When I was a United Nations staff member a few years ago, I drew inspiration from former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s famous words about the institution in 1954. The UN, he said, “was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” It could not liberate people from oppression, but international law and a rule-based, multilateral order could create the conditions for such liberation to arise — and to prevent the law of “might is right” from prevailing.
Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process until three weeks ago, seems to have re-interpreted this guiding ethos.
In a widely-shared interview with New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief David Halbfinger earlier this month, Mladenov — a former Bulgarian foreign minister and UN representative to Iraq — reflected on his five-year tenure as the UN’s top diplomat in the region. According to the Times, Mladenov “earned the respect of just about everyone he dealt with;” he had “worked quietly behind the scenes to help keep the Gaza Strip from boiling over, preserve the possibility of a two-state solution and build support for Israeli-Arab normalization as a vastly preferable alternative to the Israeli annexation of West Bank land.”
This reverent narrative glossed over some significant omissions in the envoy’s diplomatic philosophy. Throughout the interview, Mladenov made no reference to the idea of using international law as the building blocks toward different power relations in Israel-Palestine. Rather, his primary concern — and in his view, his primary achievement — was to preserve “calm,” balance the perspectives of “both sides” to achieve compromise, and cater to each parties’ political “interests,” even if that “interest” is the supremacy of one people over another.
The Times interview is emblematic of the widespread praise Mladenov is currently enjoying, especially among Western liberal circles — an admiration that ought to be counter-balanced.
On the one hand, being the UN’s top Middle East diplomat is surely a thankless job. Not only is the portfolio based on a deeply flawed political framing — to pursue negotiations under a long-defunct “peace process” — but the organization that the envoy represents is only the sum of its parts. The UN’s member states are driven by their divergent visions of the world, and its Security Council, which is responsible for preserving international peace, is constrained by the veto powers of its five permanent members.
To his credit, Mladenov certainly maximized what little margin he had to maneuver to assert as much influence as possible. And as the Times rightly pointed out, Mladenov was indeed one of the rare diplomats who was able to shake hands with Hamas officials and Israeli government leaders alike.
That trait, however, was also his biggest flaw. In his eager attempts to have Israel’s ear, the envoy ultimately gave in to Israel’s bullying of the international community when it came to the Palestinians. By playing in Israel’s court, Mladenov helped to blank-check a racist, supremacist regime’s oppression of an entire people.
Myth of equal sides
Israel has long held international law and the UN in contempt, something Mladenov inherited when taking office. For decades, Israel has systematically attacked the UN for alleged “anti-Israel bias.” It has bullied numerous agencies and officials — particularly with the help of U.S. leverage — in their efforts to aid or defend Palestinian rights, including UNRWA, UNESCO, ESCWA, and the Human Rights Council.
Perhaps with this history in mind, Mladenov decided to employ two interdependent diplomatic tactics to overcome this antagonism. But instead, the tactics ultimately ensured that the discriminatory reality in Palestine-Israel would persist.
First, the envoy reinforced the misleading assumption that we are facing a “conflict” between two parties on an equal footing, whose interests would just have to be matched through “meaningful negotiations.” In other words, he disregarded the power asymmetries between the colonizer and colonized, thereby exacerbating the fallacy of equal responsibilities. A resultant myth, propagated by many Western journalists and echoed in the Times article, is that a mediator in Palestine-Israel knows that they have done a good job when both Israelis and Palestinians disagree with them.
Driven by these myths, Mladenov played a significant role in mainstreaming the recent narrative of “excellent cooperation” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in their efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic — rhetoric that was also picked up by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. This story distorts what is, in fact, an inescapable relationship under the Oslo-engineered governance system, whereby the PA is utterly dependent on Israel to provide healthcare while simultaneously being subjected to repeated political attacks and violent obstructions. This narrative further disregards Israel’s minimal responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure health and safety of the occupied population — a duty the envoy seems to have swept under the rug.
Mladenov’s second tactic was to apply a “carrot-and-stick” approach to each side with the aim of incentivizing the parties to compromise. Yet with Israel, the envoy seemed more concerned with finding the carrots while forgetting about the stick. As the Times interview shows, Mladenov’s interventions focused more on the consequences of annexation on Israel’s international image — “imagine the worldwide condemnation” — rather than on its impact on the Palestinians and international law. It effectively took Israel’s de facto colonization as a fait accompli — a departing point for further discussion, rather than the very problem that needed to be solved.
