15 May 2005

The appointment of James Wolfensohn, outgoing World Bank, as Special U.S. envoy to Gaza which went almost unnoticed, may prove to be a decisive development in the dynamics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Despite political rhetoric, underlying currents on all sides seem to be shifting towards a negotiated, though long-drawn-out, arrangement. A determination by U.S. President George W. Bush expressed repeatedly by his Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice was confirmed during visits to Crawford, Texas by Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah -- whose initiative had been adopted by an earlier Arab summit in Beirut. Discreet talk about a recommitment to that proposal as a basis for negotiation was revised during recent visits to key Arab leaders. The Israeli Prime Minister supported by Labour leader Shimon Peres is focusing on Gaza, though aware that forthcoming pressure will deal with other areas. For the moment, Gaza is key. Whatever happens in Gaza and however it is handled will have a crucial impact on the next steps.

Enter James Wolfensohn, the most dynamic bulldozer known to the international community over the last decade. Having been succeeded by another "Wolf" in "witz" clothing, the former Olympic fencer and amateur cellist would not have taken the assignment if there was nothing much expected of it. He is not in it for prestige, limited as it is; nor is it for the money. He must believe that he will be accomplishing a historic task -- and he has the network to back it up. His backing in Washington is not negligible, from both political parties. It is his international connections that make an impressive impact. Former partner of Paul Volker, associate of Maurice Strong, former boss of Mark Malloch-Brown, friend and occasional host to Kofi Annan, the World Banker who placed the fight against poverty in the mainstream of the international financial concerns does not surrender easily to failure. He relishes challenge and mobilizes his energy and resources to overcome it. Why would he take such an impossible task? It may be a deep personal comment to crown his professional life with a peace achievement. The son of Hyman (Bill) Wolfensohn, a Jewish emigre to Australia, private secretary to James Rothschild, and a firm supporter of Israel, also got to know the Palestinian side of the suffering. Not only in Davos but elsewhere in field trips he met Palestinians and gained the affection of many Arabs. He was amongst the first visitors to share condolences with murdered Lebanese statesman Rafik Hariri in Beirut. One of the constant figures in the Palestinian administration, Finance Minister Salam Fayyad was his staffer in the Bank. Fayyad is also a fan of the Texas baseball team previously owned by President Bush, but that's another story.

Of immediate interest is the fact that James Wolfensohn will hit the ground running dealing with the first delicate political-military operation of withdrawal from Gaza. Of lesser but indicative interest is the fact that he asked for an office in the United Nations premises in Jerusalem and that, despite normal hesitation, the demand was granted following a high-level telephone call.

Also, it may be relevant or not, but to those who wonder what happened to an appointment of a UNRWA Commissioner General to replace Peter Hansen who left last March. The answer could be awaiting a report by Mr. Wolfensohn. As a new head is being considered, maybe a "new UNRWA" is in the making.