Hamas Victory Puts Peace Envoy in Tricky Position

Middle East peace envoy James Wolfensohn says he's thinking about quitting. Wolfensohn's mandate is in question now that Hamas is in charge of the Palestinian Authority. He took on the job in more hopeful times — talking about ways to build up the Palestinian economy. Now, he's simply trying to keep the Palestinian Authority afloat.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Special Middle East envoy James Wolfensohn says he may soon call it quits. He is the envoy from the so-called quartet made up of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia. And for the past year, he's been trying to build up the Palestinian economy. Ever since Hamas won elections in the West Bank in Gaza, though, he's been struggling to figure out a way to keep aid flowing.

NPR's Michelle Kelemen reports.

MICHELLE KELEMEN reporting:

Wolfensohn started out in what looked like more hopeful times, trying to help the Palestinian economy after Israel pulled out of Gaza. He had high hopes then, and even a pet project in which he invested his own money; to maintain greenhouses that Israelis built in Gaza's Jewish settlements. He told a Senate hearing yesterday that the Palestinians weren't able to export much of the produce through Israeli-controlled crossing points.

Mr. JAMES WOLFENSOHN (Special Middle East Envoy): The greenhouse project has been the most tragic personal involvement. Although relative to everything else, it's quite small.

KELEMEN: The 72-year-old former World Bank president's troubles are far more extensive these days. The quartet, which he represents, has warned Hamas that the next Palestinian government must recognize Israel's right to exist and renounce violence, if it wants outside aid. And Wolfensohn doesn't expect Hamas to change over night.

Mr. WOLFENSOHN: I think if you were in a job where it was unclear what the purpose of that job was, and what the backing that you had was, and who had the responsibility; and you were as old as I am, you would probably wonder whether for the few remaining years you've got, that's the thing you want to do.

KELEMEN: His suggestion that he might quit is troubling news for Edward Abington, a lobbyist for the Palestinians.

Mr. EDWARD ABINGTON (Lobbyist, Palestinian Authority): I am disappointed because I thing that it's important to have someone of his stature working on this issue full-time.

KELEMEN: Abington says an envoy is needed to chart a rational policy.

Mr. ABINGTON: We don't want to reward Hamas, given their very obnoxious stands on Israel and on the peace process, and so forth. But on the other hand, you don't want to create a chaotic situation, where the Palestinian Authority collapses and Hamas is left standing.

KELEMEN: At the Senate Foreign Relations hearing, James Wolfensohn warned it will take time to figure out a way to make sure teacher salaries are paid, for instance, without money going to a Hamas-led government. He asked to go sector-by-sector studying this, and he says he hasn't yet invented that alternative delivery framework.

Mr. WOLFENSOHN: This is a time for wisdom, in terms of holding to the principles, making a series of steps, which not negotiable in terms of direction; but allow you to keep the patient alive because the thing that I fear is chaos.

KELEMEN: Wolfensohn says it's hard to imagine a peace if you have kids in the streets and not in the schools, and you can't pay salaries. He urged U.S. lawmakers not to pass legislation that would make it harder to come up with alternative ways to keep the Palestinian Authority afloat.

Michelle Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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