Last week, James Wolfensohn gave a long interview to Haaretz. He poured out his heart and summed up, with amazing openness, his months as special envoy of the US, Russia, the EU and the UN (the “Quartet”) in this country – the same job entrusted now to Tony Blair. The interview could have been entitled “A Warning to Tony”.Among other revelations, he disclosed that he was practically fired by the clique of Neo-cons, whose ideological leader is Paul Wolfowitz.
What Wolfensohn and Wolfowitz have in common is that both are Jews and have the same name: Son of Wolf, one in the German version and the other in the Russian one. Also, both are past chiefs of the World Bank.
But that’s where the similarity ends. These two sons of the wolf are opposites in almost all respects. Wolfensohn is an attractive person, who radiates personal charm. Wolfowitz arouses almost automatic opposition. This was made clear when they served, successively, at the World Bank: Wolfensohn was very popular, Wolfowitz was hated. The term of the first was renewed, a rare accolade, the second was dumped at the earliest opportunity, ostensibly because of a corruption affair: he had arranged an astronomical salary for his girl friend.
Wolfensohn could be played by Peter Ustinov. He is a modern Renaissance man: successful businessman, generous philanthropist, former Olympic sportsman (fencing) and Air Force officer (Australia). In middle age he took up the cello (under the influence of Jacqueline du Pre). The role of Wolfowitz demands no more finesse than that of the average gunman in a western.
But beyond personal traits, there is a profound ideological chasm between them. To me, they personify the two opposite extremes of contemporary Jewish reality.
Wolfensohn belongs to the humanist, universal, optimistic, world-embracing trend in Judaism, a man of peace and compromise, an heir to the wisdom of generations. Wolfowitz, at the other end, belongs to the fanatical Judaism that has grown up in the State of Israel and the communities connected with it, a man of overbearing arrogance, hatred and intoxication of power. He is a radical nationalist, even if it is not quite clear whether it is American or Israeli nationalism, or if he even distinguishes between the two.
Wolfowitz is a standard-bearer of the neo-cons, most of them Jews, who pushed the US into the Iraqi morass, promote wars all over the Middle East, advise the Israeli Prime Minister not to give up anything and are ready to fight to the last Israeli soldier.
To avoid misunderstanding: I don’t know either of the two personally. I have never seen Wolfowitz in person, and heard Wolfensohn only once, at a Jerusalem meeting of the Israeli Council for Foreign Relations. I admit that I liked him on sight.
Wolfensohn arrived in this country some months before the “separation plan” of Ariel Sharon. He says now that the separation would have succeeded “if the withdrawal had been accompanied by the second part of the separation, which, according to my understanding, would have created an independent entity that would become a Palestinian state.” He believes (mistakenly, I think) that this was the intent of Sharon, whom, unlike his successor as Prime Minister, he respects.
Wolfensohn envisioned a blooming Gaza Strip, flourishing economically, open in all directions, a model to the West Bank and a basis for the new state. To this purpose he raised eight billion dollars. Unlike other idealists, he invested several millions of his own money in the greenhouses left behind by the settlers, hoping to turn them into the basis of the Palestinian economy.
He stood at Condoleezza Rice’s side during the signing ceremony for the document that was to prepare the way to a brilliant future: the agreement for the opening of the border crossings. The crossings between the Strip and Israel were to be again wide open, Israel undertook to fulfill at long last the obligation it took upon itself in the Oslo agreement (and has violated ever since): to open the vital passage between Gaza and the West Bank. On the border between the Strip and Egypt, a European unit was already taking control.
And then the whole edifice collapsed. The passage between the Strip and the West Bank remained hermetically sealed. The other border crossings were closed more and more frequently. The products of the greenhouses (together with Wolfensohn’s investment) went down the drain. The frail economy of the Strip disintegrated altogether, most of the 1.4 million inhabitants descended into misery, with 50 per cent and more unemployment. The inevitable result was the ascent of Hamas.
Wolfensohn’s complaint stresses the immense importance of the border crossings. Their closure – ostensibly for security reasons – spelled death to the Gaza economy, and, by extension, to the hope for peaceful relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Before the Hamas victory, Wolfensohn saw with his own eyes the awful corruption that governed the crossings. Relations between Israelis and Palestinians there were openly based on bribery. The Palestinian products could not cross without payment being made to the people in control on both sides.
Wolfensohn lays at least some of the responsibility for the ascent of Hamas on the Palestinian Authority – meaning Fatah – which was infected by the cancer of corruption. The victory of Hamas in the democratic elections both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip did not surprise him at all.
What caused this idealistic person to resign?
He puts the main blame on one person, who belongs to the clique of Wolfowiz: Elliott Abrams. Like Wolfowitz, Abrams is a Jew, a neo-con, a radical Zionist beloved by the Israeli Right. He was appointed by President Bush as deputy advisor for national security, responsible for the Middle East. With this appointment, Wolfensohn says, “all the elements of the agreement achieved by Condoleezza Rice were destroyed”. The passages were closed, Hamas took over.
