James Wolfensohn, the Mideast Quartet's special envoy for Israel's disengagement from Gaza and former World Bank President, said Thursday that early talks have already made notable progress in reducing distrust between Palestinians and Israeli, reports Agence France Presse.
"The dialogue between the two parties has increased," Wolfensohn told a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The work that we are doing, with all four Quartet members [the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States] now established in an office in Jerusalem, is having some effect. What we've succeeded in doing is bringing the discussion from trying to agree an agenda to agreeing those issues which are central to the resolution of longstanding divisions between the two sides. My experience in the first 60 days gives me hope that the process of disengagement from Gaza can lead both sides back to the roadmap.”
Wolfensohn said talks so far have focused on six key areas -- "real practical issues that need to be solved now, if the withdrawal is to move ahead," he said. They are: border crossings and trade corridors; linking Gaza with the West Bank; reducing barriers to trade and movement of people within the West Bank; access to airports and seaports; determining the fate of settler houses left behind by Israelis after withdrawal; and the fate of greenhouses left behind. "The parties have tentatively agreed the houses should be destroyed, and are working out the best mechanism to do so," said Wolfensohn. "I am hopeful a solution can be found that generates jobs for the Palestinians.” He also said the Palestinians will be best served by a land development strategy of their own design. By contrast, with respect to greenhouses, Wolfensohn said: "The agricultural assets settlers leave behind may have value for the Palestinians," but he said the settlers are seeking "adequate compensation" for them, while "the Palestinian Authority is unwilling to pay."
As pressing a concern as any of those issues, he said, is a massive Palestinian budget deficit, estimated this year at between $550 million and $650 million, according to IMF figures. Another major question to resolve, he said, is "what happens the day after" withdrawal. "What is it that can be delivered the day after? We need to create jobs, we need to get people started on the roads, we need to have people see that sewerage is being fixed, that water is being connected, that micro-credit is becoming available. We really must make certain that we quickly get benefits to the Palestinians." Finally, Wolfensohn said the international community must address "the question of the medium and long-term to help the Palestinians put themselves in the situation where they can run a state," including installing a functional judicial system, financial system and other governmental and private infrastructure.
Dow Jones meanwhile reports senior Bush administration officials told the US Congress on Thursday that with Israel due to begin evacuating Gaza in six weeks, Palestinian forces aren't capable yet of taking charge of security in the area. "That process will take time," William Ward, who monitors Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, told the Foreign Relations Committee. On any given day, Ward testified, only about 20,000 of the 58,000 Palestinians with security jobs show up for work. But, he said, "The ability will come in time." Ward said recruitment efforts had begun and Egypt was nearly ready to complete plans to help secure its border with Gaza. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch also said the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas had done a good job in managing its budget but hadn't developed a justice system. He said many Arab governments haven't provided needed financial support. "An improved security environment is crucial for progress on Palestinian economic development," he said.