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From his West Bank Italian villa, Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri calls for peace

Billionaire Munib al-Masri, the richest Palestinian in the West Bank, standing outside his mansion near Nablus, a replica of a 16th century Italian villa. (Ben Sales)

NABLUS, West Bank (JTA) — Dozens of photographs line the wall of a room on the first floor of Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri’s West Bank villa, depicting a man of global influence but also of divergent impulses.

Al-Masri is seen posing with the likes of Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela, but also with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based head of Hamas. Dwarfing them all is a huge portrait of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom al-Masri, 78, refers to as his “great friend” and a “martyr.”

The photos give some indication of the contradictions that swirl around al-Masri, the world’s richest Palestinian. A passionate opponent of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, al-Masri claims not to be bothered by the fact that his sprawling Italian villa on the outskirts of Nablus shares a hill with Har Bracha, whose residents are among the most hawkish of Israeli settlers. (“They know me. We’re destined to live together,” he says.)

Al-Masri claims to spend hours each day working to further the cause of peace, though he declines to do business with Israelis in its pursuit. He blames only Israel for the political impasse and believes Meshal is “very sincere” about wanting peace. And while he speaks of his desire for coexistence, he accuses Israel of killing Arafat and the “Jewish lobby” of buying off Congress.

“Congress is dependent on the Jewish lobby,” al-Masri said. “Bravo for the Jewish lobby. But you must believe it is unjust. This initiative is running away from us because the government of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is beating around the bush without achieving anything.”

Al-Masri’s strategy for helping make peace is unclear. He claims to spend 12 hours a day working on it, though he’s light on the specifics of how he spends those hours, saying only that he meets with and writes to Israelis and Palestinians interested in reaching an agreement. He has endorsed the 2002 Arab initiative first proposed by Saudi Arabia, but its references to the 1967 borders and a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue have made it a non-starter for Israeli officials. Al-Masri has little to say about how he would square that circle.

“This is where the Palestinian state should be recognized,” he said, referring to the 1967 borders that many Israelis consider indefensible. “We’ve been working hard to educate the Israelis.”

Some Israeli peace activists say the effect of al-Masri’s efforts is limited at best.

Gershon Baskin, founder of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, says that al-Masri’s theories on Arafat’s death and American Jewish influence “are commonly held Palestinian views.” Even so, Baskin says, al-Masri’s work hasn’t significantly furthered the peace process.

“I’m not sure I would describe him as a peace activist,” Baskin said. “First and foremost he’s interested in making money and advancing the private sector in Palestine. You don’t find him coming to very many peace activities.”

Though he talks peace as an adult, as a child al-Masri was intent on a more confrontational approach to dealing with his Jewish neighbors. Growing up in Nablus, he saw Arab-Jewish skirmishes erupt into Israel’s War of Independence when he was 14. One morning he woke up to Israeli bombs exploding 30 yards away. Four years later he decided to go to Texas to become a pilot and fight the Israelis.

“When I boarded the plane I became so scared,” al-Masri said. “I said this is not for me, I belong on the ground. I’ll study geology.”

He cultivated a sense for business while in the United States, moving in 1953 from one summer job in Texas to another in Chicago that paid 60 cents more per hour. On “Shabbat,” al Masri said, he patronized Chicago’s Palladium Ballroom, named for the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose designs inspired the building. Awed by its rotunda, he vowed to have something like it for his own.

In 1956, al-Masri returned to the West Bank with two degrees and a wife, Angela, who had eloped with him to New Mexico. Since then he has amassed a fortune first by working in the Jordanian and Algerian oil industries, and then by providing equipment and services to oil companies and investing in a growing Palestinian economy.

It was more than enough to realize his Chicago dream. Now al-Masri, a mop of gray hair fringing his balding head, lives in a sprawling 75-acre property crowned by a 10,000-square-foot replica of a 16th-century Italian villa designed by Palladio. The house has imported French furniture, vast murals, antique dishes and chandeliers. A huge dome tops the villa’s center, while a fountain gushes outside, leading to tiered gardens and panoramic views of the West Bank, Israel and Jordan.

Al-Masri began building the mansion in 1998, at the height of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and finished it in 2002, at the height of the second intifada.

“I wanted to have something to show the Israelis that even with high stress, Palestinians can do things,” he said.

These days, al-Masri is less involved in business. He begins his days with an hour’s walk on his treadmill, then spends his 12 hours working on his peace initiative, promoting Palestinian unity and his philanthropic projects, including building a university focused on agriculture and information technology.

He calls himself “a happy person by nature” and says he no longer has “hatred in his heart.” But though he portrays himself as the optimistic peacemaker, at times the conflict still pushes him to despair.

“I was very angry,” he said. “Now the anger has gone, but sadness has come.”

For a time this year, al-Masri launched a joint effort with Israeli supermarket mogul Rami Levy to promote peace. But al-Masri ended the initiative because although Levy “wants peace in his heart,” he owns stores in Israeli settlements.

Al-Masri also adamantly rejects the idea, touted by Netanyahu and others, that increased business ties between Israelis and Palestinians can build mutual trust and help pave the way for a political settlement.

“It’s very difficult to do business before peace,” al-Masri said. “You have to build a state.”