It’s not an easy job that Nickolay Mladenov stepped into a year ago when he was appointed the UN special Mideast envoy, not the least because Jerusalem has but very little trust in the UN.
Yet, Mladenov had a couple things – at least from Jerusalem’s perspective – working in his favor. First, he was a former Bulgarian defense and foreign minister who had worked closely in the past with Israel in those capacities. Second, he was not Robert Serry.
Mladenov’s predecessor, Serry, had a very rocky relationship with the Israeli government during his more than six years here, culminating in former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman saying in 2014 he should be declared persona non grata for allegations that he worked inside the UN to transfer money from Qatar to pay Hamas salaries.
So far, Mladenov’s tenure – he spent the two years immediately prior to his posting here as the UN special envoy to Iraq – has been far less tempestuous than Serry’s. But not uneventful.
Currently, Mladenov is one of the key figures tasked with preparing a document that the Mideast Quartet – of which the UN is a member alongside the US, Russia and the EU – is preparing in the hopes of providing a way out of the current impasse with the Palestinians and back into negotiations .
In a candid, 45-minute interview with The Jerusalem Post last week in the UN’s palatial offices on the capital’s Hill of Evil Counsel, formerly the British Government House during the time of the Mandate, Mladenov explained the logic behind the Quartet’s new initiative, discussed why he thought it was “daydreaming” to think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could get into a room and negotiate now, and what he thought of Israel’s lack of trust in the UN.
He also discussed the current terrorism wave – careful in most cases to refer to “violence,” not “terrorism” – and his support for his boss, Ban Ki-moon’s, recent comment about Palestinian frustration driving the violence.
What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity.The Quartet met in Munich earlier this month, and there was discussion about a new paper they want to put together.
What is that? What is in the works?
What we have decided to do is to have the Quartet sit down and produce a more extensive report on the situation on the ground.
All of this comes from an understanding we all share – the Americans, the Russians, the UN, European Union – that given where things stand right now, the parties are drifting apart and the prospects for a two-state solution, which has been the declared goal of everybody until now, is dimming.
Therefore, we need to sit down and look very seriously at what is happening on the ground and what are the risks to the prospect of achieving a two-state solution. That means looking at everything and trying to outline a way forward.
(Photo By: UNSCO Photo Bank)
Obviously, to some, that is a bit minimalistic because it is not full-fledged negotiations going forward. But given the realities of where we are today, I think it is a good starting point in trying to rebuild some trust between the two sides so that they can inevitably come back to a full process, and also to keep the international community engaged in a constructive way of how we can support such a process when the parties come together.The way you describe it sounds like the road map of the early 2000s. Is that what we are talking about, a new road map?
Words are very loaded in this environment. That is why we’re trying to avoid using certain words, because people fall into concepts they have from the past. The goal is really to look at what are the risks, what is the way forward and how can we, as the international community, help. Now you can call it pathway, road map, highway, sidewalk, whatever you want, but the goal is to keep everybody focused on this issue because otherwise we are risking continuing this status quo on the ground.Does this mean the Quartet does not look favorably on the French initiative calling for an international peace conference and, if that doesn’t work, recognizing a Palestinian state. What is your position on that?
We still need to understand a little bit better what exactly the French are putting on the table because we’ve had some preliminary discussions with them, but I hope over the next few months we will see more details of what their proposal is.
My personal view is that it is not for us in the international community to tell you guys and the Palestinians how to come together. It is for us to actually help create the conditions which will bring people together around a negotiated solution.
We all agree the way forward, the way out of this conflict is through negotiations.
It is not through violence. It is not through stabbings. It’s not through fighting. It is through sitting down and negotiating based on all the issues that have been discussed in the past.
What is the format in which you sit, how you sit down to do that, how the international community comes to support this process is something we can talk about. But the fact that you do need a negotiated solution, I don’t think anyone questions that.
Are you going to do what you do each month at the UN, list how many incidents of violence, how many houses in settlements were built. Is that what will go in the paper, or something wider?
No, we will look at the bigger impediments and risks to the two-state solution.
On the one side, you have settlements and obviously settlement expansion, demolition of houses, these are two impediments to a two-state solution.