In the end, Israel’s scaremongering strategy over annexation gave it exactly what it wanted: the massive carrot of normalization with Arab states, while pretending that postponing de jure annexation was a compromise. Mladenov himself echoed the Emirati government’s misleading talking points by claiming that the normalization agreement “stops Israeli annexation” — essentially whitewashing the de facto annexation of the West Bank that continues unhindered. Thus, Israel learned that it could have its cake and eat it too; it can easily entrench the one-state apartheid reality with impunity and be rewarded with warmer regional relations.
In praising the UAE-Israel deal, Mladenov asserted that the UN will “work with all for dialogue, peace and stability.” Palestinians, however, do not seem to be part of that “all.” Not only were they completely sidelined from the normalization agreements, but they were instrumentalized for legitimizing alliances among autocratic states. Far from achieving peace and stability, these deals advance these regimes’ trade and military interests while crushing human rights and democracy in their respective countries.
In the Times interview, Mladenov dismissed Palestinian opposition to these agreements as “emotional;” instead of being “super angry,” he insists Palestinians should be excited by the opportunities and new forms of “leverage” brought by the regional changes. Put bluntly, Palestinians should be thankful for being stripped of what little agency and freedom is still afforded to them, so that others could decide their fate on their behalf.
Meanwhile, throughout Mladenov’s tenure, the PA continued to be pressured to honor the Oslo Accords — an arrangement that traps Palestinians under their own domination and demise. Israel, in contrast, has long violated most of Oslo’s provisions while paying lip service to “negotiations.” In that same, patronizing double standard, Mladenov did not hesitate to speak up about Palestinian internal political affairs, but did not raise an eyebrow when it came to Israel’s internal affairs.
Nowhere has this diplomatic fools’ game had greater detrimental effects than in Gaza. On the one hand, Mladenov undoubtedly had an important role in de-escalating violent confrontations between Hamas and Israel, averting a major war similar to 2014; some media coverage went so far as to nickname the envoy the “fireman of Gaza.”
On the other hand, that precarious “calm” masked a very brutal reality. In May 2018, when Israeli soldiers shot and killed 60 Palestinians protesting at the Gaza fence — condemned as possible war crimes by a UN independent inquiry — Mladenov made no clear call for Israel to be held accountable. Rather, he simply commented that the events were “another reminder of the need to bring peace to this troubled land.”
After hundreds of Palestinians were either killed or wounded, he merely reminded that “Israeli security forces have the responsibility to exercise restraint and lethal force,” showing no intention of rallying diplomatic weight to ensure that responsibility was practiced. He was, however, quick to ask the UN Security Council to join him “in condemning the continued indiscriminate firing of rockets towards Israel.”
All the while, Mladenov dragged the diplomatic community to prioritize intra-Palestinian reconciliation. While this is indeed a vital cause, it clearly sidelined the need to implement all the agreed-upon conditions for a long-term ceasefire in Gaza, first of which is the lifting of the inhumane, 13-year long blockade of the strip. By relegating this priority, Mladenov contradicted over a decade of consensus among UN experts and bodies that the blockade is currently the primary cause of Gaza’s suffering, and that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020.
The next envoy
What Mladenov refused to recognize throughout his tenure was that the Israeli government is not an ally working in good faith that needs pampering — it is a threat to the international legal order, democracy, and human rights. Accountability, which is at the heart of ensuring a more peaceful world, is still not applied to Israel.
That complacency with the Israeli narrative has led us to where we are today: de facto annexation that amounts to the crime of apartheid, an increasingly supremacist Israeli society, a fragmented and subjugated Palestinian polity, and an international scene where alliances among authoritarian, ethno-nationalist regimes are deemed an “opportunity for peace.”
This is the “different world” Mladenov considers a “better one.”
While we cannot bear high expectations of what the next UN special envoy can do, Mladenov has demonstrated that such positions can in fact bear some influence. Palestinians can only hope that the newly appointed envoy, Norwegian diplomat Tor Wennesland, will use international law and human rights as his North Star. He should not be naïve about Israel’s intentions and neither whitewash its policies nor consider its colonization as irreversible.
Wennesland’s ability to engage with a wide range of actors should be used to mobilize an international consensus behind the lifting of the blockade on Gaza, and to jointly confront Israel over its de facto annexation. Rather than heeding the Israeli government’s illegal demands, the envoy should help implement the numerous recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council and other agencies and experts. He should also play a meaningful role in restoring Palestinian political agency by ensuring that Palestinians have the democratic space to express their plurality and shape a new political system, away from international efforts to impose a constrained framework of politics.
Most importantly, the envoy should focus on shifting the current power dynamics, starting by dropping the false equivalences between Israel and the Palestinians in discourse and in practice. That in itself is a key step to ensuring the “peace” we are working toward starts with the principle of equal rights, accountability under international law, and the fulfillment of self-determination, instead of being resigned to apartheid and supremacy.