Messiah On A Hill

By car they're only 15 minutes apart, but you can't get much further from the West Bank's desperate refugee camps than the summit of Mount Gerizim, on the outskirts of Nablus. The Palladian-style mansion perched there—the home of Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri—houses a staircase imported from Sicily, a Gothic fireplace from Versailles and a glassed-in winter garden that al-Masri says was a gift from Napoleon to Josephine. "This is a Picasso, but it looks like a Goya," the billionaire says with a casual wave. He is unapologetic about the excess. "I could live in New York, Geneva or London," he says. "I prefer Nablus."

That's a rare sentiment, billionaire or not. Israeli and American officials have noted, somewhat smugly, that disillusionment with the Hamas government in Gaza is growing. Less hyped is frustration with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank—a third of Palestinians in a recent poll expressed disgust with both sides. "Palestinians are fed up with all these inexperienced people," says al-Masri. Hamas's boasts of an imminent military victory ring hollow, but so does optimism from Fatah diplomats about this week's Mideast summit in Annapolis, Md. Al-Masri, whose ambitions are as lofty as his Nablus mansion, thinks he's the man to seize that middle ground.

Like a Palestinian Ross Perot, the billionaire recently announced he was forming a movement called the Palestine Forum to challenge the two major Palestinian factions. Third-party politics is nothing new in the Palestinian territories: the current prime minister, Salam Fayyad, is a member of an independent party called the Third Way. But Fayyad was appointed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the aftermath of the Hamas takeover of Gaza and has little popular support. Traditionally, independent candidates have rarely gained traction in a society where party militias are still often responsible for local security, and party leaders dole out patronage jobs.

Al-Masri has a couple things going for him. One is the depth of Palestinian anger. Since its May coup in Gaza, Hamas has been strangled by Israeli and international sanctions, which have driven up unemployment and led to shortages of consumer goods. "If elections were held today, there's no chance Hamas would win," says Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. Even some key Hamas figures have begun to question the wisdom of seizing the Gaza Strip. "We're in a big trap now," says a senior member of Hamas, who didn't want to be identified for fear of reprisals from his own party. "Every aspect of life has gotten worse [since May]." At the same time, Palestinians resent the perceived corruption and cronyism of Abbas's Fatah party.

Al-Masri himself has long been associated with the Fatah establishment. After college in Texas, where he studied geology, he returned to the West Bank and helped found the Palestinian phone company, Paltel, as well as the Palestinian stock exchange in Nablus. In 1990, after the outbreak of the first gulf war,?one of the family companies landed a lucrative contract to supply American troops. Financial success at the time depended on ties to Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat; al-Masri was at Arafat's side as he was dying in Paris and flew home with the PLO chairman's coffin. He then threw his support behind heir-apparent Abbas. "I elected Abu Mazen," he says, using the president's nickname.

Despite those ties, however, al-Masri is widely respected as an entrepreneur and not just a Fatah crony. He promises his new organization will be run like a business—top-down perhaps, but a competent alternative to the chaotic status quo in the Palestinian territories. At least some of the businessman's political tactics—like a?recent speech at a convention of 800 Palestinian hairdressers—seem downright brilliant. "They're better than Reuters," he says with a laugh.

Still, al-Masri's conspicuous materialism may not play well among ordinary Palestinians, particularly the poor, religious camp-dwellers in Gaza. At a private meeting last week of the Forum's steering committee, a member in a crisp gray suit and Windsor knot wondered aloud how much support the movement could claim: "We need to put this to the polls." Al-Masri seemed frustrated with the impatience of his team. "Too early," he said, shutting off the debate. "Listen to me: we're going to put together a master plan—even for when you need to go to the toilet."

Al-Masri, who is 72, knows that Palestinian politics moves glacially—and rarely in the direction of progress. "I'm old for this," he says. "But I refuse to die before I see a real peace." He insists that the only solution to the current standoff is a unity government of the various factions. Then he sighs and steps past an antique tortoise-shell and mother-of-pearl chest. "This is a catastrophe of a hobby," he says with a groan. "It drains you of money." Palestinian politics, he may soon learn, also has a way of draining even the most buoyant politician of his good fortune.

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