Nickolay Mladenov: Israelis, Palestinians lose envoy of peace

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: For six years, Nickolay Mladenov was the behind-the-scenes official who kept the wheels of a two-state solution moving

NICKOLAY MLADENOV – he won the confidence and trust of all the relevant players. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
NICKOLAY MLADENOV – he won the confidence and trust of all the relevant players.
United Nations envoy Nickolay Mladenov, a diplomatic pillar on which the uneasy calm that has characterized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last six years has rested, quietly left for his home country of Bulgaria at the end of last month.
The impact of his departure on the conflict has not garnered as much attention as that of the tumultuous regime change in Washington and the electoral chaos in Israel. His absence, however, leaves a chasm in day-to-day, back-channel regional statesmanship precisely at a time of diplomatic upheaval.
A former Bulgarian foreign minister, he arrived in Jerusalem from a UN posting in Iraq in 2015 at an inauspicious moment in the conflict. He took over what, during the time of his predecessor, Robert Serry, had been the highly contentious post of UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.
For almost six years Mladenov was a peace envoy without a peace process. From the moment of his arrival and until his departure, there were no direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Until the final months of his posting, a larger Israeli-Arab peace process, which has now filled Israel with hope, was absent and largely considered unthinkable.
During his first two years, the Obama administration had largely given up on Israeli-Palestinian peace and for the next three, the process remained frozen as both parties awaited a plan from US President Donald Trump.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in 2016, Mladenov spoke of the limits of his position in light of the current reality, noting that one would have to be “day dreaming” to imagine that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were about to sit down to negotiate.
“We don’t believe that, currently, the way things stand, negotiations are possible,” he said.
In the interim, he explained, “our role is to actually figure out how we can create the condition under which such a process can resume in a meaningful manner.”
Then he went about showing just how meaningful small, behind-the-scenes steps could actually be. He threw out the script of how his office had operated and created a new process that met the reality he saw out his window.
The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University dubbed his form of diplomacy the “Mladenov approach.”
Nowhere was that felt more than in Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza, which had thrice broken out into war – in the winter of 2008-2009, in 2012 and in the summer of 2014.
During his six years in office, Gaza crises erupted, rockets flew and the IDF struck Hamas targets. But each time, just as Israel was on the brink of war, effective behind-the-scenes diplomacy by his office restored an uneasy calm.
This included the eventual neutralization of the Hamas-led Great March of Return, which began in 2018 and sparked weekly and at times daily violent riots on Israel’s border and included the launching of incendiary balloons against southern Israel.
Part of his success was due to the fact that he was not a stranger to the Middle East and that he came from a small neutral country. He had already visited the region as a foreign minister and had ties with Israelis, Palestinians and Arab countries, including the Gulf states. He did not lose those connections, and some of them were enhanced during his time in Iraq.
MLADENOV HAD an easy manner about him that made people feel as though he were their friend, even when he was critical and holding them to task.
Former US ambassador Dan Shapiro said, “He did something that others who have held that position have found difficult to do, which is to win the confidence and trust of all the relevant players.” This included, Shapiro said, “the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, the Arab states, the American and European leaders and Hamas.”
Shapiro added that “because he had that trust and was seen as a straight shooter,” he could “call any party out for an action that needed to be addressed or changed.”
In addition, Mladenov was “very creative and quite determined. He was far more effective than many who have held that position,” said Shapiro.
Mladenov not only created a mechanism of communication for defusing crisis situations with Gaza, but he augmented that with linking Gaza calm with increased humanitarian aid, in a way that offered positive incentive that gave Hamas a reason to hold its fire.
From the start he breathed new life into the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, by which construction material was allowed into the Strip to enable Palestinians to rebuild homes destroyed during the 2014 war. He helped move forward projects on water and wastewater and electricity, including increased funding. In 2018, he expanded those efforts, bringing in extra aid, including cash for needy families, from Qatar.
