James Wolfensohn, former World Bank President and former head of the Middle East Quartet, was on Australian TV last night talking about Israel/Palestine and the message was clear; America is Israel’s lawyer:
Jim Wolfensohn, I’d like to focus mainly on your personal experience as George W. Bush’s handpicked choice as special enjoy of quartet to the Middle East – the US, Russia, the European Union and the UN.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Right.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Because in your book you suggest a cynicism behind your appointment that over time cut the ground from under you. Now before we get to the detail of that, can you just briefly explain what you set out to achieve in that job?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well I was asked by the quartet to try and assist in two things. The first one was the immediate issue of the withdrawal from Gaza. And the second was to try and see if that could be extended to a resolution of the issues in the West Bank so that ultimately there could be the much-sought-after two-state solution. And the reason that I was asked to do it was to make sure that, initially, the Gaza withdrawal took place satisfactorily.
KERRY O’BRIEN: And very much a part of your intent was to try to help secure some kind of economic underpinning for the future of the West Bank and Gaza so that the Palestinian community as a separate state would actually have some chance of establishing itself.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well the immediate issue then was to make sure that Gaza could survive, and there are a number of things associated with that. You needed to have some sort of industry in Gaza and there were two things which suggested themselves. One was tourism, because it has a wonderful coastline, and the other was agriculture, because there were greenhouses there that were left by arrangements which we made by the Israeli settlers. And so, it looked as though you could have a Gaza that was financially and economically stable. And the second part was that there was agreement for a linkage between the Gaza and the West Bank with the ability for people to travel between the Gaza and the West Bank. And there was also a plan which was announced by Condi Rice for an airport, for a port in Gaza which gave them the possibility of access, not only to the West Bank, but to the rest of the world.
KERRY O’BRIEN: You felt you were making real progress on a number of fronts. You won significantly more money from the G8 for economic aid for the Palestinian authority, …
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: That’s right.
KERRY O’BRIEN: … you were breaking down Israeli barriers to the flow of trade in and out of Gaza on the West Bank. You had built a rapport with both Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. But at a critical point when you ask asked for backup from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice you felt that you were essentially cut of at the knees. Now what happened?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well I think several things happened. The first thing was that shortly after the withdrawal Arik Sharon, shortly after the withdrawal, got sick for a first time, and then as you know became permanently incapacitated. So that took away the leader on the Israeli side. The second thing was that I don’t think the Americans ever were totally committed or convinced that the opening of Gaza would be a peaceful activity, and unfortunately they were assisted in coming to a contrary view by the fact that you had an outbreak of violence in Gaza towards Israel.
KERRY O’BRIEN: But during those talks when Condi Rice was there in the Middle East, …
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Right.
KERRY O’BRIEN: … you were so angry at being …
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: I was very angry.
KERRY O’BRIEN: When you realised you were being cut out of the process with Condi Rice, the Palestinians and the Israelis, that you told Secretary Rice that you were resigning.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: I did, that night, exactly. And I said that I wasn’t there as a token. I was there – I’d worked very hard to try and bring about a sense of confidence on both sides and I was trusted by both sides. When those negotiations were going on, I was sitting with the Palestinians and really keeping them calm because they were friends of mine. I’d worked with both sides. And, unfortunately I think there was a very different axis between the United States and Israel about what was going to happen, what the outcome was going to be. So I told Condi that I was out at 10 o’clock that night and she said, “No, you can’t get out,” and so he worked till five o’clock in the morning, and I was more or less in the discussions and was there then with the head of the European Union to try and make an announcement at seven or eight the next morning that we had this agreement about the airport, the port, the linkage between the Gaza and the West Bank, all of which sounded great but which very sadly never happened.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Well, in fact you say with that agreement, the Condi Rice and the Israelis subsequently took it apart, piece by piece.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: That’s correct. But the reason that they gave for that was the outbreak of violence, which occurred by some extremist Palestinians and some extremist Israelis who were to be found in the military who responded, and the sense of good will which we’d hoped for to build a peaceful working relationship, certainly didn’t happen. And, …
KERRY O’BRIEN: Left you nowhere to go.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: … that was at the moment when Arik Sharon had got sick. And if Arik had been around I think things could have could have been different, but he wasn’t.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Now, the job collapsed for you in April 2006. You walked away.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Yes.
