Who Will Prevent the Next War in Gaza, Now That Mladenov's Gone?

Nickolay Mladenov, one of the most successful UN envoys to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was a key mediator between Israel and Hamas. Can his successor leverage a post-Trump Mideast towards a negotiated peace?

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An Israeli soldier walks on a road along the border with the Gaza Strip, October 21, 2020.
An Israeli soldier walks on a road along the border with the Gaza Strip, October 21, 2020.Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

The next time Israel and Hamas come to blows and need someone to hold them in check, Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, will no longer be there to help as he has often done since being appointed in 2015. 

Mladenov was one of the most successful international envoys to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gaining the respect and trust of both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as of regional actors and the international community.

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Mladenov repeatedly managed to prevent escalation between Israel and Hamas, clearly spelled out the obstacles preventing resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and provided consistent and meaningful support to pro-peace Israeli and Palestinian civil society organizations.

Israel is usually concerned about non-American international involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Mladenov’s tenure proved that the opposite is sometimes true. Under President Trump, U.S. policy distanced Israeli-Palestinian peace and created tensions in the Palestinian arena, while the UN, which Israelis tend to vilify, was the one that prevented warfare and encouraged dialogue.

The UN has appointed special envoys at different stages of the Israeli-Arab conflict to mediate between the sides and advance peace, as it does in other conflict zones.

The UN’s first appointed envoy to the Israeli-Arab conflict, Folke Bernadotte, was an active mediator during 1948 Arab–Israeli War but came to a tragic end with his assassination by the pre-state Lehi underground (Stern Gang). His successor, Ralph Bunche, led the successful mediation in negotiations on the armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which brought the war to an end in 1949. Bunche was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role.

Following the Six Day War (1967), the UN Security Council appointed Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring to advance peace in the region. Jarring shuttled between Israeli and Arab capitals, especially Cairo, but his efforts did not yield results. Following the Yom Kippur War (1973), the U.S. intensified its involvement in the diplomatic process and essentially monopolized the role of mediator both in the Israeli-Arab arena and subsequently in the Israeli-Palestinian one.

In the wake of the Oslo Accords (1993), the UN decided to appoint a special coordinator (UNSCO) to the Middle East peace process to monitor its implementation and help build the Palestinian Authority established under the terms of the agreement.

The first coordinator was Norwegian diplomat Terje Larsen, who had taken part in the secret Oslo talks. The U.S. played the leading role throughout most of the ensuing peace process, while the UN envoys, as well as those appointed by the EU, were secondary players who helped out to the extent possible.

The role of the UN envoy was always challenging and complex. The envoys lacked formal, strong leverage and did not represent a state or a superpower with tools and resources to incentivize or sanction the parties.

In addition, the position’s mandate and authority were unclear, and the envoys also had to contend with the deep suspicion and hostility toward the UN on Israel’s part, but also on that of the Palestinians. For example, in 2014 Israel decided to boycott UN envoy Robert Serry after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused him of trying to funnel money to Hamas and called for his expulsion.

Against this backdrop, and despite the position’s innate structural weakness, Mladenov managed to play an important role in the region. He became the sole player accepted and respected by all sides in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, from Prime Minister Netanyahu and hardliner Naftali Bennett to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar.

In fact, Mladenov remained the only “responsible adult” in the face of Trump’s policies and other international actors who lost interest in the conflict or focused on other conflict arenas.

While other incumbent international envoys (such as the EU special representative to the peace process) work out of their home countries and occasionally visit the region, Mladenov worked out of Jerusalem with the help of a skilled team of local and international diplomats.

He became a key player in the indirect negotiation process between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, stepping in often at crucial moments to stem escalation. He did so working in tandem with Egypt and Qatar, despite the rivalry between these two Arab states. Mladenov also stepped in to fill the vacuum created by the suspension of security and civilian coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority this past year, helping to coordinate contacts on the coronavirus crisis.

Along with the declining international interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mladenov was forced to sound the alarm bells at regular briefings to the Security Council and to draw up recommendations and urge action. His desire to maintain good ties with both sides did not prevent him from expressing a clear and loud voice calling at every opportunity for adherence to the two-state vision, leading broad-based opposition to the annexation plan, displaying empathy for victims on both sides and condemning activities by various parties to the conflict.

Mladenov also chose to deviate from the classic diplomacy conducted solely through decision makers and held an expanded dialogue with Palestinian and Israeli civil society organizations. He emphasized over and over the important role they play in advancing peace, participated in events they organized and conducted discussions and briefings with them.

However, while Mladenov recorded achievements with Gaza, peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority did not progress during his term. Netanyahu’s rejection of the two-state solution, Trump’s policies and difficulties within the Palestinian Authority all posed obstacles to promoting peace, and largely circumscribed Mladenov’s role to Gaza only. His successor, Norwegian diplomat Thor Wennesland, will enjoy a better starting position.

Biden’s presidency is expected to revive the U.S. commitment to the two-state solution, rehabilitate U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, restore the U.S. to its role of mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, and open the way to multilateral cooperation between the U.S. and international partners.

This will enable the new envoy to not only carry on Mladenov’s work relating to the Gaza Strip, but also to try and assume a significant role in coordinating and leading international moves, such as establishing a renewed international mechanism for the advancement of peace (to upgrade the Quartet, which no longer fulfills its designated task), and devising an international package of incentives for peace for Israel and the Palestinians.

Dr. Lior Lehrs is the director of the Program on Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a Research Fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Dr. Nimrod Goren is founder and head of the Mitvim Institute and a lecturer on Middle East studies at Hebrew University.

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