Wolfensohn accuses Abrams openly of undermining him, in order to get him out. True, the Quartet is not under the authority of Abrams, but a person in this position cannot function without solid American support. Abrams pushed him out in cooperation with Ehud Olmert and Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s confidant, whose plans were menaced by Wolfensohn’s activity. It was Weisglass, it will be remembered, who promised to “put the Palestinian issue in formaldehyde.”
In the eyes of Wolfensohn, both sides are to blame for the current situation, but he clearly blames Israel more, since it is the stronger and more active party. No doubt, Israel is very important for him. He had a lot of sympathy for it (In World War I, his father was a soldier in the Jewish battalions which were set up by the British army and sent to Palestine.) He gave the interview to the Israeli paper in order to voice a severe warning: time is not working for us.
The demographic clock is ticking. Today, Israel is surrounded by some 350 million Arabs. In another 15 years, it will be surrounded by 700 million. “I don’t see any argument that supports the idea the Israel’s situation will get better.”
As an expert on the global economy, with a world-wide perspective, Wolfensohn could also point out that the importance of the US in the world economy is gradually declining, with new giants like China and India rising.
We, the Israelis, like to think that we are the center of the world. Wolfensohn, a person with a world-wide outreach, sticks a pin into this egocentric balloon. Already now, he says, only the West considers the Israeli-Palestinian issue so important. Most of the world is indifferent. “I have visited more than 140 countries: you are not such a big deal there.”
Even this limited interest will also evaporate. Wolfensohn rubs salt into the wound: “A moment will come when the Israelis and the Palestinians will be compelled to understand that they are a secondary performance … The Israelis and the Palestinians must get rid of the idea that they are a Broadway performance. They are only a play in the Village. Off-off-off-off-off Broadway.” Knowing that this is the worst one can tell an Israeli, he adds: “I hope that I am not getting into trouble by saying this, but, what the hell, that’s what I believe, and I am already 73 years old.”
I do believe him – and I, what the hell, am already 83.
The metaphor from the world of theater looks to me even more apt that Wolfensohn himself imagines.
What is happening now to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mostly theater, and not the best in town.
The actors drink from empty glasses, recite texts that nobody believes, put on false smiles and embrace heartily while loathing each other.
The best scene so far was the Gaza “separation”. Contrary to Wolfensohn’s belief, it was merely a performance, melodrama at its best, directed by Sharon and the chiefs of the settlers, the army and the police. Many tears, many embraces, many sham battles. This week the performance was again in the media, with a huge propaganda machine trying to show how immense was the pain, how the poor evacuees have remained without villas, how many more billions will still be needed. The intended conclusion: it is impossible to dismantle the settlements in the West Bank.
The new actor on the stage, Tony Blair, is exuding charm and joviality, embracing and kissing. We, the audience, know that his lot will be exactly like that of his predecessor. Like him, he is the “special envoy of the Quartet”. His terms of reference are exactly the same as those of Wolfensohn before him: much of nothing. He is supposed to help the Palestinians to build “democratic institutions”, after the US and Israel have systematically destroyed the democratic institutions that were set up after the last Palestinian elections.
He has embraced Olmert, kissed Tzipi Livni, smiled at Ehud Barak, and we know that all three of them will do their utmost to disrupt his mission before he reaches a position that would enable him to realize his real dream: to conduct peace negotiations, as he successfully did in Northern Ireland.
All that is happening now is theater. Olmert pretends that he really wants to “save Abu Mazen”, while doing the opposite. At Bush’s request, he allowed the transfer of a thousand rifles, with a lot of fanfare, from Jordan to Abbas, so he can fight Hamas – understanding full well that to an ordinary Palestinian this will look like collaboration with the occupier against the resistance. He enlarges the settlements, keeps the “illegal outposts” and closes his eyes while the army is helping the settlers to put up more outposts. That is a foolproof recipe for a Hamas takeover in the West Bank, too.
Everybody knows that there is only one way to strengthen Abu Mazen: immediately to start rapid and practical negotiations for the establishment of the State of Palestine in all the occupied territories, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Not more discussions about abstract ideas, as proposed by Olmert, not another plan (No. 1001), not a “peace process” that will lead to “new political horizons”, and certainly not another hollow fantasy of that grand master of sanctimonious hypocrisy, President Shimon Peres.
The next scene of the play, for which all the actors are now learning their lines, is the “international meeting” this autumn, according to the screenplay by President Bush. Condoleezza will chair, and it is doubtful whether Tony, the new actor, will be allowed to take part. The playwrights are still deliberating.
If all the world is a stage, as Shakespeare wrote, and all the men and women merely players who have their exits and their entrances, that is true even more for Israel and Palestine. Sharon exited and Olmert entered, Wolfensohn exited and Blair entered, and everything is, as Sakespeare wrote in another play, “words, words, words.”
Wolfensohn can view the next parts of the play with philosophical detachment. We, who are involved, cannot afford that, because our comedy is really a tragedy.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.