The man trying to save Gaza
Nickolay Mladenov is perhaps the most effective Mideast diplomat in recent years. Tasked with holding off a major confrontation between Israel and Hamas, and rebuilding Gaza, he has managed to develop excellent relations with all sides, even if Abbas feels he’s been sidelined.
United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov, 47, has become one of the most prominent diplomatic brokers the region has seen in recent years. His current mission is a critical one: preventing a war from breaking out between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, as well as eventually rebuilding the strip.
Ever since the mass protests along the Gaza border fence began on March 30—and with them the kite and balloon terrorism that has burnt large swaths of fields and woodlands in southern Israel—Mladenov has been a central figure in efforts to prevent a violent confrontation between Israel and Hamas.
At least twice, his intensive diplomatic work—together with the Egyptians—was successful in preventing further escalation. The last time was on July 20, when a Palestinian sniper killed Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi from the Givati Brigade, the first Israeli casualty on the Gaza border since Operation Protective Edge, prompting the IDF to bomb dozens of targets in the Gaza Strip, and it seemed that a huge escalation was inevitable. Hamas made a phone call to Mladenov, who rushed to ask Israel for a ceasefire, which in the meantime seems to be holding—until next time.
Israeli officials agree that Mladenov is the most active UN envoy the region has seen in recent years. That is considered a compliment, as Israel generally views UN personnel with suspicion for their generally pro-Palestinian views. Mladenov previously headed a UN mission to Iraq and served as the minister of defense and foreign affairs in his native Bulgaria.
Sources familiar with Mladenov say he is very involved, ambitious and makes frequent trips to all the parties; all while presenting a pleasant demeanor, wisdom and a desire to delve into the depth of the issues.
He is very familiar with Israel and the Israelis and is deeply involved in politics. He lives in Jerusalem and travels often to Sofia, Bulgaria (where his family lives) and New York, to report back to the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council.
Prior to Mladenov, the post was filled by Dutch diplomat Robert Serry, who was seen as biased against Israel. He was caught up in many disagreements with his Israeli counterparts until Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman asked that the UN remove him from the region after learning he transferred funds from Qatar to Hamas behind Israel’s back.
Serry was popular on the Palestinian side and worked closely with them for years, so Mladenov's starting point was not easy. Several critical factors paved the way for him, and he eventually earned the "approval" necessary for the right doors to be opened to him.
Slowly but surely, Mladenov was able to restore trust and be seen as a fair mediator. Evidence to that is the fact Israel has agreed to have him serve as a "trustee" for the money sent to Gaza by donor countries, believing he will ensure the money is not funneled to terror purposes.
Mladenov was also able to earn the trust of Hamas, and it is no wonder that in each of the recent escalations, the terrorist organization was quick to turn to him (in addition to Egypt, of course) to achieve a cease-fire.
A hypocrite with a useless role
Mladenov has often been the object of criticism from both sides. During his frequent visits to the UN Security Council, he often criticizes Israel for excessive use of force, for “killing children” and for expanding settlements.
On the other hand, he does not hesitate to criticize Hamas for firing rockets and for its provocations along the border fence. During one of his speeches at the UN, he called on the international community to unequivocally condemn Hamas attacks on Israel. He is constantly warning that Gaza is on the brink of collapse and that every additional day of conflict brings us closer to a new war.
On more than one occasion, Mladenov has managed to anger Israelis, such as when he tweeted on April 20 about the killing of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy by IDF sniper fire: "Shooting children is outrageous! How does killing a child in Gaza today help achieve peace? It does not! It only feeds more anger and creates more killing," he wrote, demanding an investigation.
The tweet caused uproar online and brought forth accusations of one-sidedness and criticism for swiftly attacking the IDF without clarifying the facts. Maldanov even responded to one of his critics, Peter Lerner, who was the IDF spokesman for the foreign media, and wrote to him: "Here's an idea for you—stop shooting children."
Minister Lieberman placed the responsibility for the boy’s death squarely on Hamas. His party members went even further tweeting: “When will you tweet against Hamas, which is sending children to a dangerous border region? Israel uses all legal methods in defending its borders, while you are encouraging a terror organization to attack us. You are a hypocrite, and your job is useless.”
