“All the dreams we had are now gone’
[..] However, the departure of Ariel Sharon from the political arena in January 2006, the fact that Wolfensohn’s efforts were constantly undermined by none other than the U.S. administration, and the rise of Hamas to power combined to derail his mission. At the end of April 2006, fed up with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, and after understanding that he would not get backing from the Quartet, he decided to pack it in.
[..] Wolfensohn sounds hurt and disappointed as he describes the slide into violence after the disengagement from Gaza. “Part of the reason it happened, in my view, is that the conditions in Gaza deteriorated so terribly,” he explains. “If you recall, in the time of the withdrawal there was a day or two of people looting, but within 48 hours it was under control. Things were peaceful in Gaza, and this was not because of a military presence of the Israelis. It was because the Palestinians recognized that if they want to have any hope, they need to be in a more peaceful mode.”
[..] “I think that there was a framework for that in the agreement that Condi [Condoleezza] Rice announced in my presence and in the presence of the European representative Javier Solana,” Wolfensohn continues. “But in the months following, every aspect of the agreement was abrogated. In fact, the sadness of it is that the last remaining aspect – the opening to Egypt [via the border crossing] – has seen the international observers reducing their representation because of non-usage [of the terminal]. So all the dreams that we had then have now gone, and beyond that you now have an elected Hamas government and a split with Fatah and [PA Chairman] Abu Mazen, with a new prime minister, and you’ve got Hamas in Gaza. So we have an added difficulty in that we don’t have two parties now, we have three. And one with whom neither of the other two wishes to deal.”
He toured the Gaza Strip with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) immediately after the PA asserted its authority there, and recalls a euphoric atmosphere that dissipated very quickly.
“I remember seeing the greenhouses with the chairman and looking at the fruits and everything, and there was a joyous atmosphere: ‘Boy, we’re about to get this going and we’re going to have hotels by the beaches and we’re going to have tourism and it’s going to be fantastic, and the Palestinians really know how to be hosts.’ But in the months afterward, first of all Arik [Sharon] became ill and the current prime minister came in, and there was a clear change of view.”
At that time, Wolfensohn recalls, powerful forces in the U.S. administration worked behind his back: They did not believe in the border terminals agreement and wanted to undermine his status as the Quartet’s emissary. The official behind this development, he says, was Elliot Abrams, the neoconservative who was appointed deputy national security adviser in charge of disseminating democracy in the Middle East – “and every aspect of that (Rafah) agreement was abrogated.”
The non-implementation of the agreement naturally had serious economic consequences. According to Wolfensohn, the shattering of the great hope of normality, which the Palestinians experienced so deeply when the Israel Defense Forces and the settlers left the Gaza Strip, brought about the rise of Hamas. “Instead of hope, the Palestinians saw that they were put back in prison. And with 50 percent unemployment, you would have conflict. This is not just a Palestinian issue. If you have 50 percent of your people with no work, chances are they will become annoyed. So it’s not, in my opinion, that Palestinians are so terrible; it is that they were in a situation where a modulation of views between one and the other became impossible.
“And you can blame the Palestinians because there were those among them who were firing rockets or you can blame the Israelis for overreacting,” he continues. “But either way – whichever side you take – the situation that emerged was that you had 50 percent of the population frustrated, no resources, and a border which was corrupt on both sides. I saw it with my own eyes: Israelis and Palestinians, arm in arm, walking off together and clearly pricing how you could get your truck to the top of the line or get it through at all. It was an absolutely transparently corrupt system at the border – you had to buy your truck’s way across. I thought it was a disgrace.”
The issue of the greenhouses is especially painful to Wolfensohn because of his personal contribution to them. “Everything was rotting because you couldn’t get the fruit. And if you went to the border, as I did many times, and saw tomatoes and fruit just being dumped on the side of the road, you would have to say that if you were a Palestinian farmer you’d be pretty upset. So my view is to try and not demonize the Palestinians. I’m not denying that there are Palestinians who fire rockets and do terrible things; I know that that happens. But to get a fundamental solution, you have to have hope on both sides.”
Wolfensohn is not naive. He knows that the Hamas election victory in January 2006 did not derive only from the collapse of the border-crossings agreement after the disengagement, but also from the years-long corruption of the Fatah leadership. He says he cautioned Fatah representatives with whom he was in contact about this danger, but they ignored him.
“Fatah wasn’t that popular at the time. A lot of people thought that the Fatah leadership was overpaid. The Palestinians, at least, did. They thought they had a dishonest leadership – not, I think, at the level of Abu Mazen, but at a ministerial level. They felt that there was an elite class that was taking advantage of the situation, and that the only way they could get some improvement was by electing a group that, at least at the time, was perceived as straightforward. My own opinion is that the decision to move to Hamas was partly ideological, but partly because of the failure of the Fatah leadership. I know that to be the case and so does everybody who was there.” Wolfensohn had discussions with the Fatah leadership, he says, “but at the time they were pretty self-confident. If you look at [Mohammed] Dahlan, the people who were there, the informal leaders – there wasn’t a lot of talk about Hamas ousting them.”
Didn’t they think it was a problem for them to drive their shiny Mercedes through refugee camps?
