The UN's special envoy to the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, has some simple advice for the US team currently exploring ways to move the Mideast diplomatic process forward: aim low.
“It is not helpful right now to jump to final status issues and arrangements, and it would be premature in a way, because the level of mistrust between the sides is so big that if you suddenly jump to those issues, you will not have a constituency on either side, and it would not look reasonable,” Mladenov told diplomatic reporters at a briefing on Wednesday.
Mladenov will be meeting in Jerusalem on Thursday with the US, Russian, and EU Mideast envoys for the first meeting of the Mideast Quartet held since US President Donald Trump came into the White House in January.
The UN envoy said that he has hardly met an Israeli who did not say that another round of negotiations led by the international community would lead to another intifada, nor a Palestinian who did not say that another round of international-led negotiations would lead to them losing even more ground.
He praised the current American approach, led by US envy Jason Greenblatt, characterizing it as a way to find the diplomatic space where it will be possible for the sides to enter into negotiations.
Currently, because of the huge distrust on both sides, that space does not exist, he noted.
“What is right in the American approach is they are actually saying, 'First we need to create the conditions [on the ground] so getting to issues like final status will sound reasonable.’”
He said that the US efforts now are focused on looking at the situation on the ground and determining what can be done to create a level of confidence to hold talks, and how to remove the obstacles that make this impossible.
Mladenov said that settlement construction was one of the obstacles, but not the only one or even the primary one. He listed the others as violence, incitement, and the split between Gaza and the West Bank.
For instance, he said, just as it will be difficult to hold negotiations if there is unrestricted settlement construction, it will be equally difficult if there is incitement and violence, or if Gaza remains under Hamas control
Mladenov said that currently, the biggest risk to any diplomatic process is the situation in Gaza.
“We need to avoid another conflict in Gaza right now,” he said. “It would destroy any prospect of a US peace initiative, it would be damaging politically for everyone and devastating for the people on the ground.”
This, he said, “is the one issue that keeps us up at night right now.”
The situation in Gaza has deteriorated significantly in the last three months, he sad, as the PA-Hamas feud has led to a dramatic reduction in electricity, and reduced the salaries paid by the PA to Gaza.
He said that Gaza optimally needs 450 megawatts of electricity a day, and that over the weekend, that was reduced to 70. “The sewage system has effectively shut down,” he said, meaning that 100,000 tons of unprocessed waste is being dumped into the Mediterranean
each day -- with some of it reaching Ashkelon -- creating a potentially devastating health problem.
If Egypt had not agreed to sell fuel to the Gaza power station, he added, the electricity situation
would be even more problematic.
He said that the measures the PA has taken in an effort to return Gaza to its control have a negative impact on the population, and also on the security situation.
“When people live like this, the situation can very easily deteriorate and explode,” he said, meaning that the pressure cooker environment could lead someone “to create an incident,” or others to try to divert attention by “creating an incident.”
At the end of the day, he said, “all this will come back to Israel's doorstep.”
Mladenov said that both Israel and Egypt understand the volatile situation in Gaza, and have taken steps to keep it from spiraling out of control. The Egyptian decision to sell fuel to the power plant is one example, and Israel's decision not to cut the electrical supplies until other solutions could be found was another.
“We are working very intensely with the PA and all authorities to chart a way out of this crisis,” he said. “It is still a work in progress.”
Mladenov noted that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have not been swept up in the maelstrom of sectarian and extremist violence sweeping the Middle East, saying there were a couple of factors that have successfully contained the conflict here.
The first is the security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. “This is vitally important to secure the situation,” he said. “From our perspective, it is currently working at a higher level, and is increasingly effective.”
Another key factor, he said, is increased security cooperation between Israel, Egypt and Jordan.
Although this is good in the short term, the UN envoy said that, in the long run, people need to have hope that their “legitimate aspirations will be met.”
“We need to recreate some level of hope for a political solution,” he said. “And this is where the US takes on a critical role.” He said that the US engagement has been “very, very positive” in talking to the sides and “trying to outline the space within which you could potentially look for creating a prospect for peace.”
Mladenov said that at his first meeting with Greenblatt earlier this year, Mladenov told him, “Don't rush into it, take your time. If you are coming in from the outside, it is super presumptuous to start prescribing solutions and recipes to people who have lived this for so long. Take time, understand what is possible and doable.”
Mladenov stressed the need as well for “active engagement of the Arab countries” in the process, saying his is “critically important.”
At the same time, he cautioned against thinking that ties with the Arab world could be normalized without addressing the Palestinian issue.
“You can't jump over the Palestinians with the Arabs without making progress on the Palestinian issue,” he said.