There has never been a lack of envoys, mediators or international missions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The latest in a long line is James Wolfensohn and his mission as Quartet envoy to oversee coordination of the Gaza disengagement.
Wolfensohn, however, has set himself apart. He is highly respected by both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, not just due to his status as former head of the World Bank with extensive knowledge and experience of the conflict. Equipped with the detailed studies of the World Bank and other international agencies, Wolfensohn pulled together a capable and experienced team that included experts on the internal Palestinian situation, and which worked extensively on the ground rather than conduct its mission from a distance.
Respected also by the White House, Wolfensohn was able to impose his famous six-point agenda on the two sides as well as on the Quartet members. Indeed, the only criticism of Wolfensohn’s mission from the Palestinian side in the beginning was that it was not extensive enough. The Palestinians would have liked to have seen his mandate relate to the implementation of the roadmap as a whole, and not be limited to the disengagement. This is a logical enough position given that the Quartet’s support of the disengagement plan was conditioned on it signalling the beginning of the implementation of the roadmap.
And yet, for all that, there is a real sense that the mission is in danger of floundering. Last December, the World Bank, then still headed by Wolfensohn, presented a series of papers in an international donors conference in Oslo detailing what steps were needed to support the Palestinian economy. In one of these papers, the Bank warned that if the disengagement from Gaza was not accompanied by a dismantlement of the closure regime in the West Bank and Gaza and between the West Bank and Gaza and the outside world, then the disengagement would only result in further economic deterioration. No amount of international aid, the paper added, could create economic recovery as long as the Israeli restrictions on the movement of persons and goods within and from Palestinian territory continue. Wolfensohn and his Quartet team put the removal of restrictions on movement at the top of their six-point agenda.
It has had little effect. And frustration at the failure to affect the Israeli position and practice on this issue was expressed in Wolfensohn’s report to the Quartet that was recently reported in the media. A little over two months since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and almost a year after the Oslo donors’ conference, we are living the situation the World Bank warned against. Israel has tightened rather than eased restrictions on movement. The Rafah crossing continues to be closed, and Erez virtually so. The most important crossing, the Karni crossing for cargo, now ships on average less than half the containers that passed through there before the withdrawal. The economic deterioration thus continues, any new investment is discouraged and unemployment and poverty levels are on the up. Gazans feel they live in a large prison on the Mediterranean and the political and security situation grows ever more unstable.
Wolfensohn brought with him a structured and institutionalized style that enabled him to gain a proper and detailed understanding of the situation. His advice to the Quartet members has added weight as a result. There is no doubt that the Palestinian side needs to do more in terms of internal security in order to contribute to the success of his mission, but by putting up unnecessary obstacles to his mission, ultimately it is Israel that is discrediting itself. Yet, what is still lacking is the necessary political will on behalf of the international community to truly empower Wolfensohn to implement his program. If the international community does so, it will help both Palestinians and Israelis.