Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Mahmoud Abbas Is History’s Most Stubborn Real Estate Holdout

And Donald Trump knows ‘The Art of the Deal.’ Who will blink first?

Lee Smith
May 09, 2017
Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Refusing to make a deal: hero or fool? November, 2012, in Wenling, in eastern China's Zhejiang province.Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Refusing to make a deal: hero or fool? November, 2012, in Wenling, in eastern China's Zhejiang province.Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

A comprehensive and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is the deal to end all deals, says President Donald Trump. And it’s not hard to see why Trump has his eyes on a deal that has stymied every other U.S. president, even though some, like Bill Clinton, came awfully close. If Trump bags the big one, he’ll have bested all his predecessors—while bringing a degree of tranquility to a part of the world that everyone else in the world seems to care about. We’re talking win-win, big league. And according to the author of The Art of the Deal, “we will get this done.”

There are plenty of obstacles to Trump’s grand peacemaking plans, of course—including state-sponsored terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, who will do their best to blow up any agreement, as well as the weakened leadership on both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides. And yet some heavy hitters in the pro-Israel community who have been meeting with Mahmoud Abbas lately say the old man is serious this time. It’s his last rodeo, and he wants to secure his legacy with a deal that brings peace to his people. That has to be music to Trump’s ears: The real estate mogul knows that it’s easier to get what you want if the guy on the other side of the table opens with how much he wants a deal.

Because, in Trump’s view, and in the view of a generation of Middle East experts in Washington, the peace process is, in fact, nothing more than a real estate deal waiting to happen—with all the architectural designs filed and more or less approved a long time ago. Like all the Washington experts say—everyone knows what a final deal will look like. The Palestinians get this chunk of real estate and the Israelis hold on to that, with the requisite amount of horse-trading, complaints, and threats in-between. Donald Trump has certainly been there before.

Which should give President Trump pause. Seen through the eyes of a real estate developer, the problem with “the biggest deal there is” should be obvious: Mahmoud Abbas, and the cause he represents, is history’s most stubborn holdout.

Everyone in the real estate business knows what a holdout is—it’s the pain-in-the-ass widow or small business owner or local lawyer who stubbornly, unreasonably refuses to sell his or her tiny lot, no matter what price the developer offers. As much as “holdouts” are hated by real estate developers, they are lionized by reporters and also by judges who love siding with the little guy who gives the rich guy angina. Holdouts are folk heroes to everyone—with the not-infrequent exception of their children and heirs, who often find once the dust has cleared a decade later that the property that some rich guy was willing to pay several million dollars for five years ago is once again worthless.

A holdout’s leverage comes in part from the particulars of site assembly, which is a key part of a developer’s business. When a real estate organization wants to put together a big project, say, a huge building that takes up an entire city block, you must first acquire all the lots on the proposed site. OK, how much does the shoe repair guy want for his storefront? We can get him for $2 million. And the pizza parlor? $2.5. The locksmith is ill and his daughters won’t sell his shop while he’s still alive, but he only has three months to live, tops—poor guy. But the holdout won’t sell as a matter of principle—which is often a disguise for factors that are entirely irrational.

Trump should be familiar with the particular psychology at work in these cases, since he may be the only mogul in the history of modern real estate to have not one but two major developments on which he staked nearly his entire reputation thwarted by holdouts.

In 1993, Trump bought several lots around his nascent Atlantic City hotel and casino with the idea of building a parking lot for limousines. He cut deals with a number of the owners, but a few wouldn’t let go, most notably a woman named Vera Coking, who lived in a house that her husband bought in 1961 for $20,000 as a summertime resort cottage. Bob Guccione offered Coking $1 million in the mid-1970s so he could move forward with his planned Penthouse Hotel and Casino. Coking refused his offer, and Guccione’s casino was sunk. Trump had no more luck with Coking two decades later, even after the city condemned her house and invoked eminent domain. A court ruled in her favor and she kept the house, even after he offered her twice what Guccione had. Trump’s hotel eventually went bankrupt. Coking’s house was eventually sold at auction for a quarter of what Trump had offered.

Then there was Michael Forbes. In the mid-2000s, Trump unveiled plans to build a golf course and resort in Aberdeen, Scotland—“the best golf course in the world,” said the future president. He promised it would bring investment and jobs to the town, which thrilled government officials as well as townsfolk. But he ran into opposition with some landowners who sought to protect the nearby dunes. Forbes was their point-man, a farmer who rejected Trump’s offer of 450,000 pounds and an annual salary for another 50,000. Forbes was named Scotsman of the year in 2012 for standing up to Trump, who got his golf course but not the resort he wanted. Forbes has appeared in documentaries about Trump, a man he says he came to detest the first time he met him. Trump, said Forbes, “instantly started boasting about how rich and how successful he is and said he could get my land one way or the other. I decided then and there he wouldn’t.”

It’s hard not to admire the holdouts—stubborn, proud people who feel like they’ve swallowed enough garbage their whole lives, and when they get a chance to stick it to the man, they’re not going to fold. Indeed, this describes many of Trump’s biggest and most energized supporters, people who felt they’d been pushed around enough by “the elites” and wanted someone to push back on their behalf and saw Trump as the man for the job. From one perspective, the holdout types are the salt of the earth, the kind of stand-up citizens who form the core of any society worth living in.

On the other hand, the holdouts are fools. You certainly wouldn’t want them handling your life savings. Sure, there is more to life than money, but stubbornness for the sake of a small footnote in real estate lore doesn’t put food on the table—or provide for the next generation. Coking’s son said after his mother’s death that Trump “never made her a real offer. He just tried to steal it.” Except, $2 million, or 100 times the original investment, was certainly a fair offer. The truth is that Vera Coking simply didn’t want to sell and move on. Fighting for her house gave her life meaning.

There is something peculiar about the character of the holdout—inflexible, quietly seething, and, until the opportunity presents itself, all but unaware that they are desirous of a perverse kind of fame and affirmation, as the person who will never, ever let go. Mahmoud Abbas has been living in the shadow of a dynamic figure, the father of the Palestinian national movement who danced too quickly for either the Israeli enemy or his Arab rivals to catch him. Abbas is a chain-smoker who wears the kind of baggy suits that made Nasser laugh. He earned a doctorate from Patrice Lumumba University among other tedious bureaucrats predisposed to believe in conspiracy theories. He owes his title, his power, his life, to the very actors that he directs the Palestinian people to despise—Israel and the United States.

Why is he a holdout? For all of the above reasons, and because almost as much as he hates having to live in the shadow of Yasser Arafat, he despises the United States and Israel for the same reason Michael Forbes decided he was going to screw Donald Trump—because they just won’t stop talking about how rich and successful they are.

Like Vera Coking, Abbas has already balked at a deal twice before, once in 2008 with Ehud Olmert as the Israeli prime minister and another in 2013 managed by the Obama administration. It’s true that Abbas knows his time is just about up, and he wants his legacy carved in stone. But that legacy is not a peace deal, and it’s not even rejecting a peace deal quietly as he did when he turned down Olmert. No, this is Abbas’ moment in the spotlight—and he’s going to make the American president who wants to make the big deal beg him to sell and sign before he tells him to take a hike.

In fact, Trump has seen this movie before—twice before—and seeing it a third time is unlikely to make him the man who did “history’s biggest deal.” Rather, it will make him the real estate guy who got stuffed on the three biggest deals of his life by holdouts. Only this time, the stakes are higher than a casino parking lot or a golf resort.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.