Quartet Envoy: Israel Acting as if Disengagement Never Happened

James Wolfensohn, the Quartet's special envoy for the disengagement, has criticized Israel for holding up agreements on opening Gaza Strip border crossings to the passage of people and goods and on improving Palestinian mobility in the West Bank.

In a letter sent last week to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and the foreign ministries of Britain, Russia and the United States, Wolfensohn wrote: "The Government of Israel, with its important security concerns, is loath to relinquish control, almost acting as though there has been no withdrawal, delaying making difficult decisions and preferring to take difficult matters back into slow-moving subcommittees."

Accompanying the letter, which was dated October 16, was a report written on October 17 regarding Wolfensohn's latest visit, from October 7-12. The introduction to the report stated: "The Special Envoy was disappointed that none of the key movement issues has been resolved. Without a dramatic improvement in Palestinian movement and access, within appropriate security arrangements for Israel, the economic revival essential to a resolution of the conflict will not be possible."

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, indicated that Israel is preventing the implementation of a proposal by Wolfensohn and the World Bank to introduce a temporary system for allowing people and goods to move between Gaza and the West Bank in convoys.

"Despite an earlier commitment in June to introduce convoys, GOI has not been willing to enter bilateral or trilateral discussions on their implementation," Wolfensohn wrote.

Since the pullout was completed, the Erez Checkpoint has been almosthermetically sealed to Palestinian traffic. Before the disengagement, 6,500 people went through Erez daily. That number dropped in September to 100, on average, and to zero at the beginning of this month. The Karni cargo crossing has also been either closed or particularly slow.

Wolfensohn thinks that the convoy system should be used until mid-November. "The system should be serious with a regular schedule and not two or three buses every few days," he wrote.

The letter also criticized the Palestinian Authority - for worsening the economic crisis by deciding on a salary hike in the public sector, for the internal anarchy and the decline in the PA's functioning. He warned that these factors, combined with the lack of Palestinian mobility, will take a toll on donor countries' willingness to honor their pledges.

And Wolfensohn was careful to direct his appeal to all sides: "If all of us Palestinians, Israelis, our friends in Egypt and donors miss this opportunity for change, we will regret it for the next decade," he wrote.

But Wolfensohn's main complaints concerned the Rafah crossing, the link between Gaza and the West Bank and mobility within the West Bank and they were directed at Israel. "The Israelis have not agreed to accept the EU's generous offer to consider the role of 'a third party'" in supervising the Rafah crossing temporarily, the report stated. "The Israelis cited the need for additional internal consultation," whereas Wolfensohn urged Israel to begin talks with the Europeans to define their third-party role. In his estimation, if it were not for Israel's tendency to transfer the few remaining issues in dispute to subcommittees, the Rafah crossing could be reopened quickly.

Agreement on linking the Gaza Strip to the West Bank could also be reached "with 2-3 days of concentrated effort," but six weeks have elapsed since Israel agreed to negotiate with the PA without results. "We do not have the luxury of adopting such a leisurely approach and our Israeli colleagues have promised a greater sense of urgency" after the High Holidays, Wolfensohn wrote.

He repeatedly urged Israel to engage in immediate talks on freedom of movement and the crossings, stating: "I believe that economic activity is the greatest contributor to security for both sides."

Palestinian officials who followed Wolfensohn's talks with both sides on the eve of disengagement were disappointed at the time by his failure to obtain Israeli agreement on vital matters such as the crossings and freedom of movement. Wolfensohn's sole achievement, they told Haaretz, was purchasing the settlers' greenhouses a relatively marginal matter from a Palestinian standpoint, which largely benefited the Israelis. Wolfensohn's letter also cites the greenhouses as his only major success: They already provide employment for some 3,000 workers.

An agreement was also reached on removing the debris from the settlements, but this has not yet been implemented because of Egyptian delays.

Sources in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's bureau said in response that Wolfensohn's letter would be studied after the Sukkot holiday. Other government officials said that the letter points to poor functioning by the defense establishment in conducting negotiations with the Quartet envoy.

"It's nothing to get worked up about," a senior defense official said. "Wolfensohn is a serious man who is trying to advance all his goals, and Israel is working, in accordance with security considerations, to help the Palestinians and solve the problem of the crossings."