NABLUS — Preparing to leave for Gaza as the personal emissary of PA President Mahmoud Abbas to reconciliation talks with Hamas, Munib al-Masri was cautiously optimistic on Tuesday.
“We have no choice but to end the divide,” the 80-year-old Palestinian industrialist told The Times of Israel in a lengthy interview conducted at his Nablus mansion, Beit Falasteen. “Even regarding negotiations, I can’t go negotiate when a large segment of Palestinian society, namely Hamas, is not represented.”
“For me, the most important thing is ending the divide and reconciling. It’s even more important than removing the occupation.”
A former minister in both Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, Masri was recently named member of a five-person PLO team tasked with resolving the standoff between Hamas and Fatah, which began with Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007, a year after winning a landslide victory in national elections.
The Palestinian billionaire, a confidant of the late Yasser Arafat and longtime advocate of a two-state solution, said it was time for Hamas to help salvage the Palestinian national cause.
“Fatah is prepared and the ball is in Hamas’s court. In two or three days, we will see if Hamas allows my delegation to come [to Gaza],” he said.
Masri’s delegation met at his Ramallah home on Monday and decided on the message they will convey to Hamas. “We will tell them: Our national project is in jeopardy. If you remain intransigent you will bear responsibility.”
Formally, Hamas and Fatah have agreed to a unity government composed of technocrats and headed by Mahmoud Abbas, who is to serve both as president and prime minister pending general elections in Gaza and the West Bank within six months. The nomination of Abbas as transitional prime minister was proposed by none other than Hamas’s political bureau chief, Khaled Mashaal, Masri said.
But despite the existence of two signed reconciliation documents, the Cairo Agreement of April 2011 and the Doha Agreement of February 2012, rapprochement has failed to materialize.
Hamas is trying to postpone the vote as much as possible, arguing that PA crackdowns on Islamist activists make the prospect of free and fair elections unlikely.
“They argue that elections will not be democratic or that they’ll be thrown into jail in the West Bank. But we told them: ‘We’ll make everything alright,’” Masri said.
Israel is “shortsightedly” impeding reconciliation efforts, he noted, adding that it does not seem to recognize the benefits of a united Palestinian camp for its own national interests.
“Reconciliation is in Israel’s interest because it will cause Hamas to be your neighbors. You can’t say ‘I only want reconciliation with Fatah and with Palestinians in the West Bank.”
Masri is convinced that Hamas and Fatah could reach common ground on an agreement with Israel, based on his personal involvement in past reconciliation talks.
“I was with Hamas in Cairo on May 4, 2011, and Khaled Mashaal said in front of everybody: ‘I recognize the 1967 borders. I’m prepared to give Abu Mazen [Abbas] a one-year stay for negotiations, and there will be no rocket fire. In other words, resistance will be subjected to government discretion.’ All of this came in the Israelis’ right ear and out the left.”
If it were up to Masri, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would be based on a combination of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s ideas and the Arab Peace Initiative, which official Israel has neglected to debate since it was first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002.
But Masri’s outspokenness on the need for collaboration with Israel (following the end of the occupation, he insists. At the moment, he boycotts all Israeli products) has subjected him to harsh criticism by Palestinians.
A meeting between Masri and Israeli businessman Rami Levy at one of Levy’s supermarkets in the West Bank to discuss the Arab Peace initiative infuriated a Palestinian pro-boycott group in August 2012. An op-ed published this week on The Times of Israel in which he recognized the Jewish connection to the land of Israel unleashed the wrath of groups close to Hamas.
Yet Masri remains undaunted. During the graduation ceremony of a fire extinguishing course for children sponsored by his foundation in Nablus on Tuesday, he was unapologetic about the need for mutual recognition between Israel and “Palestine.”
“We can recreate the coexistence of Andalus (Islamic Spain in the Middle Ages, when Jews and Muslims lived in harmony), but we want our state and our honor,” he said.
Suha Halifa contributed to this report