Real Estate Magnate Sees a Third Way Leading to Mideast Peace

By Eric Marx

Published December 05, 2003, issue of December 05, 2003.
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As the recently unveiled Geneva Understandings pick up international support — and settler leaders push their own model for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — yet another Middle East peace plan is being put forward. Abe Hirschfeld, an eccentric real estate mogul and senatorial candidate from New York, has a binational plan that, he claims, can bring peace to the region in a matter of weeks.

The peace plan, premised on what Hirschfeld calls the “Tel Aviv-Jaffa model” of Palestinian-Israeli coexistence, calls for a single state called Israel-Palestine — comprising Israel and the territories — with a Jewish prime minister and a Palestinian deputy prime minister working together under a constitution based on the Torah. Under the plan, Palestinians would have full and equal voting rights — unlike the settlers’ plan, which would limit Arabs’ political representation in an expanded Jewish state with annexed territories.

Hirschfeld said at a press conference last week that he was not concerned about his plan undermining Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.

“It will be an Israeli state and the whole world will be coming back to it, and it will be like it was after the war [of Israeli independence] when every Jew was building and walking and creating,” he said. “When there will be peace, we Jews will love to go to Israel. I’m going back the same day.”

Hirschfeld, 84, was born in Poland but immigrated with his family to Palestine in 1934. He found success in business and politics — he was elected deputy mayor of Bnai Barak, near Tel Aviv, in 1946 — and continued to live there through Israeli independence, before moving to the United States in 1950.

Hirschfeld said only a plan based on Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, rather than the separation at the center of the Geneva Understandings, can bring true peace. “We have to eliminate friction in religion,” he proclaimed. “I’m a simple, practical person with a fifth-grade education and I believe in simplicity. It’s such an easy thing, it sounds stupid.”

Yitzchak Findrus, mayor of Beitar Illit, an Orthodox Israeli settlement in the West Bank, spoke in support of Hirschfeld’s plan, adding that the details about how a binational state might operate would work themselves out at a later time. “How to run it? That’s less important,” he said. “The question is what we want to do. We have three choices: Leave Israel and make three divided states, racist transfer and the third way — Abe’s way.”

Findrus concluded, “The only way is to sit together and see how we exist together.”

This is not the first time Hirschfeld has proposed such a plan for Middle East peace; he unveiled a similar plan in 1974, when he was running for Senate. But Hirschfeld had a chance to put his theories about interreligious reconciliation to the test recently, when he was serving a prison sentence for trying to hire a hit man to rub out his longtime business partner.

Hirschfeld said that during his two years behind bars — he was released in 2002 — he brokered a peaceful settlement between Muslim, Christian and Jewish inmates who could not agree on a day of prayer. “I came up with a solution to eliminate frictions between the religions,” he said. “The basis was immediately accepted. There was unanimous support for it. Not 99%. I had 100% support.”

According to Hirschfeld, the lone holdout to his plan had been an inmate who had killed 44 people. This prisoner, who was serving a life sentence, was initially uninterested in reaching any accommodation. But in the end, even this dissenter agreed to the Hirschfeld plan.

“I was so happy because I felt I was able to follow the path of other great leaders sent to jail. Gandhi, Mandela — they got ready to lead their people in jail,” Hirschfeld said at the press conference, to great applause.

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