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The ‘Messiah on the Hill’

Munib al-Masri, the Palestinian billionaire, wants Bibi Netanyahu to stop being a prisoner to his coalition

Messiah on the Hill. That’s what apparently they call him in the northern Palestinian city of Nablus. The city’s proud son, arguably the richest Palestinian, Munib al Masri is one of the most prolific entrepreneurs in the region.

“I want to see peace here before I die,” said the octogenarian industrialist at Jerusalem’s Notre Dame hotel where I went to see him on the sidelines of a reception for the visiting Lebanese Cardinal.

He was neatly dressed, and greeted me with the same warm smile as when I first met him in 2007 in his Italian Palladian style hilltop house in Nablus. Completed at the start of the second intifada in 2000, the house, Beit Falastin, is a testament to his fortune and the unique Palestinian sumud, perseverance.

When I arrived at the hotel, he’d just started his speech at the mostly Christian gathering to welcome the leader of Lebanon’s Roman Catholic Church, with the Muslim prayer, “Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim.” The crowd clapped. I felt that the people there were convinced by his message of interfaith dialogue and reconciliation.

Later, in the hotel’s cool lobby he offered me a glass of red wine and said, “Let’s celebrate Kerry’s extraordinary effort in the recent peace negotiations.”

I told him that I thought there was a breakdown rather than a breakthrough in the latest round of talks. He said that he believed that Kerry, Netanyahu and Abbas came very close to striking a deal.

“It was a giant step in the right direction.”

Masri believes that although he is in denial, Benjamin Netanyahu knows that he’ll never get a partner as gentle and tolerant as Abu Mazen (Mahmud Abbas).

“Can you give a message to Netanyahu?” He said. I looked up askance from my notebook. “Stop being a prisoner to your coalition.”

“Wake up Israel, wake up!” He said emphatically. “We must finish with blaming each other. Our people had enough, the world had enough.”

I reminded him that there’s deep distrust inside Israel and in the wider world over the Fatah-Hamas deal and the Palestinian unity government. He expressed his exasperation and said that he did not understand how the world could not see that Palestine needs one voice – One Voice.

“The Hamas-Fatah unity is a very positive thing. This is the first step toward reconciliation. Israel cannot just make peace with Fatah and leave Hamas in Gaza. Mahmud Abbas cannot be a peace negotiator for half the population.”

Masri believes that Mahmud Abbas is the only person who can save Gaza from falling into the hands of Israel’s enemies. “Only through Abbas’ leadership can we abolish terrorism.” As soon as the unity government is formed, Masri said that he would campaign for lifting the embargo on Gaza.

Masri has a fortune estimated at one and a half billion dollars. He is one of the co-founders and chairman of Palestinian Development and Investment Company (PADICO), that has over 8000 shareholders and represents 20-25% of the Palestinian economy. A close friend and confidant of Yasser Arafat, he’s become a symbol of hope for many Palestinians. He built his sumptuous house despite the occupation, as if he wanted to show to the Israelis and to the world that Palestinians have the urge and steadfastness to do something like this.

A humble and accessible man, Masri said that he would like to leave a legacy, however small, while in the background, “by heavily investing in Palestine and making small steps towards dialogue and reconciliation with all parties in this conflict.”

The central structure in Masri’s mock 16th century Italian villa is called the Dome of Tolerance and includes tributes to the three Semitic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In recent years he caused controversy by meeting the Israeli businessman Rami Levy in one of the Levy supermarkets in the occupied West Bank. He said that he wanted to repeat his message to Israel that there were many in Palestine, who would be ready to listen.

With that objective in mind, Masri recently met Naftali Bennet, Israel’s Economy minister and leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party.
I asked him what he had to say to Bennet. “I told him that the settlements must go!” I almost laughed at what I took for a naïve joke. He then turned towards me with this request,

“Do you have any contact with (Avigdor) Lieberman (Israeli minister of foreign affairs)?”

“I want a meeting with Lieberman.”

He said that measures are being taken to keep people’s spirit high amid the negative campaign since the Hamas-Fatah deal. Next month an investment conference is set to take place in Gaza.

It is true that many Palestinians are not at ease with his outstretched hand to Israel. They are deeply suspicious of his real motive, which they say may be influenced by his thirst for political power. Although he turned down Palestinian premiership several times, people are not convinced that the Palestinian billionaire is talking about Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation out of altruism. His critics say that as a friend of Yasser Arafat he benefited from special concessions that allowed him to accumulate huge wealth.

But when I saw him this time, I was deeply moved by his youthful exuberance, and his vision for Israel and Palestine to live side by side as good neighbours. He said that it is still possible to sit down and listen to one another’s aspirations and heartaches.

“Do you remember the Rabin and Arafat hand-shake in the Rose Garden?” Masri said. At the time I told Arafat to take Rabin’s hand and shake really hard!”

“I still believe that Netanyahu can forget the coalition for a moment and take Abbas’ hand,” said Masri, as he stood up to say goodbye.

I found it hard to disengage my small hand from the firm grip of an eighty-year-old visionary.

About the Author
Lipika Pelham is the former South Asia Editor for the BBC World Service, a documentary filmmaker and the author of The Unlikely Settler.