You see the resurgence of violence – that is also not helping a two-state solution, neither is incitement. So all these things need to be spoken out a little bit more clearly and identified more clearly so that political leaders can focus on dealing with them, rather than just avoiding things.
You said the goal is to return to negotiations and a negotiated solution. The PA foreign minister, Riad al-Maliki, said in Japan that the Palestinians are done with negotiations, that they don’t think it will help them and they are going to go in different ways now. Do those kind of comments have a sobering effect on this type of plan? Do you take them seriously, or is it just rhetoric?
No, we take everything seriously.
But, at the end of the day, we look at what is not just the situation on the ground, but what is the most reasonable way forward. I will not be convinced that stabbing a person in the street will bring a Palestinian state into existence, but I will also not be convinced that just putting a checkpoint, or moving the army from one area to another area, will strengthen security for Israelis.
Therefore, the only way forward is actually to have peaceful negotiations that reach the goal of having two states. But, if I were to say to you today, let’s get the president and prime minister in the same room tomorrow, that would be daydreaming.
Our role is to actually figure out how we can create the conditions under which such a process can resume in a meaningful manner.In a 2010 interview with the ‘Post’ when you were Bulgaria’s foreign minister, you were asked whether you thought your colleagues in the EU understand what Israel is up against. You said, ‘Not always, no.’ You said, at the time, that ‘Many countries have lost the sensitivity to the difficult security environment in which Israel lives. We often say that “we recognize Israel’s legitimate security concerns,” but I sometimes wonder if we all know what stands behind these words.’ In your position now, do you still believe that?
Yes I do. Except let me caveat that. I think now, in Europe, because of what has been happening since 2010, there is perhaps a better public awareness of the risks of terrorism, or extremism and radicalism, then when we spoke six years ago. I think that has slightly changed.Do you think the world gets the real sense of insecurity that you know all Israelis feel?
Not always, because very few countries in the world have to live with the daily threat of the risks that people here face. However, the world needs to also understand that how you deal with these risks and threats very much also says a lot of things about how you want to see your country in the future.
What I would like to see, actually, is that these security incidents that are occurring now be dealt with not just as security incidents, but rather put in the context of addressing the broader political underlining elements that have, unfortunately, made them possible.
And that is somewhere where I think a lot of work needs to be done.
That is why part of our message has been very clear, yes, you have to take security measures to keep people safe, but you have to put into place a political prospect that drives people away from violence toward something that is more constructive, which is obviously hope for the future.
There will be those who say we have had political processes in the past. Oslo was the mother of all political processes, and during that period we did not see the terrorism stop, we saw it increase. So why believe now that if you start this process it will tamp down the violence? What has changed?
But am I asking you to send secret teams to negotiate [an agreement] in a capital far away that you would present to your people now? We are not asking, today, to drop everything and go start negotiating a peace deal. We are asking you to get back into a position where negotiating a peace deal will be meaningful and possible and would reflect public opinion on both sides.
Part of the problem today is that if you look at Israelis and Palestinians they have drifted apart from each other, are drifting apart day by day. [The] less Israelis talk to Palestinians, they interact less with them, and vice versa.
You know this whole fad that is happening now, about separation, that ‘we need to separate’ – whether it is a wall or fence, or whatever. You don’t resolve conflict by separating.
As far as creating conditions on the ground, the Palestinians are saying that before starting negotiations they want to see Israel’s agreement to a two-state solution based on 1967 lines and an end to all settlement activity. So, what conditions, short of that, can you create that would bring about talks?
First, you have the current security situation, which needs to be addressed, and that, if left unaddressed, will keep deteriorating to the detriment of both Israelis and Palestinians. But we are saying that, on top of those security measures, you have to rebuild the sense of hope for the future for a whole community – the Palestinian community that has clearly lost that hope.
This is one part of it. The second part of it is that if you are going to want to return to all these issues – negotiating on the borders, on the final status issues, on the two-state outcome of this process – you need to get both sides to get back to a state of mind in which that negotiation is possible. We don’t believe that, currently, the way things stand negotiations are possible.
(Photo By: UNSCO Photo Bank)
If we look at the situation on the ground, we all have to admit that there are certain things that drive anger, and then that drive anxiety. Settlement growth, demolishing people’s houses, this makes people angry and gets them out into the street and causes further anxiety on one side.
