18th October 2017
Nickolay Mladenov is the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. His previous UN role was as Special Representative for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. Before that, he was Minister of Defence and Minister of Foreign Affairs in his home country of Bulgaria, as well as a Member of the European Parliament.
Q: Do you feel like you are making progress in the peace process?
A: Depends on how we define our immediate tasks. As long as we’re avoiding a deterioration that leads to war and people being killed and displaced, yes, we are. But if our immediate goal is to have an encompassing political process that brings the two sides together on a final status negotiation, I am afraid we’re very far from it. Given the coalition and political constraints both on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, I think the main focus right now has to be on taking steps on the ground to create the conditions for a return to negotiations. Whether these are bilateral steps related to empowering the Palestinians in terms of their economy and society, or whether they’re steps related to resolving the division between Gaza and the West Bank, this is where we’re now focusing.
Q: Do you think that the eventual deal will be in the form of a two-state solution? What are the alternatives to this?
A: When you talk to people, they will easily speculate about alternatives to a two-state solution. However, nobody’s been able to convince me that there is a credible alternative which allows Jews and Palestinians to legitimately meet their national and historic aspirations in any other scenario, except by separating in two different states. A one-state solution in which people would have different rights would certainly not stop the conflict. In fact, it would exacerbate it. The only way to really fulfil the national aspirations of both sides is to have two states. Now obviously, there will have to be complex security arrangements because of the environment, and many issues will need to be dealt with, ranging from settlements to borders to refugees, but ultimately, they there should be two states — independent, however intimately connected and linked to each other. If you talk particularly to Israelis, who on the surface may be a little more accepting of the one-state prospect, the majority would admit that Palestinians and Israelis have to go their separate ways in order to be able to live together.
Q: How long do you think it could take for an agreement to be reached? Do you think it might happen this generation, next generation, in the next hundred years, or never?
A: I’m very hesitant to answer this question because I think people who come from the outside, myself included, tend to get overwhelmed with what we see, and define every crisis of the day as being the ultimate crisis that will lead to an unravelling. Yet when you look at the reality on the ground, you see that this conflict has not been resolved for half a century. For fifty years now, Palestinians have lived under occupation, and Israelis have lived with a sense of lack of security and with terrorism. So it’s very presumptuous for somebody from the outside to say: ‘Well, it has to be resolved in twelve months or twelve days’, or whatever.
What I think is more important is to look at what needs to change on the ground, so that both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, are more amenable or accepting, and more politically capable of getting back to negotiations on the core issues. The hard facts are that if you look at people today, their lives are far more separated than in the past: the interaction between Palestinians and Israelis is far less, whether it’s in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, or more so in Gaza. There’s a lot of mistrust, a lot of burned bridges that need to be repaired, and a lot of anger. To address that, one obviously needs to change the conditions on the ground. One also need political leadership that’s capable of challenging the naysayers and going forward with positive messaging on peace. That is why I hesitate to talk of a timeframe. With the right leadership on both sides, attitudes can change very quickly.
Q: There are so many different parties involved in the peace process. What effect do you think the involvement of America and President Trump in particular has on the peace process? Do you think someone like Jared Kushner can push it along?
A: The new US administration has taken its time to understand the issues at hand over the past year. They increasingly understand the challenges of dealing with this very complicated conflict. They also see the limitations of both sides. Increasingly the focus on the need to build support in the region as well in order to help both parties return back to negotiations. Granted, they’ve taken a very different approach from previous administrations: they’ve been far more careful about what they say and have preferred to work quietly for now.
I think it’s important for the American administration to decide when they will be in a position to put forward a proposal as a basis of negotiations between the two sides. Soon we will come to that point. I find two things encouraging: firstly, the administration’s substantial focus on what can be done in terms of the situation on the ground to improve the lives of Palestinians. In the past year, we’ve had quite significant agreements reached on water and electricity that previously seemed impossible. Over the last few weeks the push to bring the Palestinian Authority back to Gaza is also an encouraging move. Secondly, the increasing interest of the US in engaging with the region, with the United Nations, the Europeans, the Russians, as part of the Quartet, in order to consolidate our collective efforts to reach the reopening of negotiations. Any proposal however would need to take into account UN Security Council resolutions that are relevant to final status negotiations. It would need to address key obstacles to peace— settlement expansion, violence and incitement, and it would need to define the two state outcome as the goal of a negotiation.
Q: On the Quartet specifically, what legacy do you think Tony Blair has left as UN Special Envoy for the peace process? Do you think it has been a positive one?
A: Indeed it has been positive. During the time Tony Blair was with the Quartet office, he facilitated a number of agreements that led to a reduction of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and freed up movement for Palestinians. But that was a different time.
