Nizar Farsakh
Bitterlemons (Blog)
July 7, 2011 - 12:00am

In 2005, the Quartet appointed James Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank, as special envoy for the Gaza disengagement. His job was to get the parties to cooperate in the withdrawal process, as well as to revive the Palestinian economy post-withdrawal by harnessing the Quartet's resources, both financial and political. In my opinion, his case is illustrative of the conditions for effective mediation and their demise.

The Israeli government's decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip presented the players in the region with a challenge. If managed well, it could jump start the stalled (if not dead) peace process. The example of Israel actually dismantling settlements and rolling back the occupation coupled with improved mobility and economic conditions for Palestinians would dispel many perceptions of the immutability of certain key facts about the conflict. Conversely, if the withdrawal was mismanaged, it would consolidate the rhetoric of despair and disillusionment over the revival of peace talks, let alone achieving peace. Therefore, there was a rare alignment of interests where all the parties--the Palestinians, Israelis, and international community--had an interest in an improved situation in Gaza or ensuring stability at the very least. This put Wolfensohn in a good place. People wanted him to succeed in facilitating an agreement and he used that to his advantage.

He had open channels with all the parties and had their respect and confidence in his integrity. He went about managing the process as a project with set targets, timelines, roles and responsibilities divided among the different stakeholders. More importantly, he diligently held people accountable to their part of the work. Every meeting would start with each party reporting on where they were in implementing what they had committed to in the previous meeting and would end with what was expected of each party by the next meeting. When there were sticking points, Wolfensohn would disaggregate the technical from the political, try to resolve whatever he could of those issues in that meeting and take what's left to the appropriate channels. If the problem was technical, he would look for experts and/or resources that could fix it by tapping into the reservoirs of the Quartet members or even his own networks in the World Bank and elsewhere. The fact that he had the full backing of the Quartet members meant that he could get them to weigh in when the parties were stuck on a political issue.

This factor, I believe, was critical in making the Agreement on Movement and Access in November 2005 possible. His positions and demands carried the necessary political weight to get all players paying attention and seriously considering the consequences of failing to follow through on their commitments. For the Israeli government, however, its main focus was carrying out the withdrawal as smoothly as possible. Therefore, once this was done in September, Israel's incentives changed, which in turn changed the environment Wolfensohn operated in. The American secretary of state took over the mediation and it was she, not Wolfensohn, who finalized the AMA while he was sidelined. From that point on, interests diverged and the consensus around getting an agreement morphed into a debate on the extent to which it was important, if at all, to pursue its implementation.

While many were critical of the Agreement on Movement and Access, it still was, on paper at least, far better than the original plan the Israeli government had drafted for the withdrawal and its aftermath. For example, the original plan drafted by the Israeli government was to close the Rafah crossing completely and channel the movement of all goods and people through the Israeli Kerem Shalom military base. The agreement reduced that to only letting imports go through Kerem Shalom and for one year only. Wolfensohn was able to get to that point because he was well-respected, transparent, unbiased, and relentless in following up all sticking issues. More importantly, he had effective political backing by the critical players that empowered him to bring that weight to bear in the negotiating room. Once that was withdrawn, all his laudable qualities as a mediator could not make up for the lack of political will by the relevant actors.


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