World Bank Chief to Become a Special Mideast Envoy

Published: April 15, 2005  (must register to view original article)

WASHINGTON, April 14 - The Bush administration, moving to ease difficulties in the preparations for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, announced Thursday that James Wolfensohn, the retiring president of the World Bank, will become a special coordinator to help the Palestinian Authority run Gaza once the Israelis start leaving this summer.

The administration's action comes amid growing concern in Europe, the United States and the Middle East that there has been a lack of Israeli-Palestinian coordination on the withdrawal, which was proposed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in December 2003 and was approved by the Israeli Parliament last month.

In particular, concerns have been expressed that facilities left behind by Israel that could be used by the Palestinians for economic development might be destroyed. The appointment of Mr. Wolfensohn, who has mobilized financial aid and worked with Israeli and Palestinian leaders for a decade at the World Bank, was made with the support of the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, the quartet of partners backing the Middle East peace plan known as the road map.

"I would expect to be over there in next couple weeks to do preliminary work and to listen," Mr. Wolfensohn said in an interview after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced his appointment. "My first job is to listen to the Israelis and the Palestinians and try to assess the situation and see what the gaps are and how we can help."

Ms. Rice said that Mr. Wolfensohn would focus on coordinating "nonmilitary aspects" of the withdrawal, including economic reconstruction and the transfer of Israeli housing, public buildings, greenhouses and other property to Palestinian control.

"The responsibility for peace ultimately rests with the two parties, and Mr. Wolfensohn can only help them achieve what they are willing to achieve together," Ms. Rice said at the State Department.

Last week, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, speaking at an Aspen Institute conference in Washington, warned that without further preparations, efforts to salvage economic facilities in Gaza, like the greenhouses that could employ thousands of Palestinians, could end with their being destroyed.

The issue is further complicated by divisions within the Palestinian government. President Mahmoud Abbas has favored cooperating with Israel in the pullout while an increasingly powerful faction led by Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei has opposed such coordination as tacitly legitimizing the Israeli occupation.

Mr. Peres said he favored the appointment of a respected economic coordinator for Gaza. The idea of asking Mr. Wolfensohn to enter into the Middle East morass had been discussed among European and Middle East diplomats, but the Bush administration initially resisted naming any special Middle East envoy.

A European official said that Ms. Rice conferred Thursday morning in a joint telephone call with Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general; Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister; and Javier Solana, the external affairs commissioner for the European Union.

Since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel announced his plan for the withdrawal, the World Bank has taken the lead in trying to raise what bank officials say they hope will be a doubling of aid for the Palestinians in coming years.

Mr. Wolfensohn is to begin his work in the Middle East formally on June 1, when Paul D. Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of defense, takes over leadership of the World Bank. But Mr. Wolfensohn said he would start work right away in light of the fact that the withdrawal of Israeli forces and about 8,500 settlers is to start soon.

Some in the Bush administration said they saw Mr. Wolfensohn's role as complementary to that of Lt. Gen. William E. Ward, deputy commanding general of the United States Army in Europe, who is in the Middle East to help the Palestinians improve their security forces.

But others said that it was possible that a successful pullout would lead to demands for Mr. Wolfensohn to stay on and broker larger issues, such as the final boundaries of a Palestinian state.

"Knowing Jim's personality, I would be extremely surprised if he does not only take charge on this job but also try to enlarge it," said a European diplomat who is a friend of Mr. Wolfensohn. "He is not the kind of person who wants to retire from the bank to his home in Jackson Hole."

Ms. Rice's announcement came after a three-day visit to the United States by Mr. Sharon, including a day with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. Mr. Bush used the visit not only to endorse the Israeli pullout plan but also to appeal to Israel to exercise restraint on expanding settlements in the West Bank and the Jerusalem suburbs.

Administration officials said that an urgent topic of the Bush-Sharon talks was mounting concern about problems on the Palestinian side, especially in planning for the Israeli pullout. One American aide said that Palestinian officials have assured the United States that their plans are under way but that they are not prepared to provide details.

Two top American officials - Elliott Abrams and David Welch, directors of Middle East affairs at the White House and the State Department respectively - will travel to the region next week to meet with Palestinian and Israeli leaders.