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Outgoing UN peace envoy: Palestinians can gain from Israel’s normalization deals

As he leaves post, Nickolay Mladenov says he sought to mediate through understanding sides’ viewpoints, rather than ‘sit on the sidelines and preach’

United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov at a press conference at the UNSCO offices in Gaza City, September 25, 2017. (Adel Hana/AP)
United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov at a press conference at the UNSCO offices in Gaza City, September 25, 2017. (Adel Hana/AP)

The UN’s outgoing Middle East peace envoy has said the Palestinians could gain from Israel’s normalization agreements with Arab states, potentially strengthening their hand in peace talks.

Nickolay Mladenov, 48, finished his term as United Nations peace envoy this week after serving in the role since 2015. He previously was Bulgaria’s foreign minister and had been set to become the special UN envoy for Libya, but last week said he couldn’t take on the position for “personal and family reasons.”

In a report on Mladenov’s time in office published Saturday, the New York Times said the ambassador was one of the first officials to come to the conclusion that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was utterly serious in his pledge to annex parts of the West Bank, which he believed would be “terrible” for Israel.

“My thinking was: If this is the wrong way to go but you can see why it would be appealing to certain parts of the population, what would be appealing to a larger part that is not destructive but actually constructive?” Mladenov told the paper.

While he did not claim any credit for the agreements, the report said Mladenov helped build support for using normalization as a carrot for Israel in exchange for shelving the annexation plans.

“There were some people who were very much caught off guard by this,” said Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law. “He saw what we were doing. We confided in him, and he would give us constructive feedback.”

The flags of the US, United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain are screened on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, on September 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel agreed to drop the annexation plans as part of the US-brokered agreement with the United Arab Emirates announced in August. It has since reached additional normalization deals with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

The Palestinian Authority fumed at the UAE and Bahrain over the deals, recalling its ambassadors to the two Gulf states in protest. The PA also slammed the agreement with Sudan, but has been muted in its response to the normalization deal between Israel and Morocco.

“OK, now it’s very emotional, the Palestinians are super angry,” Mladenov said. “But put away those emotions and think: Who’s most effective when they try to push Israel to do certain things? Egypt and Jordan. If four, six or 10 Arab countries have embassies in Tel Aviv, you’d want them to be on your side, right?”

He noted that Israel, the UAE and Bahrain had inked formal agreements establishing diplomatic ties.

“That’s a big thing. Neither Israel nor the Arab countries will want to ruin it. That gives certain countries leverage in Israel. If you’re the Palestinians, you’ll 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,” he said.

Mladenov also recalled his intense mediation efforts during periodic bouts of fighting in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Palestinians, and said he preferred to attempt to reach solutions through understanding each side’s viewpoint than “sit on the sidelines and preach.”

“I know from my own experience that when the quote-unquote foreigners come and tell you what to do, you just shut them off. You’re like, ‘Thank you very much,'” he said. “You can’t preach to these guys. Remember, they’ve been it at it for half a century.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with Nickolay Mladenov, at his official residence in Jerusalem on December 31, 2020. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

His tenure as Middle East peace envoy has won him plaudits from officials in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Trump administration and Hamas.

“If you as the UN are not clear where you stand on these things, you can’t be credible,” Mladenov said in the interview. “And I suppose that being critical of both the Israelis and the Palestinians, where I felt that they’ve done things wrong, and welcoming them when they’ve done things right — I think that’s a novelty in this frozen conflict.”

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