Ralph Nurnberger served a long stint as the legislative liaison for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as well as an officer of the General Services Administration and the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Export Administration. In the early 1990’s he left government service to go into lobbying work for organizations including Preston Gates and his own firm, where he now works, Nurnberger & Associates.
Nurnberger has a long, scholarly interest in Congress and international relations. He has taught graduate level courses in these subjects Georgetown University as an adjunct member of the faculty since 1975. He will be teaching such a course on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict this fall.
He is also a long-time friend of former Vice President Gore. As such, he was invited to attend the signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House in September 1993. He sat next to former House Majority Whip Bill Gray and the late Coretta Scott King. Nurnberger shared the optimism of the festivities, believing that a corner had been turned.
In discussions with Gore, Nurnberger was sold on the idea of a non-government organization that would promote private development in the territory under the control of the nascent Palestinian Authority. Thus was born Builders for Peace, which Nurnberger served as its first staff director.
Among the organization’s first projects were a water purification plant that was opened in Bethlehem and a concrete factory in Gaza. Nurnberger doesn’t know if the water purification plant is still in business, but he says that the concrete plant was repossessed by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation that had helped finance it. (My poor notes say that OPIC reimbursed the Palestinian Authority for the plant.)
I met Nurnberger last year when he gave a breakfast talk with the title “Looking back on Hamas and forward to Israeli elections” at the United Jewish Fund in St. Paul. I stuck around after the breakfasat to chat with Nurnberger and he told me one other story about his experience with Builders for Peace that particularly stuck in my mind. I called him back earlier this week to refresh my recollection about it and try to get it straight.
By far the biggest project that Nurnberger worked on in his time with Builders for Peace was a proposed multimillion dollar beachfront Marriott Hotel in Gaza. Marriott had expressed interest. Nurnberger was then directed to meet with Yasser Arafat’s “financial advisor” to obtain authority to proceed with the project.
Nurnberger’s meeting with Arafat’s “financial advisor” was a short one. The “financial advisor” told Nurnberger that he needed $10 million. Nurnberger asked for what. The advisor told him that he needed it for his Swiss bank account. “If you want to do something you need to provide us with funds,” he said. Nurnberger told him that he didn’t have the money and he wouldn’t give it to him if he did. Thus ended the Marriott Gaza project.
Nurnberger left Builders for Peace shortly thereafter and the organization limped on for a few more years before it closed its doors for lack of funds. Nurnberger’s 1993 optimism has been tempered by subsequent events. “I had Arafat wrong,” he frankly acknowledges. He nevertheless still speculates with a combination of enthusiasm and regret what the Marriott project might have meant for the residents of Gaza.
When I spoke with Nurnberger on Monday he concluded with an observation based on his own experience: “People who think that if we support Fatah we will somehow create [a benign] Fatahland are deluding themselves.”
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