The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Middle East tensions mount, he may be the last one left with any shot at brokering peace

Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special coordinator for Middle East peace, visits a solar energy project at Nasser Hospital in the southern Gaza Strip on May 13, 2019. (Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Nickolay Mladenov might just be the last person left with any shot at advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Political relations between Israel and the Palestinians are stalled. The Palestinian leadership refuses to meet with U.S. officials. Israelis are suspicious of European motives, and other potential intermediaries, like the Russians, are focused elsewhere.

So it is the lone figure of Mladenov who is often seen shuttling between the sides.

As the United Nations’ envoy for the “Middle East Peace Process,” however, the Bulgarian-born diplomat acknowledges that the process he is responsible for may be nothing more than a fading memory.

“The title on my business card is completely wrong,” Mladenov joked during an interview inside the United Nations’ expansive Jerusalem headquarters. “I mean, there is no Middle East peace process. Most of our work now is preventive diplomacy, preventing war.”

Last month, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced that he was suspending all peace agreements signed with Israel and the United States, Mladenov traveled to Ramallah to urge the authority’s prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, not to jeopardize the security cooperation among the sides.

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On Monday, Mladenov held his first meeting with Israel’s new foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, in an attempt to understand Israel’s plans for annexing Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which could occur as soon as July 1.

Mladenov, 48, is a former Bulgarian foreign minister and Middle East veteran. He was raised for part of his childhood in Syria and more recently served as the head of the U.N. mission in Iraq. An imposing figure, he tries to strike a balance between lighthearted and serious tones. And after five years as the U.N. peace envoy, he still appears passionate about the apparently hopeless task he has been given.

These days, he says he is deeply concerned that any unilateral action taken by either side could lead to catastrophe. He also worries that the diminishing hope for peace and Palestinian statehood, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the Palestinian economy particularly hard, could trigger another round of regional violence.

“We need to get everybody to stop for a second, to talk and hear each other out,” he said, his voice soothing. “We need to bring the Palestinians and Israelis back to the table. We need to bring the Americans back to the table, and we need to keep the Russians and the Europeans at the table. It’s a hard task.”

He seeks to be realistic about the divides among the sides and to be pragmatic about addressing the challenges each one faces. He says it is important to remain a fair and honest broker.

“Sometimes it gets us into trouble, but I think we have to recognize the suffering and the great difficulties faced by the Palestinian people and also not be blind to what Israelis face, too,” he said.

Arriving in Jerusalem at the start of 2015, just six months after Israel fought a devastating 50-day war in Gaza against the militant Islamist group Hamas, Mladenov quickly found himself immersed in calming tensions. With each flare-up, he managed to keep Hamas and Israel from escalating further, convincing both sides that more bloodshed was not in their interest.

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He also turned his mediating skills toward tensions between Hamas and the rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. And he sought to engage Egypt and Qatar, which had strained relations with each other, to invest in improving daily life for the 2 million Palestinians in the coastal strip.

Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Mladenov has shown competence in improving conditions in Gaza, “standing out from those who have filled this position in the past.” But Zalzberg said he was skeptical about whether the U.N. envoy could stave off a further rift between Israel and the Palestinians.

“To Israelis, he has not been antagonistic or anti-Israel, and by default he is accepted by the Palestinians,” he said. “But I am not sure that he is in the best position to lead efforts to curb annexation. The Trump administration has already given a green light to annexation, and Mladenov can’t be expected to rein that in through his office here.”

Mladenov is clearly worried about the prospect of annexation. His recent brief to the U.N. Security Council emphasized the harm that Israel would do by applying sovereignty to Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The move, he said, would undermine Palestinian hopes for a state and undercut broader efforts to advance regional peace and security.

In the interview, he said Israel’s move to annex territory not only contravened international law and could spark a violent response, but also would send a “basic political message to the Palestinians that you are not going to get a state through negotiations.” That message, he said, is extremely dangerous.

Mladenov also said there is growing concern about the move across the region. He dismissed Israeli claims that some Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan — the only two that have peace treaties with Israel — and Saudi Arabia would not express strong opposition.

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Diana Buttu, a Palestinian analyst who was once involved in peace negotiations with Israel, said Mladenov’s success in stopping Israel’s annexation plans depends on whether he can break free from the confines of the United Nations’ official position and “hold Israel accountable for its illegal actions.”

If not, she said, the role of the United Nations, and Mladenov, will change drastically. “It will have to act as a liaison for Palestinian civilian issues, and no one wants that,” she said.

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