In the 1990s, Munib Masri served as a minister in Yasser Arafat’s cabinet while repeatedly refusing his offer to become Palestinian prime minister. In more recent years, the self-made energy billionaire, known as the world’s richest Palestinian, has focused his political efforts on inner-Palestinian reconciliation and peace between his people and Israel.
“In my life I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. Everything but peace with Israel,” Masri, 78, said. He is known for saying things like “Israelis and Palestinians are destined to live together” and that the Holy Land is meant for the three world religions “to live together, no matter what. And we want to live together.”
Yet in an interview with The Times of Israel, Masri sounded hopeless and accusatory. He demanded Israel make concessions, while at the same time unapologetically rejecting any Palestinian wrongdoing or complicity in the current diplomatic impasse.
“I see you [Israelis] want to have the cake and eat it too. You don’t want to share the cake. We share the cake,” he said. “You want to give me a crumb like you give it to the dogs. We want dignity, we want to look each other in the eye and say we are real partners, real cousins. We are a real family. Let’s stop the stupidity.”
The recent exchange of letters between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas did not nothing to advance peace, he said. Anyway, it’s all Israel’s fault, he argued.
“We’re at a deadlock because Netanyahu is not moving forward with what we’re calling the peace process,” Masri said. “It’s deadlocked now and it’s a pity to keep it that way because if we left it that way they will be building more settlements and with 600,000 to 800,000 [Jews living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem] it will be even more difficult” to reach an agreement.
“For 18 stinking years, we’ve been talking and talking and talking. And they’ve kept on building settlements and more settlements and more settlements. It’s about time to stop building more settlements and talk [seriously],” he said.
“The United Nations created you and gave you 54 percent and us 46 percent,” he continued, referring to the 1947 Partition Plan to divide the British Mandate of Palestine. The Arabs rejected the plan at the time. “And now we accepted 22 percent. But Mr. Netanyahu is saying, that’s too much for you, take 10 percent. That’s not right.”
‘It will be South Africa, apartheid. The Israelis will be begging for Palestinian Mandela’
For Masri, who was a minister without portfolio in Arafat’s cabinet and later made a fortune in the oil and gas industry — his net worth is estimated at more than $1.5 billion — the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very simple: Israel should accept the Arab Peace Initiative. First proposed in 2002, it promises a normalization of Arab-Israeli relations in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue.
“Fifty-seven countries said let’s do it. That means that all the Muslim and Arab states would recognize Israel, do business with it and normalize relations. The Israeli flag would fly in every capital. What’s wrong with that? I want to ask the Israelis, what more do you want?”
Every other approach to solve the conflict is doomed to fail, according to Masri.
“If the Arab Peace Initiative is not implemented soon, there is no way but a one-state solution,” he said. “There will be one state, a one-state solution, and it will be forever and ever. It will be South Africa, apartheid. The Israelis will be begging for a Palestinian Mandela.”
The issue is extremely urgent, he added: If an agreement leading to two states for two peoples is not signed “within six months to a year,” it might be too late. The Palestinian people might react with civil disobedience or with another violent uprising, similar to past intifadas, he cautioned. “Because you are putting everybody in a corner.”
Masri also said Jerusalem’s demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is out of line.
“Let’s agree that we want to live together. That’s enough. But every day you have a new [demand],” he said. Declaring Israel a Jewish state would make Israel the only country in the world, besides the Vatican, to label itself a religious state, he said. “You do whatever you want, but why do you want Abbas to say it?”
Born in Nablus and educated at the University of Texas, Masri first met Arafat in 1963 and helped smuggle money and passports to his men. The “Duke of Nablus,” as Masri is sometimes called, later briefly served as Jordan’s minister of public works and in 1993 founded Padico Holdings. Today the second-biggest employer after the government, Padico controls the Palestinian telecommunications sector and has large stakes in industry, agriculture, tourism and banking. A well-known figure in the West Bank, Masri built himself a palatial home on a 60-acre plot atop Mount Gerizim near the city of Nablus.
After the 2006 Palestinian elections, Masri established the Palestinian Forum, a party for those disenchanted with Hamas and Fatah. A keen fighter for Palestinian reconciliation, he was asked at least three times to became the Palestinians’ prime minister but always refused.
Yearning for peace with Israel, Masri says he despises violence and killings, and yet he cannot bring himself to condemn Palestinians who resort to brute force as a means of resistance. His own grandson, in fact, was involved in a scuffle with IDF troops last year at the Israeli-Lebanese border, he says.
“He’s crippled now at 22 years old, because he wanted to throw a stone at a soldier,” Masri says angrily. “The soldier was 30 meters away and the stone wouldn’t have touched him. My grandson was going back to the bus when he was shot in the back by a dum-dum bullet. It destroyed his back, spleen and kidney.”
‘I don’t like any kind of violence but stones are not… I’ve never seen a stone killing anyone’
Israeli military sources deny that troops shot directly at protesters on the border last year, as opposed to the Lebanese army, which wounded and perhaps killed some.
While Masri professes to deplore violence, he says his grandson’s stone-throwing was a far cry from the response it elicited.
“I don’t like any kind of violence but stones are not… I’ve never seen a stone killing anyone,” Masri says. “If I saw him today, I’d probably tell him: raise the flag instead of stones. But the Israeli soldier who was shooting, why don’t you tell him he was using excessive force to combat stones? You are the cause of this. He is reacting to your occupation. He cannot go see his land and his people. He wanted to do something and at 22 years old he threw a stone. Now he’s crippled for his entire life.”
Masri likes to see himself as a tolerant, peace-seeking reconciler, but he cannot help but slip in some harsh indictments against Israel even within a seemingly kindhearted message: “I want to say to the Israeli people: You have values, your religion really has lots of values. Let’s have tolerance for each other, let’s stop the misery you’ve been putting the Palestinians in — 64 years of the worst occupation known to history. Why do you want to be like this?”
Masri says he misses former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin — because “peace was in his heart” — but he has little love for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who recently suggested that if Israel and the Palestinians cannot agree on a peace treaty, Jerusalem should consider a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.
“That doesn’t serve peace,” Masri said, adding that Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza “created Hamas.”
“You created the situation in Gaza because you don’t really want to be a good partner. You weren’t a good partner with Arafat and you aren’t a good partner with Abu Mazen,” he said, referring to Abbas. “If you were a good partner, you’d say: I’m leaving; let’s organize our withdrawal.”
“I am sad for mothers on both sides who lost their dear one or whose loved ones were crippled for something that could have been solved a long time ago,” he added. “And we don’t want to prolong it, because it will become uglier.”