In the business of peace - U.S. billionaire pursues his dream of Mideast peace
Between meeting in the Knesset with Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon and visiting his friend, President Shimon Peres, S. Daniel Abraham felt like pouring his heart out. The 84-year-old billionaire, who visited Israel earlier this month, says that for the last seven years, since meeting Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Saud - who has since been crowned king - he has not known peace. Abraham's eyes become dewy as he talks about the meeting in Riyadh. That was when he heard the great news: 22 Arab countries had agreed to recognize Israel within the June 4, 1967 boundaries, and were offering it normal neighborly relations, as part of what became known as the Arab Initiative. Abraham recalls that he was moved to tears and told the prince that, being a Jew, he was at loss for words to describe how wonderful it was to hear such a declaration from an Arab leader of his standing.
The successful businessman, who made a fortune from Slim-Fast diet food (in 2000 he sold the company for $2.3 billion), bargained with the crown prince. "There's a problem," he told the Saudi royal. "We can't evacuate the large cities [during the entire conversation Abraham spoke of himself as an Israeli]. But we can give the Palestinians a 100-percent equivalent. He [the crown prince] said within a second: 'That's fine.' I'll never forget that statement," says Abraham today.
For Abraham this conversation was a real eye-opener. After all the years of going from one Middle Eastern capital to another, the U.S. businessman says, he had the privilege of being a witness not only to what he thought would be the end of the Israeli-Arab conflict, but to the acceptance of Israel as a legitimate country.
The next morning Abraham meets me again, after examining Shai Agassi's electric car. He arrives at a cafe on Netanya's beach, wearing stylish jeans and a sports shirt. He asks one of his aides to show me two documents. One described a fascinating conversation Abraham had held with one of Israel's leading rabbis. The second was a record of a meeting Abraham held half a year ago in the United States with a senior, influential Arab figure. The Israeli prime minister himself is very familiar with this document. Without violating the promise to keep its contents a secret, it can be said that it contains a practical, financial proposal for solving the Palestinian refugee problem - an offer even Benjamin Netanyahu would have trouble refusing.
Abraham, who could easily spend the rest of his days traveling around the world in his private plane and on his yacht, says he is still deeply concerned and believes the Middle East conflict must be brought to an end. His life's work, he says, is helping to find a solution for it, and he promises to devote himself to that end until his dying day. On the same evening we met, he was to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to present the Arab Initiative to him once again.
"They say that the Arabs don't miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," Abraham says. "I'm telling you that we don't miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."
In his opinion every day the conflict continues constitutes a crime. In his mind, this country is crazy. Then he asks the rhetorical question of where we wanted to be three years from now - in the third intifada?
Not born a 'dove'
S. Daniel Abraham was not born a "dove." During World War II he fought in Europe, and he was raised on Ze'ev Jabotinsky's (right-wing) philosophy. "I first visited Israel in 1972, when I came on a United Jewish Appeal mission. After two days [of] being there, on the beach in Netanya, I called my wife and said, 'Honey, we're going to sell the apartment and move to Israel.' The next year, we sold our house and moved to Netanya." They lived in Netanya for six years and raised four daughters here.
Abraham began his political involvement in Ariel Sharon's Shlomzion party a year later. He kept in touch with the former premier during the Oslo days, too, although he supported Yitzhak Rabin and Peres, while Sharon became entrenched on the other side of the political spectrum.
Abraham still has definite red lines when it comes to Jerusalem and the right of return. "There are two points where there is no agreement," Abraham explains. "Israel will never give up the Temple Mount to the Palestinians or [anybody else]. It's too holy for us. But we can give sovereignty to God and the nations of the world. We can't give it up, but we can share. Make no mistake: no right of return, not even for a single Palestinian. Once you open the door, Israel will never be Israel." The ambassador said that Abraham was right, and Abraham was amazed. He also suggested that we could give the refugees the settlements located in those areas Israel would evacuate.
Abraham returned to the States in 1978. His dizzying business success left him with a lot of money, time and a desire for political activity. His generous support of presidential and congressional candidates - Democrats, for the most part - opened up the doors of the highest echelons to him.
Abraham says that if Israel could overcome what he sees as an immense lack of understanding in various matters, it would be possible to make peace with the Arabs. He knows there is no peace without an agreed-upon border, and doesn't understand Israelis who think that they're more secure without a border than with one. "I guarantee you: It's much more secure to have the enemy on the other side of the border - if there is an enemy - than to have him inside."
Abraham enlisted Avi Gil, the former director general of the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry, and a confidant of Peres, in the peace effort.