Wolfensohn: “I thought it was and said so many times. It’s not only that, it’s also the building of the big houses, the private armies. They said their polls showed that they’d win. What can you do? I’m an outsider. For any outsider there’s a level to which you cannot penetrate.”
Even though Wolfensohn identified the danger already then – in contrast to many observers and commentators, who see America’s insistence on holding democratic elections in the PA as the factor that enabled Hamas to become so strong – he does not view this as a mistake. “I think that’s a very hard question to answer, because although it’s pretty clear that the tide had turned in terms of support for Hamas, there had been a promise of elections. I think probably that I, too, would have taken the position to press on, in the hope that the outcome might have been different.”
[..] In 2005, Wolfensohn’s access to the G7 leaders may have made it easier for him to extract from them a commitment for a $9-billion package to ameliorate the situation of the Palestinian economy. However, he says, afterward Condoleezza Rice and Elliot Abrams made it very clear to him that intervention in peace negotiations was not within his purview. “I had to fight my way into the November  meeting when Secretary Rice announced the six-point plan. I was there with Javier Solana when it was announced, and what I didn’t realize was that that was the death penalty, because after that the Israelis and the Americans took apart that agreement one by one, and I knew less and less what was happening. And my team of 18 people was fired. So I was left with no office and no people, and even though they asked me to stay on, it was pretty clear to me that the only thing to do was to get out.”
Asked whether the disengagement plan was not one big mistake, because of its unilateral character and because Israel has been attacked relentlessly from the Gaza Strip since its implementation, Wolfensohn waxes nostalgic for Ariel Sharon. “I don’t think it was a mistake, if it had been followed by the second part of the disengagement – to create a self-sustaining entity that could be the first step to Palestinian statehood that could allow the Palestinians to live their lives and develop a sense of national integrity. That was an opportunity that was missed, and at the heart of it was Arik [Sharon]. He was an unlikely negotiator of peace because of his record, but I have to say that personally I found him very pragmatic. I can’t say that he was fond of Palestinians, but he knew that for the future, you couldn’t have an Israel full of Palestinians. That demographic imperative made it essential that there would be some kind of two-state solution.”
Sharon, Wolfensohn continues, “was hugely suspicious of me, as he was of the Quartet, but in the end he accepted me and I think I knew what was in his mind. I think he saw the Gaza withdrawal as a very positive thing. When Condi [Rice] came over for those meetings in November , he and I at that stage were becoming pretty good friends. He got up from the table where he was sitting with Condi – and that’s something he never did – came across to my table and gave me a hug. He was prime minister, so it was for me to [rise to] greet him, but he did it in a very obvious way. I think personally that he had the strength and the standing, and in my opinion the determination to move through with the two-state solution.
[..] “There was never a desire on the part of the Americans to give up control of the negotiations, and I would doubt that in the eyes of Elliot Abrams and the State Department team, I was ever anything but a nuisance.” (This applies to Blair also.)
“In the end, both sides have to recognize that they are 11 million people in a sea of 350 million Arabs,” Wolfensohn says, and goes on to illustrate the proportions numerically: “Over the last four years, the war in Israel and Palestine has cost the international community – including military expenditure – somewhere between $10 and $20 billion. The Iraq war has cost $600 billion. The Afghanistan war has cost between $50 billion and $100 billion. You have a nuclear threat in Iran, you have the issue of Syria and which way it goes, and you have a doubling of the Arab population in something like between 10 and 15 years. So instead of 350 million, there will be 700 million. Israel may grow from six million to eight million, if they’re lucky, or nine million.
“There has to be a moment when Israelis and Palestinians understand that they are a sideshow,” Wolfensohn continues. “The real global politics is the politics of war and the politics of nuclear weaponry and the weight of the population. In the Western press the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets a lot of coverage, but you should see the press in the developing countries, as I did when I visited more than 140 countries: It’s not such a big deal there. I don’t see any way to argue that Israel’s position is improving.”
Wolfensohn carefully avoids giving a reply to the question of whether the continuation of the conflict and the worsening of Israel’s situation are liable to produce a regime with apartheid characteristics. At the same time, he notes that Israel has for some time been suffering from a brain drain, and adds that when the country reaches junctures of major decisions, the strength of the security establishment always overcomes that of the civil forces in society.
“The expenses on military and intelligence in Israel are probably greater than in any democracy I know of, and I can understand that, given the situation, but as a continuing characteristic of the country, I don’t think it’s hopeful. To me it is so bloody sad that all the creativity you have in Israeli youth has to go through this experience in the army, risking their lives,” Wolfensohn says, casting his gaze far beyond Central Park. “Israeli youth finish high school and spend two-three years in the army, and then go to Thailand and other places and smoke pot to get over it, then come back and start their lives when they’re 24. I don’t think that’s an ideal way for the next generation of Israel to live their lives.”
Did your mission in Israel change the way you perceive Zionism and Israel?
“No. I still believe in that. But Israelis and Palestinians really should get over thinking that they’re a show on Broadway. They are a show in the Village, off-off-off-off Broadway. I hope I don’t get into too much trouble for saying this, but what the hell, that’s what I believe, and I’m 73.”