However, Lieberman and Mladenov actually have a good relationship. They were introduced by a mutual friend in 1999, the year Mladenov was elected to the European Parliament and Lieberman to the Knesset. The two also served their respective countries as foreign minister at the same time. During a 2011 visit to Anakara, Mladenov criticized Turkish policy towards Israel in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident. Despite their differences, Mladenov and Lieberman maintain a close relationship.
Fluctuations in relations were also recorded on the Palestinian side. At first, Mladenov was well received in Ramallah, but later on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas realized he was undermining their plans and goals with respect to Gaza. The harsh sanctions imposed by the Palestinian Authority president on the Gaza Strip led Mladenov to publicly criticize him. Recently, relations have been further cooled by Abbas’s refusal to cooperate with any tentative arrangement in Gaza.
According to an inside source, officials in Ramallah they that Mladenov had marginalized them with regards to plans for Gaza. Some claim that the agreement that Mladenov is formulating is actually an attempt to bypass Abbas, who helped steer Gaza into the mess it is in. In closed conversations, he accused Abbas of being paralyzed, as one refusing to take civil responsibility over Gaza. The tensions subsided somewhat in a recent meeting between the two in Ramallah, but the suspicions remain.
A welcome figure in Gaza
In Gaza, Mladenov is popular among the Hamas leadership and often meets with Ismail Haniyeh and other senior members. They trust him.
He developed an excellent relationship with the former Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Mordechai, and often speaks with Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman and other senior officials. Recently, he met twice with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Israel views Mladenov as the man who can find a solution to the Gaza mess, despite the difficulties. He has said that Hamas has become more pragmatic lately, despite recent incidents. His role as UN envoy is viewed very positively, he gives the civilian population of Gaza hope.
The Americans also admire him, and President Donald Trump’s senior advisor Jared Kushner is in touch with Mladenov regarding a tentative American peace initiative that will surely place an emphasis on Gaza.
In the past year, he has managed to quietly formulate a mechanism that can take in the money coming from donor countries and use it to fund projects to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip—projects that Mahmoud Abbas did not agree to take responsibility for—including housing, upgrading the electricity grid, construction of desalination plants, sewage treatment plants, gas pipeline upgrades and more. These are large-scale projects that the international community is prepared to finance, but so far there has been no way to implement them.
Among the countries that have agreed to contribute large sums: Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and other Sunni countries. Together with the Egyptians and the civilian authorities in Gaza, Mladenov has developed an entrepreneurial program that will give young Gazans employment and pocket cash—a shortage of which is one of the essential problems in Gaza.
The idea is that once the public in Gaza sees progress and improvement in their living conditions—electricity, clean water, sewage treatment, jobs—there will be change and hope for the future.
Mladenov and the Egyptians are working on a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel, in addition to a multi-stage process of transferring authority over Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, and the internal Palestinian reconciliation.
The ceasefire arrangement also includes the return of Israeli civilians and the bodies of IDF soldiers from Gaza, as well as a reference to the sea port in Limassol, Cyprus, as a port for goods headed for the Gaza Strip, at a later stage.
Until that happens, the UN envoy recently reached understandings with the World Bank that the organization would increase its support for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to $90 million, compared to $55 million last year.
Discreet, uses Whatsapp
Incoming opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni worked with Mladenov when she was foreign minister. "I really respect him. (He is) smart, practical, focused, and fair," she says.
Her predecessor Isaac Herzog, who was in charge of humanitarian aid during Operation Cast Lead, was well acquainted with Mladenov from his time as Bulgarian foreign minister.
"I got to know a young man, energetic, captivating, who understands politics well. At the core, he greatly admires and respects the State of Israel," Herzog says.
"He has developed a deep acquaintance with the entire Israeli leadership, with Netanyahu and Lieberman... He gained the full trust of all parties; he is discreet, very active, very well-formed, writes SMS’s, (uses) Whatsapp, takes initiative and goes out to the field," he adds.
Sources close to him say that Mladenov hopes that success here will be a springboard for him to play a key role in the international arena. Some say he is eyeing the position of EU foreign minister or another senior UN post.
In the meantime, it appears he is establishing himself well, and Israeli sources say that currently, the whole world is willing to entrust to Mladenov the solution to the Gaza crisis: the Trump administration, Israel, Hamas, the Gulf states and above all the Egyptians, who are the most important player vis-a-vis Gaza. He is also highly regarded by the European Union. "The right person in the right place," they say about him in Israel.