On the other side, yes, we have to talk more about incitement, we have to look more at the whole issue of violence and how acceptable violence is in a society, and how you incite people to certain acts, and what statements you make in order to make that acceptable. These are facts that need to be addressed But it is not going to happen overnight. It is not going to happen suddenly. We need to work on these conditions. Yes, obviously the leaders on both sides – in Ramallah and here in Jerusalem – will have their conditions, will have their statement, their public lines they have to take.
Our role is not to side with one against the other, our role is to ensure that we bring them to an area which is reasonable.You take as a given that both sides want to negotiate. Much of the Israeli public does not believe the Palestinians want to negotiate.
So what’s the alternative? Give me a credible alternative.Perhaps getting the international community take away the option that the Palestinians seem to believe that if they just hold out long enough the world will step in, impose a solution on Israel and save the day.
Whatever the international community does – however you want to define the international community – at the end of the day, you know that when you leave this building, you cross the street and see a human being living in a house and that’s what matters. How does that human being live in that house? What life do they have? Do they have a job? Do they have hope for the future to raise their children, or do they raise their children in fear. And this is valid both for Israelis and for Palestinians.
Now, tell me how the international community is going to make that single person’s house, and his children, safe for the future. We can’t. What we can do is create the environment in which leaders on both sides go back to their constituencies, build up their constituencies, whatever they need to do as politicians do, and reach a deal.
Right now, that deal is falling apart, we are losing it dayby- day. And, in this equation, somehow everybody is right, yet everybody is wrong. It gets you to the next day, but it does not get you to the ultimate goal.There is a real trust deficit among Israelis with respect to the UN.
There is an absolute trust deficit.
Does that matter to you? If you want to push this thing, you will need the trust of the Israelis. How does the UN get that trust?
It does matter, of course. I see this on all sides, not just on the Israeli side. I see it on the Palestinian side. Sometimes the criticisms are exactly the same.
What really matters are two things: how committed the people doing this job are to actually getting it done, and being realistic about what is achievable, not dealing with pies in the sky.
The second thing is how can we steer the international community into a position that is reasonable and helpful [and] not a position that is unrealistic.
What is realistic today is to look at what can be done to reduce the tension on the ground. That will create the conditions under which negotiations will be possible [in the future].
I know people here are extremely cynical. They have been living with this problem for generations. There is a feeling that just about everything has been tried and nothing seems to have worked. Our job at the UN is to try and focus on what is realistic that can be done.
You have 18 standing resolutions against Israel in the General Assembly. You have one against Syria. Why do you think Israelis will say, ‘Let us give the UN a shot, because it is fair,’ when the sense is that it is not fair?
So the UN is not fair when it passes resolutions against Israel, but it is fair when it passes resolutions in support of Israel; like getting rid of the Zionism equals racism [resolution], recognizing the Holocaust, a number of security council discussions and all of that? I understand that you would like to have the UN as a punching bag.Well, you make it pretty easy sometimes.
There is no other UN and any other version of the UN would be a worse version for the world.
So let us hang on to what we have today, not just for the sake of Israel, but for the sake of just about everyone else in the rest of the world.
The secretary-general has been absolutely clear and supportive of Israel when he has had to be, and he has been critical of Israel’s policies when he has had to be. Yes, you may feel that there is too much focus on your country because you look at it from your perspective. I can assure you that having spent quite a lot of time dealing with Iraq, for example, any country can say that they are not treated the same. Many countries can point to various resolutions, etc. To me that debate does not carry much weight. The criticism will always be there. My job is to make sure that what we do is effective.
Do you think Israel is treated fairly at the UN?
Not always.Can something be done to change that?
You have to talk to your Foreign Ministry about that, not me. You are a sovereign state.
You have your foreign policy.
You have your foreign policy establishment. It is their job to present your views to the world.
It is not my job to present them.Is the secretary-general’s comment about frustration leading to terrorism something that you subscribe to? Did he say that frustration drives terrorism
As far as I recall, he said that frustration drives violence.The difference being?
