Miami Beach Man's Millions Thwart Middle East Peace

The bulldozers arrive at dawn on a Sunday. In the inky twilight of this crisp January morning, several bearded men creak open a barbed-wire gate to grant entry to the three Caterpillar machines. For a short while, the men contemplate the darkened and crumbling building among the olive trees. East Jerusalem, in this moment, is quiet.

Then an SMS message in Arabic beams to hundreds of telephones throughout the city: Bulldozers gathered outside the Shepherd Hotel.

Soon car after car of protesters climbs the Mount of Olives, where the Bible says Jesus once wept for the fate of Jerusalem, to find the bulldozers clawing at the abandoned structure. As a nearby mosque's morning call for prayer begins its roll across the arid hills of red and brown, the Palestinians watch the destruction, sleep stuck in their eyes.

A silver-haired city councilman named Elisha Peleg materializes, cocooned in a blue blazer. The Israeli politician, stout and distinguished, squints into the dust and looks pleased. Six months before, the Jerusalem City Council had signed off on razing the building, which once housed an anti-Semitic Palestinian leader named Haj Amin al-Husseini.

"Everyone in Israel wants a united city of Jerusalem!" Peleg booms, fists clenched at both sides, to a throng of protesters and journalists encircling him.

"No!" erupts Dimitri Diliani, a bespectacled Palestinian with a round face patched in scruff. "You are committing crimes. You're nothing more than a modern-looking crook — a fascist criminal — trying to get us out of our homes!"

"This one city is the capital of Israel," the politician replies. "It will never be the capital of another country."

The crowd pulses around Peleg, but it's much too late for protest. The bulldozers hammer the 80-year-old building until little remains of this symbol of Palestinian nationalism except broken slabs of stone and concrete.

The United Nations, the European Union, and President Barack Obama all condemned the hotel's demolition as a lit match arcing into the Mideast's most combustible powder basin.

But neither Israeli citizens, government institutions, nor corporations were behind the Shepherd Hotel melee. Rather, it traced to a profoundly secretive and ruthlessly intelligent Miami Beach resident whom some analysts consider one of the world's greatest threats to Middle East peace and stability. Irving Moskowitz, an 85-year-old recluse and casino titan, purchased, destroyed, and will soon replace the Palestinian heritage and biblical site with 20 apartments intended for religious Jews.

At several pivotal moments over the past three decades, when peace between Israel and Palestine has seemed possible, Moskowitz has appeared with fistfuls of cash siphoned from his California gambling empire. From their white, seven-bedroom Miami mansion on North Bay Road, Moskowitz and his wife, Cherna, have donated at least $85 million to organizations that have spawned some of the most controversial settlements in Israel, a New Times examination of tax records reveals.

With the cooperation of the Israeli government, the Moskowitzes and their allies — including many in South Florida — have helped boost the Jewish population in the West Bank from 10,000 to a half-million.

Now, as Obama returns from a visit to Israel in which he offered fresh criticism of settlements, Israel continues its descent into an uncertain era of possible diplomatic isolation and Palestinian apartheid. And the day may soon arrive — if it hasn't already — when a two-state solution becomes impossible.

If that happens, historians may well look back and say Irving Moskowitz was the reason.

There comes a time of year in urban Milwaukee when the temperature sinks below zero for weeks, the sun sets at 3 p.m., and the iced streets are coated with salt so fine it floats. Six thousand miles from Jerusalem, two boys — one tall, the other short — walk down Ninth Street on such a day. Their destination, North Division High School, isn't for miles. So they begin a game.

"Icicle, do another," one says as they plod through the Jewish ghetto of 1,000 Eastern European inhabitants. Both boys carry baseball gloves.

Irving Moskowitz, then a 14-year-old with sand-colored hair and ill-fitting hand-me-downs, lowers his mitt and begins. He uses the letters from a nearby sign marking Ninth Street to create word after word. "Hint, tree, nine, thin," he says. Then he rattles off several more combinations before his taller friend, Marty Slater, can pronounce even one.

"He used to be able to read all the street signs backward quicker than I could read them forward," recalls Slater, Moskowitz's closest childhood friend. "We think he had a photographic memory. He was taking algebra and trig when we were in the first steps of math. He was just... I hate to call him a genius, because I'm not qualified, but he was that bright."

But there was also a deep, quiet anger inside Moskowitz, who declined to comment for this article. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family of Polish fish peddlers who carted their catch to local markets during World War II. In ethnically German Milwaukee, "Hitler's speeches were on the radio all the time," says Moskowitz's brother-in-law, Aaron Shovers. "You couldn't get a job unless you spoke German. People in Milwaukee wanted to fight on Hitler's side. Hitler was worshiped in Wisconsin."

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Terrence McCoy

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