The United States and its partners in the Middle East diplomatic quartet, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, have named outgoing World Bank President James Wolfensohn to be a special envoy to help facilitate Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. He will focus on non-military aspects of the pullout including the disposition of vacated Israeli settlements.
Mr. Wolfensohn is an international figure in his own right after heading the World Bank for 10 years, and his appointment as special envoy for Gaza disengagement underlines the importance the United States and the rest of the Quartet attach to the planned withdrawal.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the appointment after a round of telephone consultations this week with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, European Union chief diplomat Javier Solana, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
With Mr. Wolfensohn standing beside her, Ms. Rice said she and the quartet partners agree they must seize the moment presented by the Gaza withdrawal to help the parties build mutual trust and achieve the peace and security they both desire.
She said Mr. Wolfensohn will focus on two areas: Israeli-Palestinian coordination of non-military aspects of the withdrawal including the key issue of the disposition of vacated Israeli settlements, and reviving the Palestinian economy after the withdrawal.
The Secretary said the quartet is committed to making the difference for peace, but that its achievement depends on the parties themselves:
"The responsibility for peace ultimately rests with the two parties, and Mr. Wolfensohn can only help them achieve what they are willing to achieve together," said Condoleezza Rice. "His mission is to work closely with Israeli and Palestinian officials to promote cooperation and insure a smooth transition in Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank."
Mr. Wolfensohn, an Australian-born naturalized U.S. citizen, is due to leave his World Bank post May 31 to be replaced by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
But Ms. Rice said in view of the urgency of his mission, the World Bank's board of directors has agreed to allow Mr. Wolfensohn to begin preparatory work immediately.
Mr. Wolfensohn said the task ahead is daunting, and that he is honored to have the support of the quartet and of President Bush, with whom he spoke earlier in the day:
"I think there is no more important mission currently than working with the Israeli and Palestinian to bring about an equitable and a just and secure solution to the issues that they are facing," James Wolfensohn. "It is a real privilege to act on behalf of the Quartet and I do with some humility, since I've been in the area for ten years and have some idea of the difficulties."
The Israeli disengagement from Gaza and four remote settlements in the West Bank began as a unilateral move by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
But the Bush administration has made clear its hope that it can serve as a catalyst for reviving the quartet's Roadmap to a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.
U.S. diplomacy has been focused in recent weeks on encouraging Israel-Palestinian coordination so the handover of Gaza, due to begin in July, can occur smoothly, without violence.