There is a fundamental difference because he also condemned terrorism.What we saw February 17 in Turkey was a horrible terrorist act. I find it hard to believe that anyone is going to say, ‘Well, that is because the Kurds are a really frustrated people.’ Israelis ask, ‘Why is there this double standard? Why is some terrorism the cause of frustration and other just plain evil?’
The secretary-general’s message was very clear and I fully subscribe to it. When you have an occupation of one people by another people, that always drives frustration. Ultimately, that frustration drives violence.
It doesn’t justify terror, but it does drive [it and] creates the conditions under which that violence becomes acceptable, possible and a fact of life. It doesn’t mean it justifies terror.
Nothing justified terror here or anywhere else in the world.
The Palestinian people feel anger and they feel frustration.
Otherwise, how do you explain the 16-year-old girl with a knife going out into the street and stabbing a neighbor. Yes, you will say incitement and I am sure that you will be right, incitement is part of it. That is why it is important to actually show a different alternative, a different way forward, that drives people away from violence, that gives them hope for the future, that creates perspective, that shows them the aspirations that they have and how they can reach them. Would you disagree? The Israeli skepticism is born of the fact that you are saying, ‘If you remove the occupation, you remove the source of terrorism and violence.’ Most Israelis would say, ‘If you go back to the ’67 lines, it will still be considered occupation.’ The violence didn’t start with ’67. You have Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, saying he will bomb the ammonia plant [in Haifa] to liberate all of occupied Palestine. The Israelis say, ‘It is a pipe dream, to remove the occupation [and to imagine that] terrorism will be gone, remove the occupation [and the violence] won’t end.
What is the alternative?
Maybe a more realistic managing of the conflict. I am just throwing this out – rather than a belief that you can solve it right now, maybe you can’t solve it?
Isn’t that exactly where we started? Right now we are not in a position in which the parties can sit down and solve it, as you say, but we are in a position where we need to [create] the conditions so that [it] becomes possible in the future.
Then essentially you agree with what Netanyahu said before the elections that we are not going to have a two-state solution now because the conditions are not right? The two-state solution remains the goal, but to get to that process we need to take some steps right now. Very soon, the two-state solution will not be there any more. It will just not be realistic because the reality on the ground would have changed. The political leaders would have drifted apart even further than today.
Then you are stuck with a really seriously, very big problem.
Let’s have that discussion about frustration then. People lose hope, they lose the belief in their future, it undermines their society, their institutions, their leaders, radicals step in. Let us stop there.Do you believe that if Israel would withdraw to the ’67 lines that would be the end of the conflict?
If you reach an agreement based on the ’67 lines and if you address the issue of clearly defining the Israeli and the Palestinian state side-by-side. If you resolve the issue of Jerusalem, which is resolvable. If you address the issue of people returning back, the Palestinian refugees, then yes, you can solve it. It will be tough. It will be very, very tough. It will be very, very, long. But, yes, you can, because both communities – the Israeli community and the Palestinian people – both long so much, long for two things, their own state and security. Both want it.And then Nasrallah is not going to want to incinerate us?
Nasrallah? Is he Palestinian? No, but it is all part of the same problem, right? Hamas won’t want to [incinerate us]? Did I say it would be easy? You asked me whether it was possible or impossible. Yes, it is possible. Look at how many wars you had with Egypt. If you had asked someone, before the peace with Egypt, would peace be possible, 99 percent would have said it’s not possible. So why give up this hope for your own people, deny it for the Palestinian people and say this is how we want to live, with daily security incidents. Do you think this is the way that Palestinians want to live, with limitations? One person can’t reunite themselves with their family from Gaza because they do not have the right paperwork and they cannot cross the check point.In the absence of any negotiations or any hope in the immediate future for a two-state solution, how important does Area C become?
It is very important. Just to give you one example, you have Palestinian cities not just villages, town and cities, that are physically outgrowing the ABC division. So a city is being physically stifled. It cannot build [expand] because that infringes on Area C. Just for the development of communities for [the] normal life of people it becomes very important. I went and visited one village, and if you look at the map, part of the village is Area B, but the house we were physically in was actually Area C. It is that level of detail that affects people’s lives.Is the UN focusing more on Area C these days?
I do not know if it is less or more than before, but yes, we are focused. Not just us, but you will see a lot of effort by the Americans, the European Union.