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Wolfensohn Steps Down as 'Quartet' Middle East Envoy

James Wolfensohn formally stepped down Monday as a special envoy for the international diplomatic "Quartet" on the Middle East - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. The former World Bank president said there can be no "business as usual" as long as the Hamas-led Palestinian government refuses to accept Israel's right to exist.

The former World Bank chief took the envoy job a year ago and helped smooth the way for Israel's disengagement from Gaza.

But with further peace efforts stymied by the refusal of Hamas to accept the Quartet's negotiating terms, Wolfensohn is leaving the post, which apparently will be vacant for the foreseeable future.

Wolfensohn, an Australian-born naturalized U.S. citizen, made the announcement at a press appearance here with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

He was to have stepped down at the end of last year, but agreed to stay on for a few months more, and most recently been involved in helping channel international aid to the Palestinian Authority before the Hamas-led government took power.

Wolfensohn said the current problems in Middle East peace making were beyond his competence, because of the stated commitment of Hamas to the destruction of the State of Israel.

"I guess if Canada did that to the United States, or New Zealand did that to Australia, the reaction would not be very positive in terms of the other state," said James Wolfensohn. "And that's what you're finding here. I think the Palestinians need to understand, and to accept, that the future has to be one where the issues, however difficult, need to be resolved. But you don't start by telling the other side that you're going to shoot them."

Shortly after the January election that brought Hamas to power, the Quartet said there should be no direct aid to a Palestinian Authority led by Hamas unless it accepted Israel's right to exist, renounced terrorism and accepted previous commitments of the authority, including support for the Quartet's 2003 road map to a two-state settlement of the conflict.

International assistance to the Palestinian Authority has since all but dried up, leaving the Hamas-led administration with no money to pay salaries to its 165,000 employees.

However, Wolfensohn rejected suggestions the Quartet policy is to starve the Palestinian people. Secretary Rice, expressing agreement, said the United States continues to support the moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and is accelerating humanitarian aid:

"We are looking to see what we can do to continue to help the Palestinian people, to continue to help Mahmoud Abbas, because he is the elected president," said Condoleezza Rice. "But the goal right now has to be for everyone to send as strong a message as possible to Hamas that - and by the way it is not the United States, it is the international community that's sending this message - that the best interests of the Palestinian people are served by a peace process and constructive engagement with their Israeli neighbor."

Rice will join her Quartet partners for a meeting in New York May 9 to map further strategy. France has said it will press the Quartet to allow a resumption of direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, through a fund administered by the World Bank, but the United States has shown no interest in the idea.