JERUSALEM – By its very nature, preventive diplomacy does not often lead to sparkling headlines for the practitioner.
In his nearly six years as the United Nations’ chief envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Nickolay E. Mladenov worked quietly behind the scenes to keep Gaza from boiling over, to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution, and to build support for it Israeli-Arab normalization as a highly preferred alternative to Israeli annexation of land in the West Bank.
But he has achieved at least one feat that is considered eye-catching: He earned the respect of almost everyone he had dealt with, many of whom see each other as enemies.
“A very honest broker,” said Rami Hamdallah, a former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority.
“I was personally dependent on him,” said Moshe Kahlon, a former Israeli finance minister.
“A man of integrity,” said Jason Greenblatt, former Trump administration envoy for the Middle East.
“We are proud to have known him,” said Khalil al-Hayya, the Hamas deputy leader in Gaza.
Mladenov, 48, whose last day at work was Thursday, is returning to his native Bulgaria after abruptly pulling out of another high profile assignment in Libya to contend with what he called a serious health problem.
In a two-hour Exit interview, he recalled how irrelevant he initially felt when he arrived in Jerusalem in 2015 as UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process – a post created in 1999 when there was still a peace process.
By and large, its predecessors had acted as gimmicks, experts said and fired statements that criticized Israel but seldom ventured off the sidelines. Israelis dismissed the UN – “Um” in Hebrew – with a sharp “Um, shmum”.
“This mission was very isolated from any high-level interaction,” said Mladenov. “Nobody took it seriously. Basically, one side expects you to just repeat what they say, the other side expects you to walk away, and that’s it. “
He didn’t do either.
In 2016, he persuaded the Middle East Mediator Quartet – the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations – to publish a groundbreaking report on concrete steps that, with little hope of breakthrough, could at least preserve the possibility of a two- States solution.
In the absence of negotiation to take action, this contradicted the diplomatic doctrine of the time that the resumption of peace talks was paramount and the way to resolve everything.
“I don’t think it works that way,” said Mladenov. “You can have the best deal in the world,” but as long as the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are divided, he said, “good luck with the implementation.”
His approach has since found wide acceptance.
A Quartet recommendation calling on Israel to cease its settlement enterprise in the West Bank was hardly new. But another – calling on the Palestinians to “stop inciting violence” and condemn “all acts of terrorism” – called for “everyone’s position to be shifted,” he said.
Less jump was required for Mr. Mladenov. As Bulgaria’s foreign minister, he worked with Israeli officials after a 2012 suicide attack in Burgas that killed a bus driver and five Israeli tourists. This attack was attributed to Hezbollah.
As a UN envoy, he caught flak through his dullness. “I don’t talk about this conflict in the usual way,” he said. “You can’t go to a restaurant in Tel Aviv, shoot people and later tell me it’s legitimate resistance. No it is not.”
Mr. Mladenov was just as ruthless when Israeli settlers burned a Palestinian family alive. And after Israeli soldiers killed a 15-year-old Gaza boy during border demonstrations in 2018, he tweeted: “Stop shooting children.”
“If you, as the UN, are not clear about where you stand on these matters, you cannot be credible,” he said. “And I suppose I am critical of both the Israelis and the Palestinians where I felt they did things wrong and welcomed them when they did things right – I think that is a novelty in this frozen conflict. “
He also did things quietly.
In Gaza, an area constantly on the brink of another war, he made it his business to avoid one.
In 2018, the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, attempted to strangle its arch-rival Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, by withholding money for the Gaza Strip power plant and lowering the Gaza Strip payroll. The economy in Gaza was on the verge of collapse. Then came waves of attacks from Gaza against Israel – border killings, arson balloons and rockets.
But when Egypt brokered, Mr Mladenov made a final run around the Palestinian Authority, prompting the Qataris to provide vital funding to keep the lights and money flowing in Gaza – while Israel and Hamas stayed more or less on the same side.
Nimrod Novik, a seasoned Israeli peace negotiator, said Mr. Mladenov saw how to formulate his arguments regarding the interests of each party. “You can say to the Israelis, ‘Look, life in Gaza is so miserable,” said Novik. “Or you can say,’ Gaza is going to explode in your face soon, but if we do one, two, three we can gain a few months of rest, so help me help you. ‘”
Mr Mladenov said he feared another Gaza war would return the world to “their usual topics of conversation about this place”, ruin any hope for peace talks and leave “Somalia on Israel’s doorstep” and condemn Israel from everywhere The Arab world and donor countries stopped paying for the rebuilding of Gaza as they did after the 2014 war.
It would have been a lot easier to “sit on the sidelines and preach,” he said, but “preaching never gets you anywhere.”
“I’m from the Balkans,” he said. “We changed the borders. We fought for holy places, languages and churches. We have exchanged populations for 100 years, if not more. And when you carry this baggage you can see things a little differently. This isn’t a conflict where you can come in and just draw a line. It’s emotional. “
“I know from my own experience that if the foreigners come without a quote and tell you what to do, you just switch them off. They say, “Thank you very much,” he added. “You cannot preach to these people. Remember, you’ve been around for half a century. “
Insiders say Mr. Mladenov was among the first officials last spring to conclude that no deterrent would prevent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from keeping his promises to annex West Bank territory, but that it could be done could induce him to drop annexation for a greater price: normalization with Arab states that had long avoided Israel.
The annexation plan “gained momentum,” he said. “And if it did, it would be terrible for Israel.” Forget about another ceasefire in Gaza, he said. Imagine global condemnation.
“My thought was, if this is the wrong way to go, but you can see why it appeals to certain sections of the population, then what would appeal to a larger section that is not destructive but actually constructive?”
He did not claim credit for the deals Israel had made. But he was working on building a constituency for the idea of using normalization as a carrot to reward Israel for dropping annexation.
“There were some people who were very surprised by this,” said Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law who led the White House’s Middle East team. “He saw what we did. We confided in him and he would give us constructive feedback. “
The Palestinians viewed these deals as a disastrous betrayal, but Mr. Mladenov argued that normalization would prove beneficial to them too.
“OK, now it’s very emotional, the Palestinians are super angry,” he said. “But put these emotions aside and think: who is most effective in trying to get Israel to do certain things? Egypt and Jordan. When four, six, or ten Arab countries have embassies in Tel Aviv, you want them to be with you, right? “
“You now have a contract,” he added. “It’s a big deal. Neither Israel nor the Arab countries will want to ruin it. That gives certain countries leverage in Israel. If you are Palestinian, you really want to explain to your Arab brothers and friends what your positions are and bring them back to the table on your side of the conversation. “
Mr Mladenov was not a fan of the Trump peace plan. However, he said the ongoing changes opened up exciting opportunities for his successor as UN envoy, Norwegian diplomat Tor Wennesland.
“It’s a different world,” said Mr. Mladenov. “And you know, for all his flaws, it could actually be a better one.”