US point man for Mideast peace

Ambassador John Wolf is setting up shop in Jerusalem to monitor the progress of the road map.

He's low-profile, he's tough, and he's already proving himself effective at getting the Israelis and the Palestinians to make peace.

Meet John Wolf, a career US diplomat assigned to monitor the implementation of the latest Middle East peace plan, the US-backed road map.

Or rather, don't meet him.

"The Embassy is not commenting on his whereabouts or his program," says a spokeswoman for the US mission in Tel Aviv. An official with the US Consulate General in Jerusalem, where Ambassador Wolf is setting up shop, confirmed Sunday only that he is "back in the region" after a trip to Washington.

Discretion is many a diplomat's trademark, but Wolf is no mere go- between. His job is to hold "both sides to account," in President Bush's phrase, and thereby ensure that Israelis and Palestinians deliver on their promises.

Wolf's mission is in part a testament to President Bush's newfound commitment to ease the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and at the same time an effort to correct a flaw in previous such efforts. Israelis and Palestinians alike criticize the so-called Oslo process of the 1990s - which splintered into violence nearly three years ago - because no one was charged with making the parties fulfill their commitments.

"This time everybody understands that we cannot fall into the pitfalls of Oslo, of overlooking things, of saying it'll be done later," says Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "You've got to insist on compliance; without this, the whole road map will collapse."

For the time being, Wolf plans to perform his mission away from public scrutiny. "The most important thing in his work," says an Israeli government official who declined to be identified further, "is to do it in a discreet way." Palestinian Cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib says that Wolf must hold Israel's feet to the fire, but "maybe not publicly at first."

Since his appointment was announced in early June, at about the time Mr. Bush brought Mr. Sharon and Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas together for a summit in Jordan, Wolf has concentrated on bringing the two sides together.

According to one Western diplomat in the region familiar with the negotiations, Wolf can take partial credit for engineering the Israeli withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem, where the Palestinians have resumed control over security and undertaken to prevent attacks against Israel.

"The ball is rolling now, and I think that Wolf - with the backing of [Secretary of State Colin] Powell and [National Security Adviser Condoleezza] Rice - has really helped," this diplomat says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Wolf is more technocrat than elder statesman - the type of person usually dispatched to make peace - but he has three things going for him, the diplomat adds: "He's on the ground, he's American, and he at least seems to have the ear of the White House."

A former US ambassador to Malaysia and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Wolf was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation until he took up his new duties. While his background may lack experience in Middle East peacemaking, his character - which the diplomat describes as "really no nonsense" - may suit him to the task.

Wolf seems not to have initiated the monitoring phase of his work. This is in part because he is still assembling a team - which may include former or serving military and police officers - and because the road map is still in its infancy.

When Wolf begins this work, he may become a sort of behind-the-screen arbiter - investigating whether each side is fulfilling its obligations and making his findings known to the White House and the State Department.

The Israelis seem more wary of a third party investigating their compliance with the road map than the Palestinians. "Whatever aspects of the road map the Israelis are resisting have to be smoothed out by the Americans, particularly Wolf," says PA Cabinet Minister Ghassan Khatib. "He has to point at the party that is violating [agreements], of course in a constructive way."

Sharon spokesman Mr. Gissin says Wolf's role is "to monitor to what extent the Palestinian Authority is complying with the requirement to fight terrorism."

But another Israeli official, who declined to be identified, says that Wolf's role is limited to "transmitting messages from one side to the other," rejecting the notion that he should investigate who is doing what to whom in the field.

This divergence is in part a reflection of the Palestinians' longstanding demand that international observers keep an eye on Israel, and Israel's equally longstanding dismissal of that idea.

The Israelis argue that they conduct their actions in the open, frequently under media scrutiny, and that there is no need to bring in a third party.

Wolf's discretion may also help reinforce the impression that the US is involved in peacemaking efforts, but not orchestrating them.

Bush, during his presidential campaign, criticized then-President Clinton for becoming too intimately involved in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Another Western diplomat here says the two sides have begun to drive the peace process forward on their own, citing an Abbas-Sharon meeting last week that, he says, the parties more or less organized themselves. This arrangement stands in contrast to the June meeting in Jordan, which the US all but scripted.

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