Heads of the international Quartet will convene at the office of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday to discuss the future role of the U.S.-UN-EU-Russian grouping in the Middle East conflict, with the talks centering on the possibility of backing away from the road map peace plan and ending Quartet mediation in the Mideast conflict.
A main issue in the talks will be whether to appoint a replacement for James Wolfensohn, the Quartet's former envoy for the Disengagement, or to refrain from further involvement in mediation between Israel and the Palestinians.
According to senior European sources, the Quartet officials will also weigh the degree to which the road map peace plan is relevant, discussing whether to update the plan or to withdraw from it altogether.
Senior Quartet sources are voicing doubt regarding the continuation of international involvement in the Mideast diplomatic process. The doubt comes in the wake of the formation of the new coalition by Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - who has indicated that he intends to continue to pursue his policy of unilateralism - and following the rise of the Hamas government and the international boycott against it.
"The Quartet will need to take a principle decision regarding the continuation of its contribution to mediation between Israel and the Palestinians, if the reasons for Wolfensohn's resignation do not change," a European diplomat told Haaretz.
"If it is decided to name a new envoy, it will be necessary to formulate a mandate that is relevant to the new reality that has been created on the ground."
Wolfensohn, ending more than a year's service as the Quartet envoy to Israel and the Palestinians, Monday singled out the rise of the Hamas government as a main stumbling block to further movement in Middle East diplomacy.
Wolfensohn had initially intended to leave the job in December, but bowed to a U.S. request that he stay on until the end of April to allow the Palestinian and Israeli elections to play out.
While agreeing it was time for Wolfensohn to step down, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signalled in a joint news conference with Wolfensohn Monday that he might be called back for another stint and said, "I hope he will keep his uniform not very far from the door".
Wolfenson urges urgent attention on Mideast In a summary report he submitted to the heads of the Quartet when he decided to resign, Wolfensohn called on the international community to address the Israeli-Palestinian crisis without delay, in order to prevent severe consequences for the whole region and for world peace, while impugning the Quartet's credibility as a conflict-resolving party.
He warned that without a fundamental change in the situation vital services in the territories would collapse in the near future.
Wolfensohn noted that if the Palestinian Authority did not receive the tax money Israel collects for it, if Israel continued its regime of restrictions on trade and labor and if the flow of donations continued to weaken, the GDP in the territories would drop this year by 27%.
According to the former World Bank president the bank's economists predict unless the situation turns around in 2008 74% of the Palestinians will be living beneath the poverty line and unemployment will reach 47%.
He attributes a large part of the tremendous economic damage caused to the Palestinians to a systematic violation of commitments by Israel regarding the Gaza Strip border crossings and freedom of movement in the West Bank. Wolfensohn stressed the Palestinian Authority provides 60% of the health and education services and that the U.N. and voluntary organizations can not replace it. He said due to fear of American sanctions banks throughout the world refuse to transfer money to the PA or even directly to its employees.
"We must ask ourselves whether humanitarian aid is enough to bring us to the desired goal - a two-state solution - as the Road Map says," Wolfensohn concluded his latest report. He noted that in recent years the international community allocated an annual sum of some two billion dollars as aid to the Palestinians, hoping it would help build effective institutions and a thriving economy, on the way to establishing a viable state.
"Are we going to give all that up now," he asks, alluding to the policy of completely boycotting the Hamas government, " or will we find a way that will allow us to work in the framework of the law and the policy, while continuing to support building a democratic and responsible administration, that can act to realize the dream of peace and security for the two peoples."
The 72-year-old Australian-born American Jew informed PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the heads of the Israeli defense establishment during his latest visit in Israel in mid-March that if he did not receive a renewed mandate for his mission he was resolved to resign at the end of April. He explained he did not see any point in his continuing to serve as long as the Quartet and the donor nations had not decided on a clear policy that befitted the new political situation created in the territories following the Hamas victory in the legislative council elections.
Since the elections Wolfensohn and his team have coordinated efforts to obtain funding for the Palestinian interim government. Wolfensohn, who took office last May, coordinated the contacts that led to the agreement on the border crossings between Israel and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice last November.
Wolfensohn recently met representatives of the Bereaved Families Forum, that includes both Israelis and Palestinians, and decided to donate 100,000 dollars of his own money to an exhibit they initiated, Offering Reconciliation 2006, whose purpose is to bring the idea of reconciliation to the public's awareness through art. In the exhibit, which will be displayed at the Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat Gan , before traveling the world, 135 Israeli and Palestinian artists present their work, including the prime minister's wife, Aliza Olmert, Danny Caravan, Moshe Gershoni, Menashe Kadishman, Yigal Tumarkin, David Tartakover, Usama Za'tar, Jamal Houda, Jalal Kamal, Bouthniya Milhed, Rafi Lavie and others.
Wolfensohn leaves with dig at Hamas"The Palestinians need to understand that it is not business as usual," Wolfensohn told the news conference, adding in a reference to Hamas, "Here you have a Palestinian group which has said it wants to destroy its neighbor.
"I guess if Canada did that to the United States, or New Zealand did it to Australia, the reaction would not be very [positive]," he said.
Speaking in Washington on Monday, Wolfensohn said he had made "quite a lot of progress" in promoting economic development of Gaza after the Israelis withdrew in September of last year.
But he said that given Hamas' accession to power after its surprise win in January's Palestinian elections, "the political events are such that I think the issues are above my pay grade".
"With the government of Hamas having taken over with the Palestinians, it's a very difficult movement to be able to try and negotiate any independent type of arrangements," Wolfensohn said.
Wolfensohn, who had frequently complained of being "disenfranchised" in his Gaza role and threatened to quit, left with a warning that the West should not consider trying to starve the Hamas-led Palestinians into submission.
"I don't think anyone in the quartet believes that to be the policy - although, sometimes, it is made to appear that that is what it is," he said. "I think that's a losing gambit."
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