JERUSALEM | “The Palestinian Rothschild” is just one of Munib al-Masri’s colorful nicknames. A longtime adviser to Yasser Arafat, the now-deceased Palestinian leader, he is today an 80-year-old billionaire with interests in everything from telecommunications to construction to agriculture. The patriarch of a large and distinguished family, he lives in an elegant West Bank mansion inspired by Palladio’s Rotonda in Vicenza, Italy.
At the St. George Hotel in Jerusalem, a short walk from the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, he tells me that he has one overriding interest: peace. He leads an organization called Breaking the Impasse, a forum of “prominent Palestinian and Israeli businesspeople and civil society leaders who believe in the urgency of reaching a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along a ‘two states for two peoples’ solution.”
I’m impressed: I ask him what is required to achieve this dream. He disappoints me: He doesn’t say that Hamas needs to stop firing missiles at Israeli population centers. He doesn’t say that Hamas needs to delete from its charter its vows to “obliterate” Israel and kill all the Jews. He says nothing about Hamas’ insistence that there “is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad” and its unequivocal rejection of “so-called peaceful solutions.” Nor does he offer any criticism of “moderate” Fatah for joining with Hamas in a “unity government.”
Instead, he asserts that the only way to resolve the conflict is for Israel to “end the occupation,” and shut down the “settlements.”
Let’s consider that approach. In 2005, Israel ended its occupation of Gaza. Every settlement (there were 21), every settler (there were about 9,000 — for the sake of comparison, there are more than 1.6 million Israeli Arabs), every synagogue and cemetery was removed. Had Gaza’s rulers responded to this withdrawal by shifting their energies from anti-Israeli “resistance” to economics — e.g., developing the beachfront real estate, attracting foreign investment and encouraging trade — Israelis would soon have been withdrawing from most of the West Bank as well.
Instead, of course, Hamas turned Gaza into a terrorist enclave from which missiles have been fired at Israeli communities — more than a thousand in recent days. In this case, it was clearly not occupation that led to conflict. On the contrary — ending the occupation of Gaza served to escalate the conflict.
It’s also important to remember that when Hamas and similar groups talk about “occupation,” they’re referring to every square inch of Israel. Such rejectionism has a long pedigree: In the aftermath of World War II, the United Nations adopted a resolution recommending the partition of Palestine into independent “Arab and Jewish states.” (In those days, the term “Palestinian” was more frequently applied to the region’s Jews than to its Arabs.) The five Arab nations surrounding Israel not only turned down this two-state solution, they deployed their regular armies to wage what Azzam Pasha, secretary of the Arab League, said would be “a war of extermination and a momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”
In the end, of course, Palestinian Jews successfully defended themselves. Arab states took revenge on the ancient Jewish communities within their borders — forcing them to flee by the hundreds of thousands. Most went to Israel, where they and their descendants are now a majority of the population.
In 1967, Israel’s Arab neighbors again mobilized to push the Jews into the sea. Again, they failed. At the conclusion of what became known as the Six-Day War, Israel held Gaza, which had been governed by Egypt, and the West Bank, which had been administered by Jordan. Worth recalling: At no time had Egypt, Jordan or other Arab countries proposed transforming these territories into a state called “Palestine.”
Over the years since, Israelis have repeatedly offered to withdraw from most of these territories in exchange for a durable peace. Palestinian leaders have repeatedly said no.
Militarily, Hamas is no match for Israel, but it is skilled at manipulating Western media. For example, on July 9, The New York Times accurately reported that an “Israeli barrage followed the firing of about 80 rockets out of Gaza on Monday.” However, that fact was buried deep in the story. The front-page headline misleadingly read: “Israel presses air barrage, and Hamas strikes back.” The next day, The Washington Post carried this front-page headline: “Israel hits Gaza homes; Children and women killed.”
To the extent that’s the case, it’s because Hamas uses women and children as “human shields.” An order from Hamas’ Interior Ministry, translated by Oren Adaki of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, specifically tells Palestinians to ignore Israeli warnings and remain in targeted buildings. On Palestinian television, a Hamas spokesman has repeated that message.
CNN’s Jake Tapper, to his great credit, asked Diana Butto, a sophisticated Palestinian spokeswoman, about such Hamas tactics. She testily replied that to raise such questions is “racist and reprehensible.”
Mr. al-Masri takes a different tack. He tells me that “George Washington also was a terrorist.” Really? On which occasions did Washington target children or use them as shields? At the end of our conversation, Mr. al-Masri invites me and my colleagues to visit him at his West Bank estate. I have no doubt that he would show us extraordinary hospitality. I do doubt whether we will have a productive conversation.
So long as Hamas and other jihadists seek nothing less than the extermination of the Jewish state and people, while Palestinian peacemakers insist that it is for Israelis alone to make concessions, the conflict in this corner of the Middle East is irresolvable. Calling for the “impasse” to be broken is not enough. At some point, both sides have to participate in the breaking.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.