Today we are at a different stage, and I think what is required is really focusing on the economic and social opportunities the Palestinians need in order to be more self reliant. Just to illustrate, let us look at the West Bank. Over 60% of it is not accessible for Palestinian development. This limits the ability of the Palestinian economy to grow. But it’s not just that, it also limits the opportunities for Palestinians, outside of the areas under the immediate control of the Palestinian Authority, to develop. We recently looked at some numbers – I think it was two years ago that out of approximately two thousand applications for housing building permits for Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, one or two were approved in a whole year. Meanwhile, thousands of settlement units were authorised. This year in fact has seen quite a dramatic increase in the number of Israeli settlement advancements compared to last year. This is just a broad illustration of the obstacles on the ground, and there are a myriad of them.
Q: With the US and Israel withdrawing from UNESCO, do you think the time of the multilateral organization is over?
A: No, it’s not over, and it’s quite sad to see these withdrawals. I strongly believe that countries need to make their cases heard and build alliances and coalitions with other countries in order to support their goals in a multilateral diplomacy. Multilateral diplomacy is one of the essential achievements of modern civilization, so if countries start withdrawing, closing in they will ultimately undermine the global order that has kept peace for fifty years. Certainly many organisations need to be reformed. But that will not happen by walking out.
The UN must however also realize that the environment in which we deal with member states is rather different from five, ten, or twenty years ago. We live in a time of identity politics, when universal liberal and human rights values are being increasingly challenged. Member states will be much more assertive of their national interests and national positions across the board. The factors that will influence member state decisions and the decisions of multilateral bodies today will be far more diverse than they were twenty years ago.
Q: What’s your opinion of the new Secretary-General? Do you think he can help the UN’s image?
A: Antonio Guterres has a multitude of challenges ahead of him. He takes the helm of the UN at a time when, as you just said yourself, multilateral diplomacy is being challenged. We see a proliferation of conflicts, particularly but not exclusively in the Middle East. We are still in the midst of the largest global refugees refugee crisis since the Second World War.
The Secretary-General is focusing on the right things: preventive diplomacy; building the capacity of the UN to mobilise political, humanitarian, or developmental resources to prevent crises before they escalate into conflicts. I think the UN needs to become much more proactive rather than reactive in that sense.
One of his other priorities is for the UN to have a regional approach to conflicts as the threats transcend state borders. If in the past the risk of war between states was one of the main risks for peace, in today’s world is the collapse of states, or conflicts within states that present a growing risk to international peace and security. Religious radicalization, extremism, migration or refugee flows are just some of the trans-border factors that are pertinent to global and regional security today.
Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: Everything and anything written by V.S. Naipaul. His novels, his letters, everything. He is by far one of may favourite authors of all time. A master of the English language. But if you want to understand what’s going on now in the Middle East, read memoirs. Read about the people and the circumstances that have shaped the realities of today. Gertrude Bell’s letters are an interesting read and a good start.
Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: Speak less and listen more. Words have consequences. Be interested in what you do, not in the titles you have. Titles are transitory. But also to never assume that I know everything. Particularly not to be patronising about other cultures and countries. Never assume that you can do it better than the local people. You can help, you can give ideas, you can facilitate, but that’s it. To slightly paraphrase T. E. Lawrence — Do not try to do too much with your own hands, it’s their country, it is their ways. And finally, never seize to be amazed at the world and the people you meet, never allow yourself to become truly cynical.
Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: To me personally, it was the fundamental belief that we’ve got to protect democracy in society. Perhaps because of the history of my own country, Bulgaria, and the time in which I grew up. I firmly believe that we must at all costs protect democracy, liberalism and human rights. That means standing up to nationalism, it means standing up to xenophobia in all of its forms, wherever it comes from. I learned that if we’re not vigilant enough about democracy, liberalism and human rights in our societies, we will lose them. And if we lose them in Europe, we can lose them anywhere in the world. It will be a dangerous and dark world if we allow that to happen, so I think that’s become pretty much the central focus of everything that I believe in.
Q: Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: Get out more, because later, you realise that you want to, but you don’t have the time.
Q: Who is the most interesting person and you’ve met, and why?
A: Two people stand out immediately. Shimon Peres would be first. A patriarch of peace, who dedicated his life to Israel and the security of the Jewish people. I met him for the first time when I was a student, and engaged with him in various positions until a few months before he left us. His unrelenting belief in the ability of humanity to overcome boundaries and progress has always been an inspiration. Similarly, but in a very different context, I have been deeply impressed by a Muslim religious leader that I was honoured to meet and engage with many times in Iraq: The Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq. He rarely meets foreigners but we developed a strong relationship. Despite being a religious authority, he was always able to transcend the boundaries between faiths and put forward a message of tolerance and understanding at a time when his country was bent on destroying itself. He is a very thoughtful and moderate person. More of a humanist, than just a religious reference for his followers.