Diplomacy: Bankrupt brokerage

Wolfensohn has placed the blame for the failure of his mission on both sides.

wolfensohn88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
This week, Middle East special envoy James Wolfensohn submitted his resignation and returned to the private sector. Wolfensohn, the former chief of the World Bank, is now just another name on the long list of envoys (his predecessors were sent by the US, while he was the first envoy to represent the Quartet) who enthusiastically took on the task of bringing Israelis and Palestinians closer together, only to return to Washington empty-handed, after encountering the region's harsh reality. "Once you get into it, it draws you in," says retired general Anthony Zinni, who held the position four years ago. "You become totally invested and it tears you from inside not to achieve the goal." The Australian-born Wolfensohn, 72, lasted 12 months on the job, longer than many of his predecessors. Yet, in his final report - which he submitted to the Quartet before resigning - he makes it clear that little progress was achieved on reviving the Gaza economy following disengagement (his main goal), calling the efforts "disappointing." In the report, Wolfensohn presents a gloomy outlook for the future of the Palestinian Authority under the rule of Hamas and raises the question of what will happen now if, after years of financial support, the international community turns its back on the Palestinians. In his public statements, Wolfensohn has placed the blame for the failure of his mission on both sides - mainly the Palestinians for electing a Hamas government that led them to a situation in which external financial assistance became impossible. "Here you have a Palestinian group which has said that it wants to destroy its neighbor. And I guess if Canada did that to the United States or New Zealand did it to Australia, the reaction would not be very positive in terms of the other state, and that's what you're finding here," he said Monday, standing beside Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But the special envoy was also critical of Israel for systematically preventing the opening of the border crossings due to security threats, thus making the goal of free trade into and out of the Gaza Strip unattainable. He also criticized the American administration and Congress for acting quickly to sever financial aid to the PA, while being slow to come up with an alternative method to funnel money directly to the Palestinian people. Wilson Center Fellow Aaron D. Miller, who served in the State Department for more than two decades, says Wolfensohn "was given a mission impossible." "Wolfensohn's portfolio was economic development in Gaza," says Miller, himself a veteran of Middle East peacemaking efforts. "But economic development depends on the security situation that, in the best of times, is far from being stable." WOLFENSOHN'S MISSION in the Middle East began with high hopes. He took the job after ending a successful career as head of the World Bank. His international prestige was supposed to be used as a tool for ensuring that Gaza would recover economically following Israel's withdrawal - to show the Palestinians that moderation can bear fruit. His first challenge - saving the Gaza greenhouses from destruction and transferring them from the Gush Katif settlers to the Palestinians - was small-scale, but auspicious. He used all his power and influence to raise the funds needed for purchasing them from the Israelis and for handing them over to the Palestinians. But difficulties on the ground marginalized the benefit of this transfer: Several of the greenhouses were vandalized by Palestinians after the pullout, while the others produced flowers and other agricultural goods which were clearly going to rot on the trucks unable to move them, due to Israel's decision to limit the opening of the border crossings. Wolfensohn played a leading role in brokering the border-crossing agreement signed by Rice during her visit to the region, and acted tirelessly to obtain more international funds for the Palestinians. Then came the election of the Hamas government. This removed one of the partners for negotiation, rendering Wolfensohn's task virtually untenable. "In the last two or three months, the political events are such that I think the issues are above my pay grade," he said after meeting Rice on Monday. The US and the Quartet are likely to avoid appointing a new Middle East envoy to replace Wolfensohn, since there is not much to talk about right now. In their meeting next week, the representatives of the US, EU, UN and Russia will need to decide how to move forward with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and how to provide assistance to the PA without a special envoy to do the job. The main decision to be made involves the creation of a mechanism for transferring money to NGOs and projects in the Palestinian territories, without funneling it through the Hamas government. Another has to do with the issue of paying the salaries of PA employees, particularly those whose jobs are seen as vital, such as doctors and teachers. There is a question as to whether the international community will provide the money for this, either through trusts or external foundations. But all of these matters can be handled without a special envoy. So, for the first time in more than a decade, this position will remain vacant. Zinni suggests that the entire idea of an envoy who commutes between Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah has exhausted itself. "You need to establish a full-time office with a staff that works on all aspects of the situation: political, security-related and economic. Everything should be under one tent," he says. Miller agrees that there is no rush to fill the vacancy, stressing that now is the time for unilateral progress. "The situation is not conducive to a bilateral breakthrough, so sending a new envoy would only be a prescription for not succeeding," he says.