At present, Gil is coordinating Abraham's activity in Israel, including conducting periodical, in-depth surveys. These polls indicate consistent support for the principles of the Arab initiative. Support increases in direct proportion to the guarantee of more comprehensive security arrangements, such as the security fence and American guarantees. The surveys illustrate that Israelis are tired of interim agreements. The public will support anyone who will convince them that giving up the territories, including East Jerusalem, will end the conflict.
"We have to be brave enough to walk into peace," says Abraham. "It takes bravery to go into war, it takes bravery to go into peace. Roosevelt said it so well: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Your friends Peres, Barak, Olmert and even Sharon - are they cowards?
Abraham: "I don't know. It's a politically courageous move to go against 10,000 fanatic Jews. They're very vocal and strong and violent. You've just got to bite the bullet and do it." Abraham says he would go to Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) and exchange the settlements beyond the Green Line for other territories. He would even give Abbas a little more than what he expects to receive. Everything is written in the 2003 Geneva Accords and "The People's Choice" (a peace plan formulated in 2003 by former Shin Bet security service head Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University), says Abraham, and we know that in the end the borders will be based on the 1967 lines - if not today then in a year from now, or in 10 years. He feels it's a shame to waste time and says that peace will increase our potential tenfold. Ten years ago Israel's GNP was a little higher than that of Ireland. But since that country resolved its conflict with Northern Ireland, they are quickly leaving us behind. Today Ireland's GNP per capita is $43,000, ranked 11th in the world, while Israel is in 47th place with $26,000 per capita.
Asked whether Israel should fear Iran, Abraham says that if I want a truthful answer I should consider the money. Although he is no expert on strategy, he is a practical Jew. If Iran attacks Israel, he says, it knows that Israel is capable of striking back with great force and that it will end in disaster for Tehran. He reminds us that the U.S. has said that it will consider an attack against Israel an attack against it. Iran knows that closing the Persian Gulf will endanger it and that the world depends on the region's oil. Therefore, says Abraham, Iran does not constitute a danger. The danger, he says, is that if we do not make peace with the Palestinians soon, a peace that includes respecting their dignity, we'll become a minority in our own country. "The Palestinians want their own homeland. We can't have it if they can't have it. There is a point where the occupier becomes the occupied."
It's unfortunate, adds Abraham, that instead of dealing with serious issues we're busying ourselves with nonsense.
Destroying the PM
When it comes to the various investigations into Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Abrams is no passive onlooker. In January 2004 he bought Olmert's house on 29th of November Street in Jerusalem, and allowed him to continue living in it during a transition period. The State Prosecutor's Office has yet to decide whether to file an indictment against Olmert on the suspicion that he received a favor from Abrams, manifested in a reduction of the rental fee. Abrams' name has also been linked to the sale of the controlling share in Bank Leumi. Olmert is suspected of trying to bias the tender in favor of his associates, Abrams and Frank Lowy, while he was serving as the deputy finance minister.
Would you prefer that the police not investigate the suspicions against Olmert and the press not write about them?
"I don't know of any crime Olmert has committed."
Abrams says that he had an opportunity to observe the police's behavior from up close. "I come back to the [Jerusalem] hotel one night, three months ago, and there are two guys [policemen] in jeans." They said that someone had claimed Abrams had given him an envelope filled with money to give to Olmert, while another time he put the money into a can of Slim-Fast . Abrams asked them: "What, do you think I'm crazy to give out money in envelopes? Money doesn't grow on trees." Abrams agreed to go the police station the next day to meet his accuser. "I felt so sorry for the guy," he says. "He was not coherent, like he was in a lot of trouble."
Abrams didn't recall ever seeing him before. The man claimed that 10 years earlier he had visited Abrams' office on 515 Third Avenue. Abrams replied that his office is located at 519. The man insisted that the office was at 515. He admitted to Abrams that he hadn't seen him put money into an envelope. Afterward he said that he had also visited Abrams' penthouse in Manhattan. Abrams says he never had a penthouse in Manhattan. Then the man said that maybe it was a studio. But Abrams didn't have a studio either. "The police dropped it [the case]," says Abrams. "They realized it was crazy."
"It's a disgrace we put our prime minister through so much stuff," Abrams says. He claims that U.S. businessman Morris Talansky is a fake. "Olmert is one of the smartest, greatest and most dedicated-to-peace prime ministers we've ever had," says Abrams, adding that Olmert is doing everything possible to reach an agreement with Abu Mazen and with Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Lebanese as well. "It's criminal that the Israeli political system nitpicks. We destroy the ability of our prime minister to do his job.?
Abrams then wonders aloud whether it isn?t possible to postpone dealing with all those affairs, and meanwhile let Olmert conduct negotiations with those Arab political leaders who have made a strategic decision to live in peace with Israel. "What more could we expect?" he asks.