The establishment of a Palestinian unity government is critical to the success of peace talks with Israel, said Munib Masri, a member of the Palestine Central Council and a billionaire businessman.
“The most important thing is to have Fatah and Hamas agree that they share power,” Masri said in a phone interview today. “Without Palestinian reconciliation, all of this is useless.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in June named Masri to head a task force aimed at bridging the divide between the groups.
Hamas has challenged the legitimacy of Abbas’s West Bank- based government since the Islamic movement seized control of the Gaza Strip from the president’s Fatah party in June 2007 and ended a partnership government.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Aug. 20 that she and President Barack Obama had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas to Washington to meet face to face and formally open a new round of talks with the goal of achieving an accord within a year.
Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were suspended when Israel launched a 2008 military operation in Gaza that it said was intended to stop rocket attacks on its southern towns and cities from the area controlled by Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel.
Issues that have complicated peace talks for years will be on the negotiating table, including the fate of east Jerusalem, border issues, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and guarantees of Israeli security. There are about 4.7 million registered Palestine refugees living in the Middle East, according to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
“The U.S. should be a witness and an observer to the negotiations,” said Masri, who was a confidante of former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. “We went to Oslo and for 18 years nothing happened. The past experience was not productive.” The Oslo peace process granted the Palestinian Authority limited sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Abbas should only attend the talks if they follow a clear legal structure based on UN resolutions that deal with territorial boundaries and the rights of Palestinian refugees, he said.
Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is going to the talks because “he wants to tell the world, ‘look, I went to the negotiations’ and he thinks that by going it’s better than not going,” Masri said. Attending the peace talks could also benefit the Palestinian territories financially, he said.
“He might get further assurances from Obama but the most important thing that made him go is pressure,” Masri said. “The monetary pressure is tremendous and Arab countries are not giving much.”
Palestinian economic growth accelerated to 6.8 percent last year from 5 percent in 2008, according to the World Bank. Growth may slow to 5 percent this year and 4 percent next year if there is no progress in the peace process and only a limited easing of Israeli access restrictions, the International Monetary Fund said in an April report.
Masri, 74, is the chairman of Palestine Development and Investment Ltd., the largest private investor by initial investment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He was ranked the 44th richest Arab, with a net worth of $1.6 billion, according to a 2008 survey by Arabian Business magazine.