U.S. Envoy Wolf to Return to Region in Roving' Role

Washington - It's been three months since John Wolf left the Middle East, but officially he is still the special American envoy charged with supervising the implementation of the road map.

Next week he is expected to return to the region. This time he will not be heading a supervisory team of a dozen Americans, but will serve as a roving representative who travels from one capital to another, talks to national leaders and returns to Washington.

On Thursday, in Washington, Wolf spoke of his experiences and his impressions of his mission in the region for the first time. He told a gathering of graduates from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs that he had had no experience in the Middle East when he was chosen by President George W. Bush to serve as special envoy for the road map.

"I asked Secretary [Colin] Powell, National Security Advisor [Condoleeza] Rice and President Bush - why me?" Wolf said. He was told the administration wanted "someone with a fresh view."

Wolf himself agreed with the choice: "My lack of experience was an advantage. I learned that in the Middle East, people always tend to look back, and I was asking them to look to the future."

In the first two weeks he was in the area, he had to hear each side's complaints about the other: the Israeli stories about the Palestinians - "I put that man in jail 7 times" - and the Palestinians' stories about the Israelis - "He's the one who killed my relative."

"The first two weeks are blurry. We spent a lot of time driving from Ramallah to Jerualem, from Tel Aviv to Gaza, trying to get them to talk to each other," he recalled. But after the initial difficulty, Wolf became caught up in optimism. He said he believes that the agreement that he suggested regarding the evacuation of Israel Defense Forces from Gaza and transferal of security responsibility to the Palestinians, together with the hudna (cease-fire), "was an important step that led to a real change in the life of the people."

Wolf described how Tel Aviv's cafes filled up with people again when the violence was reduced, and spoke of the feeling in Israel in September when people believed that progress could be made.

Wolf dismissed the criticism that his team did not do well in its supervisory role. He maintained that there was no shortage of personnel and noted that apart from the people who worked with him directly and the CIA, he also had the support of the American authorities in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and did not feel he needed backup.

Wolf said that in his opinion, the sides believed mistakenly that his mission was that of a peacekeeping force, while it was only to supervise. "We had no shortage of information. Our goal was to be an independent observer that will bring both sides to live up to their commitments."

In mid-August Wolf presented each side with a list of assignments. "Homework," he called them. He said he was favorably surprised by both sides' response to their "homework," and believes that if the plan to transfer authority in West Bank cities had been carried out, there would have been a real chance of reaching the first stage of the road map.

"We tried to work with the Palestinians, we got the Israelis to give them some time, but on the Palestinian side, it was all talk, no action," he said.

He says the Palestinian Authority also failed to collect weapons, close down rocket-manufacturing plants or arrest wanted men.

Wolf also criticized the other side: Summing up his mission, he said Israel's performance was "mixed." The Israelis acted as they should have to transfer security authorities and funds, he said, but at the same time, they continued demolishing homes, expanding the settlements and avoiding the evacuation of outposts. The construction of the separation fence was also not conducive to improving the situation.

Wolf added that his Middle Eastern mission is not over yet, although nobody knows when he will return with his team on a permanent basis. He himself has reached the conclusion, like generations of mediators before him, that, "We are still committed to helping the parties, but no external force can want peace more than the parties themselves."