gave away 77% of the land, and we say we'll stick to the 23%. We can't compromise on anything less than what Arafat agreed on. But Hamas doesn't even want that, does it? That's why I differ from Hamas. What are your relations with Hamas leader Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh? Do you get along with him? I get along with everybody. They call me the common denominator. They know that I don't have any political ambitions. Don't you? No I don't. Did you ever feel hostility from radicals, due to your willingness to make a deal? I have one deal - 242 and what Arafat asked for. It's so simple. I was referring to your willingness to live alongside Israel. Israelis are my good neighbors, and we can learn a lot from them. But Israel must come to terms with itself. Israel must be brave to say: "That's it. Halas." Have you met with any Israeli leaders? I notice that your extensive photo gallery has only one picture of you with an Israeli - Barak. Yes, Barak and Arafat in Paris. Yes, it might be the only one. I used to occasionally meet with Israelis, but I don't have much connection with them now. But they know me. I'm very simple. We want to live side-by-side. The right vision of Mr. Bush. It's all right with me. A true peace. We don't want to have colonies in the mountains. You see there? [Here he points to a settlement visible from where we are standing on the lawn in front of his house.] They have no business being there. Let's suppose that your vision materialized, would a majority of the Palestinians accept it? If Abu Mazen managed to accomplish what Arafat didn't manage to, does he have the authority from the Palestinian people to make such a deal? [If it's] what Arafat endorsed, he will have it. I think he would ask for a referendum, and I believe people would go with it. That is what the Muntada is working for. And your meetings with different sectors of the public are aimed at getting more Palestinians on board with that vision? The purpose of the Muntada is to help in shaping a true Palestinian - one who has real dignity. Israel is trying to kill our dignity. But we want people to be dignified. We want their children to go to school, young people to go to university and find jobs, and the elderly to lead dignified lives before they die. How can the Forum accomplish that? First, by getting rid of the Israeli occupation. This is No. 1. No. 2, through uniting all the people - Gaza, Hamas, everybody. Third, by starting to improve the lives of the Palestinians. Women, for example. It is very, very important to have women and youth participate, and connect the Palestinians inside with the Palestinians outside. For Palestinians here to have a deep connection with Palestinians in the diaspora. Encourage them to visit. Send their children to summer camps. Bring investments into Palestine. You attribute the Palestinians' lack of dignity to the occupation. Most of their problems are due to the occupation. Yet, you yourself are a success story, financial and otherwise. One assumes you are not the only Palestinian who is. No, there are thousands. So, if individuals are capable of doing what you did, why do you think that others should not be held accountable for their own situation and dignity? Well, I worked very hard in the diaspora. But I will tell you one thing: I would rather we had stayed poor and kept our land than made money and lost our land. Did you grow up in Nablus? Yes. In 1953, at the age of 19, when I was in the US, I envisioned this [he is referring to his house and grounds] and told myself I would come back here and build it. How did you know then that you would be able to afford it one day? Were your parents wealthy? Middle class. But I knew. I worked hard. I worked 16 hours a day when I was on vacation to make enough money to go back to school. I went to school with $300-$400 in my pocket. And I came from university to Nablus with a wife and a baby boy. You say that the Muntada is not a political party. Yes, and I hope I die before it becomes one. If it's not a political party, why does it have a political platform? It doesn't. It's a social lobby. You know how the Jews have a lobby in America. You want to create a lobby to have a say in the decision-making. But, in any case, when you talk about anything, it's politics. When you talk about education, it's politics. When you talk about economic issues, it's politics. Health is politics, as well. We try to be the people's conscience. To bring justice. To make sure there is a fair distribution of money put into agriculture and industry. Speaking of which, where did the billions of dollars that was given to Arafat over the years for the building of institutions go? Well, it came, and we built and built, and thanks to Israel, most of the buildings and infrastructure were destroyed. So you don't agree that Fatah is corrupt and pocketed all the money. Yes, they are corrupt. But you have corrupt people in Israel and everywhere else. I'm not saying I like it. I don't like it, but it's not the main cause of the problem. We want to end corruption, but this only one of the issues and it's not the biggest issue. The biggest issue is occupation, believe me. Do you agree with the assessment that the West Bank is increasingly becoming Hamas-dominated? No, I don't see this. I think that what happened in Gaza [the Hamas takeover] was a bad thing. It was a coup d'etat that a majority of the Palestinians don't agree to. They voted for it. No, I mean they don't agree with what has been happening with Hamas lately - the bloody thing in Gaza. Because we believe in legality and in the legality of electing Abu Mazen president. Democracy. The democratic process. What happened in Gaza was not democratic. That's what we don't like. Especially the Forum. How are you letting the Palestinians know about the Forum? By talking to and meeting with different people. Do you go to the refugee camps? Yes. We were there today. [He is referring to the health center under construction.] We go to urban areas and rural areas. We go everywhere. Outside, too. We go to Amman and Europe and America. Does Abu Mazen approve? Yes, he likes what we are doing. What are the Forum's chances for success? As I said, I'm an optimist. For the past 40 years I've been telling my kids that peace will come within the next two years. By now, they probably think I'm the biggest liar.