Mladenov was vocal about his ideas, speaking often to the Israeli public at conferences and events, including those organized by civic society groups, by way of strengthening on the ground efforts toward peace. He wrote tweets and blog posts and gave monthly briefings to the UN Security Council. At a time when few were saying anything, he was always saying something.
Mladenov sided with the Palestinians on the idea of a two-state solution at the pre-1967 lines, as he warned against a one-state reality to the conflict. He was a persistent opponent of settlement activity, which he saw as a stumbling block to the conflict.
But he also supported Israel in its criticism of Hamas and the PA support of terrorism and incitement, putting that critique in writing in the 2016 Quartet blueprint to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he helped author.
During his six years, Mladenov was often the first UN official to condemn terrorist attacks or to chastise the Palestinians. He also called repeatedly for Fatah-Hamas unity and urged the PA to maintain its security cooperation with Israel and to accept the tax levies Israel had collected for it. At times he was accused by Palestinians of what they perceived to be a stance that was too pro-Israel.
Mladenov had not initially believed that Israeli-Arab peace was possible prior to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His opinions were diametrically opposite to those of the Trump administration. Still, he has been credited with helping the US see how the threat of Israeli West Bank annexation could create a window of opportunity for Israeli-Arab normalization. Under the rubric of the Abraham Accords the Trump administration launched in August, Israel opened ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.  
The success of those initiatives was helped, in part, by the calm that existed in Gaza, which Mladenov had helped maintain. Had there been a war in the previous two years, the option for normalization deals might not have existed.
Shapiro said that Mladenov “didn’t resolve the conflict, obviously, but helped contain it, ameliorate it [and] helped resolve and prevent crises when they popped up.”
German Ambassador Susanne Wasum-Rainer said, “He was tireless in his efforts to make small steps that could eventually lead to bigger progress. He never allowed himself to get frustrated at any obstacles, and remained always convinced that the painful reality of the conflict for the people living here gave the UN and the international community an obligation to stay engaged.”
She added, “Even during all these years without negotiations between the two sides, he succeeded to uphold the international consensus on the need for a two-states solution.”
IN SUMMING UP his own time in Israel in a blog post he wrote before he left, Mladenov said, “I have worked on upholding the international consensus that the goal is of a two-state solution, I have warned of the dangers of the eroding status quo, supported intra-Palestinian reconciliation efforts, and, most of all, focused on preventive diplomacy.
“Together with Egypt, and with critical support from Qatar and others in the international community, the United Nations has played a pivotal role in preventing another devastating war in Gaza. I have spoken out against injustices. I have condemned terror,” he wrote.
He added that it was a mistake to view the conflict from the narrow lens of territory.
“This conflict is not just a conflict over land, for both peoples have the right to call Israel and Palestine their home. It is not only a conflict over history – personal and collective. It is a conflict over the very right of two nations to coexist,” he wrote.
“Perhaps today is not the time for big international initiatives, but the time for steps – maybe small, sometimes maybe bold – that protect that goal of two-states,” Mladenov wrote.
He urged Israelis and Palestinians to seize common threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic and opportunities such as those provided by the Abraham Accords to find a way to return to the negotiating table.
Seen as a rising star at the UN and as a possible UN secretary-general, he had planned to leave for a UN post in Libya. But at the last moment he bowed out for family and personal reasons, and will be replaced by veteran diplomat from Noway Tor Wennesland.
He was so vocal and so omnipresent, speaking at small NGO events and shaking hands with heads of state throughout the region, that it almost seemed as though he had become a permanent fixture to the conflict.
The small achievements on the Israeli-Palestinian track over the last six years have depended on a large cadre of diplomats, but Mladenov is credited as the behind-the-scenes official who maximized those efforts to keep the wheels of a two-state solution slowly churning.
He was a vocal envoy of peace on behalf of both Palestinians and Israelis, who has left the stage at a time when his calming influence would have been essential to maintaining horizons of possibilities for Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian peace.