Seeking to shore up the fledgling peace process between the Palestinians and Israel, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday announced the appointment of outgoing World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn to oversee the crucial nonmilitary components of Israel's impending withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
In his new role, Wolfensohn will help coordinate the disposition of homes and other assets that will remain when Israeli settlers and troops pull out of Gaza in the summer. He also will work to revive the economy in Gaza, a desolate enclave that is home to more than a third of the Palestinian territories' population of 3.8 million.
"His mission is to work closely with Israeli and Palestinian officials to promote cooperation and ensure a smooth transition in Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank," Rice said. "He will also encourage more direct contacts between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves." Rice made the announcement on behalf of the "quartet" of Middle East peace partners that includes the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Wolfensohn will report to that group.
Wolfensohn, 71, who earned a reputation as a passionate and charismatic champion of global anti-poverty efforts during a decade at the World Bank's helm, will begin "preparatory work" for his new job immediately. He is scheduled to formally assume his post June 1.
"This issue is one of the central issues both for the region and the world," said Wolfensohn, who said he planned to travel to the region within three weeks to begin assessing the situation. "It is both a fantastic challenge and opportunity."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has announced plans to remove all settlements from Gaza and four in the West Bank beginning in July, requiring about 9,000 Jewish settlers to move. Coordinating the withdrawal to ensure that it is orderly and that it leaves behind an economic infrastructure for the remaining Palestinians will be a large part of Wolfensohn's task.
Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza, coupled with the election earlier this year of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority after Yasser Arafat's death, are seen by President Bush and others as creating momentum toward a possible peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel.
"His decision created an opportunity now for America, the EU, Russia, the United Nations to work with the Abbas government to set up a democratic state in the Gaza," Bush said yesterday, in remarks to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Bush added that Wolfensohn "is going to be the director of our operation with Abbas, to help him build a government; to help them try to pull out of this ash heap of what used to exist, a government that will function and meet the will of the people."
Bush has pledged $350 million to help the Palestinian Authority, part of more than $1 billion in international pledges to help the authority strengthen its governing institutions, combat corruption and unify its security forces in hopes of clearing the way for formation of a Palestinian state. Still, significant hurdles remain, including Sharon's plans to expand settlements in parts of the West Bank that it occupies and intermittent violence aimed at Israelis.
"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," Rice said.
In naming the Australian-born Wolfensohn to help coordinate the economic and social side of the withdrawal from Gaza, the Bush administration and other peace partners are turning to a man often viewed as a mercurial manager, who will bring a high level of intensity to the task.
Under Wolfensohn's leadership the World Bank has become heavily involved in dispensing aid to the Palestinian Authority, managing money contributed by donor nations through a special trust fund and providing about $460 million of its own resources as well. As in other developing countries to which the bank provides loans, the money has funded projects in areas such as education, health, land administration, sewerage, water management and civil service pensions.
The appointment "signals the relevance of development experience to what we think of as primarily a security question," said Nancy Birdsall, president of the nonpartisan Center for Global Development. "That is the right signal to send because much of the challenge, especially in the Palestinian areas, is about constructing the institutions that make governments work."
Staff writer Paul Blustein contributed to this report.