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World Bank Head Brings His Charm to Role As Quartet’s Mideast Envoy

April 20, 2005
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James Wolfensohn, the Jewish president of the World Bank named by President Bush to midwife Israel’s exit from Gaza, has spent a lifetime reconciling worlds that often clash: rich and poor, Arab and Jew, black and white, and the gamut of Jewish denominations. Wolfensohn, who ends his 10 years at the World Bank on May 31, already has stepped into his new role as the envoy brokering Israel’s planned Gaza Strip withdrawal this summer for the Quartet, the diplomatic grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations that is driving the “road map” peace plan.

The Australian native, 71, has spent his decade at the world’s leading development institution gently nudging the developed world away from the “tough love” that characterized its attitude to the developing world and toward an approach that is more accommodating and forgiving of debt.

“We must rebalance our world to give everyone the chance for life that is secure,” Wolfensohn said in a 2003 speech to the bank and its sister lending institution, the International Monetary Fund, “with a right to expression, equal rights for women, rights for the disabled and disadvantaged, the right to a clean environment, the right to learn, the right to development.”

Wolfensohn has tirelessly applied that outlook to the World Bank’s role in reviving the Palestinian economy, a role he helped launch when he became World Bank president in 1995, at the height of the Oslo peace process.

“I believe that there is no more important issue for global peace than an equitable and secure solution to this problem,” Wolfensohn said last week when his new job was announced. “I look forward to assisting the Israelis and the Palestinians as they strive to reach and implement a peaceful solution that restores hope and confidence to the people of the region.”

His first trip as envoy starts next Monday. He will spend 10 days in Israel and the Palestinian areas on a listening tour.

All sides welcomed the appointment, a positive and rare sign at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are trying to organize an orderly transfer of assets when Israel withdraws.

“I was very happy to hear of his appointment,” Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, told JTA. “He is a man of honor, experience and deep commitment. I wish him well in his new appointment and will be happy to offer any assistance he might require.”

Edward Abington, a lobbyist who represents Palestinian Authority interests in Washington, said Bush’s choice was inspired.

Wolfensohn “has a lot of experience in working the issue since 1995,” when the World Bank first set up shop in the West Bank and Gaza, Abington said. “Just appointing him is good, because it forces both sides to start facing up to the issues and responding, especially the Palestinians.”

Wolfensohn has an avuncular approach but is also known for his bluntness.

“If the current conditions prevail, I don’t think you’ll get much money,” he said in December during a visit to Israel and the Palestinian areas to assess the likelihood of investment in the region.

An experienced reconciler, Wolfensohn has won over some of the World Bank’s fiercest critics among poverty and environmental activists. Costa Rican scientists named a beetle species for him to honor his environmentalist approach. In some African countries, he is a hero for organizing debt forgiveness.

Wolfensohn’s views on poverty and peace are rooted in the values he learned from his parents, British Jews who immigrated to Australia. They were instrumental in bringing Jewish refugees from Europe to Australia.

He has given generously from the $100 million he amassed as an investment banker before joining the World Bank. His three children, Naomi, Adam and Sara, administer the family trust.

The trust’s choices reflect the concerns Wolfensohn brought to his job at the World Bank — gender equality, reconciliation, poverty relief and the environment — but often within a Jewish context.

What makes each gift remarkable, many beneficiaries say, is the Wolfensohns’ insistence on reaching out to all denominations, a rarity in the often fractious world of Jewish giving.

“They seem deeply committed to Jewish causes and will not allow denominational barriers to stand in their way to promote those causes,” said Rabbi Saul Berman, whose group, Edah, is using Wolfensohn funds to design educational programs on Judaism and the environment. The group is Orthodox, but reaches out to all denominations.

Berman’s view is echoed across the Jewish theological spectrum at Kolot, a center for Judaism and gender studies affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement.

“Kolot and Edah are organizations about making Judaism meaningful and relevant for all Jews,” Kolot director Lori Lefkovitz said. “It testifies to the breadth of the Wolfensohns’ commitment to Jewish causes, ensuring Jewish continuity through creativity.”

The Wolfensohns attend Congregation Or Zarua, a Conservative synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Wolfensohn’s wife Elaine is a member of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s board of overseers.

The family’s reconciliation brief extends beyond intra-Jewish disputes: Elaine is the sole non-Arab leader on the advisory council of the World Links Arab Region, which promotes technological education in the Arab world.

The family foundation funds “Operation Understanding,” which brings together 30 Jewish and black teenagers for an intensive six-month course that culminates in a three-week civil-rights tour of the United States.

“They have been very supportive,” said Rachael Feldman, the program’s director. Not just in term of finances; the Wolfensohns have helped the group network, and Sara Wolfensohn has joined the teenagers at their retreats.

Wolfensohn found out about Operation Understanding from Vernon Jordan, a close friend who was part of President Clinton’s inner circle.

That background made Wolfensohn’s appointment by Bush, who generally has shunned Clinton appointees, even more remarkable. Wolfensohn technically may answer to the Quartet, but the appointment was essentially made by Bush, who has much at stake in this summer’s planned withdrawal.

Bush hopes Israel’s pullout from Gaza and a portion of the northern West Bank will turn the recent Israeli-Palestinian quiet into long-lasting peace, reinforcing his quest for a democratic Middle East and building international support for U.S.-led efforts to rebuild Iraq.

Working with Gen. William Ward, the special U.S. envoy covering military aspects of the disengagement, Wolfensohn might be the man to make Bush’s dreams come true, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“He has the right connections, he has credibility with the Palestinians and with the Europeans,” Hoenlein said. “What’s most important is his ability to tell the Palestinians what they need to hear” about reforming their institutions.

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