KERRY O’BRIEN: But in October Kofi Anan asked you …
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Right.
KERRY O’BRIEN: … to take up the cudgel again …
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Yes.
KERRY O’BRIEN: … and become special envoy again to the quartet.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Right. With the support of the United States, that offer was made.
KERRY O’BRIEN: But you obviously were a little bit mistrusting of that support because you had a conversation with Condi Rice, asked her some pertinent questions and as a result of her answers, you then declined the offer.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well the key question was: would I be kept informed about what the United States was doing. Because after the previous experience it was very clear to me that there was a direct dialogue between the United States and the Israelis. And if you weren’t part of that, you really had no chance of being central to what was going on. And I warned my successor, Tony Blair, of that issue and I’m afraid Tony is suffering in the same way.
KERRY O’BRIEN: But, the second question you asked related to your own security. Would you have the same security arrangements backed by the United States as you had last time and she wasn’t even prepared to do that?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: They were prepared not to do that, but the Brits were prepared to do it. But I thought it was ridiculous to have British security in the United States but I never got round to arguing it because the other issue was much more important.
KERRY O’BRIEN: So, on the one hand the United States wanted you back in the game, but they didn’t?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: I believe that to be the case. I believe the quartet wanted me back and the US went along with it because I hadn’t done anything wrong, and then they appointed Tony Blair on the same limited terms that I was fighting against. So I think honestly the United States never took the quartet seriously. I think the issue was that they were conducting the negotiations with the Israelis and the quartet was a camouflage.
KERRY O’BRIEN: So when you warned Tony Blair to read the fine print, what did he say?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, he tried to get an expanded mandate, which unfortunately he never got, so he doesn’t – he has been part of the economic process, but not part of the political process and I think he misses that.
KERRY O’BRIEN: So do you think he’s doomed to the same failure that you were?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well if he’s happy with an economic mandate, then he’s OK. But you should ask him, but I would be surprised if he felt that his talents were being adequately used in terms of the peace process.
KERRY O’BRIEN: But isn’t the success of the economic mandate contingent on the success of the political mandate?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Very significant.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Aren’t they absolutely inter-related?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Very significantly, but it is possible to contemplate having economic advances, as there are very significantly today in the West Bank. In the West Bank there is very close co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian companies. What is being left out is of course Gaza, for a variety of reasons, the most obvious of which is the political and the threat that Gaza poses, not just to the Israelis, but also to a united Palestine.
KERRY O’BRIEN: As somebody who takes the whole issue of peace in the Middle East extremely seriously, there are aspects to that saga that must have left you feeling sick in the stomach.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: They did and I am very worried now because I think we’re at the last stage of trying to get a negotiated agreement now. And I worry very much that if the current discussions collapse, I think there isn’t the energy around for looking at getting everybody focused on this issue for quite some time. And I fear the consequences could be substantial violence.
KERRY O’BRIEN: You say that in the end the Israelis and the Palestinians are 11 million people in a sea of 350 million Arabs, and that they need to understand they are not the most important regional issue. What are you saying? What’s the message?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, I think the most important regional issues are the split between the Sunnis and the Shias and obviously the issue of Iran, which dominates everything. And I think that the 11 million people have had a lot of prominence, get a lot of prominence in the press, but really it’s relatively a small issue. The issue of Jerusalem is a very important issue emotionally, but the issue of the 11 million, where frankly my experience was that no-one particularly likes the Jews, no-one particularly likes the Palestinians, but that’s a very personal comment which probably shouldn’t be on television, but it is what I believe.