JERUSALEM — Preventive diplomacy, by its nature, does not often lead to splashy headlines for the practitioner.
In his nearly six years as the top United Nations envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Nickolay E. Mladenov 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.
But he did notch at least one achievement that qualifies as eye-catching: He earned the respect of just about everyone he dealt with, many of whom view one another as enemies.
“A very honest broker,” Rami Hamdallah, a former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, called him.
“I personally depended on him,” said Moshe Kahlon, a former Israeli finance minister.
“A man of integrity,” said Jason Greenblatt, the Trump administration’s former Middle East envoy.
“We are proud to have known him,” said Khalil al-Hayya, the deputy Hamas leader in Gaza.
Mr. Mladenov, 48, whose last day on the job was Thursday, is returning to his native Bulgaria, having abruptly bowed out of another high-profile assignment, in Libya, to contend with what he described as a serious health problem.
In a two-hour exit interview, he recalled being surprised at how irrelevant he initially felt upon arriving in Jerusalem in 2015 as U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process — a post created in 1999, when there still was a peace process.
His predecessors had by and large functioned as gadflies, experts said, firing off statements that tended to criticize Israel but seldom venturing from the sidelines. Israelis dismissed the U.N. — “Um” in Hebrew — with a tart “Um, shmum.”
“This mission was very much isolated from any sort of high-level interaction,” Mr. Mladenov said. “Nobody took it seriously. Basically, one side expects you to just repeat what they say, the other side expects you to go away, and that’s it.”
He did neither.
In 2016, he wrangled the Middle East Quartet of mediators — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — into issuing a groundbreaking report on concrete steps that, with little hope of a breakthrough, could at least preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.
Taking action in the absence of negotiations ran contrary to diplomatic doctrine at the time, which held that resuming peace talks was paramount and the way to solve everything.
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Mr. Mladenov said. “You can have the best deal in the world,” but as long as Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are at odds, he said, “good luck with implementing it.”
His approach has since gained widespread acceptance.
One Quartet recommendation, urging Israel to halt its West Bank settlement enterprise, was hardly novel. But another — calling on the Palestinians to “cease incitement to violence” and condemn “all acts of terrorism” — required “a shift in everyone’s position,” he said.
It required less of a leap for Mr. Mladenov. As Bulgaria’s foreign minister, he had worked with Israeli officials in the aftermath of a 2012 suicide bombing in Burgas that killed a bus driver and five Israeli tourists, an attack attributed to Hezbollah.
As the U.N. envoy, he caught flak over his bluntness. “I don’t talk about this conflict in the usual way,” he said. “You cannot go into a restaurant in Tel Aviv, shoot at people and tell me later that that’s legitimate resistance. No, it’s not.”
Mr. Mladenov was equally unsparing when Israeli settlers burned a Palestinian family alive. And after Israeli soldiers killed a 15-year-old Gaza boy during border demonstrations in 2018, he tweeted, “Stop shooting at children.”
“If you as the U.N. are not clear where you stand on these things, you can’t be credible,” he said. “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.”
He also quietly got things done.
In Gaza, a territory perennially on the brink of another war, he made it his mission to avoid one.
In 2018, the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, was trying to strangle its archrival Hamas, which controls Gaza, into submission by withholding money for Gaza’s power plant and slashing its Gaza payroll. Gaza’s economy was on the verge of collapse. Then came waves of violence between Gaza and Israel — border killings, arson balloons and rockets.
Yet with Egypt mediating, Mr. Mladenov did an end-run around the Palestinian Authority, arranging for the Qataris to supply vital financing to keep the lights on and money flowing in Gaza — while keeping Israel and Hamas more or less on the same page.
Nimrod Novik, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator, said that Mr. Mladenov saw how to frame his arguments in terms of each party’s interests. “You can say to the Israelis, ‘Look, life in Gaza is so miserable,’” Mr. Novik said. “Or you can say, ‘Gaza’s about to explode in your face, but if we do one-two-three we can gain quite a few months of tranquillity, so help me help you.’”
Mr. Mladenov said he feared that another Gaza war would have let the world revert to its “usual talking points about this place,” doomed any hope of peace talks, left a “Somalia on Israel’s doorstep,” drawn condemnation of Israel from across the Arab world and deterred donor countries from paying to rebuild Gaza the way they did after the 2014 war.
It would have been much easier to “sit on the sidelines and preach,” he said, but “preaching never gets you anywhere.”
“I come from the Balkans,” he said. “We’ve changed borders. We’ve fought over holy places, languages, churches. We’ve exchanged populations, for 100 years, if not more. And when you carry that baggage, it does help you see things a bit differently. This is not a conflict where you can come in and just draw a line. It’s emotional.”
“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 added. “You can’t preach to these guys. Remember, they’ve been it at it for half a century.”
Last spring, insiders say, Mr. Mladenov was among the first officials to conclude that no deterrent would stop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel from making good on his promises to annex West Bank territory, but that it might be possible to induce him to drop annexation for a bigger prize: normalization with Arab states that had long shunned Israel.
The annexation plan “was gaining momentum,” he said. “And were it to happen, it would be terrible for Israel.” Forget about another Gaza cease-fire, he said. Imagine the worldwide condemnation.
“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?”
He did not claim credit for the deals Israel struck. But he worked to build a constituency for the idea of using normalization as a carrot to reward Israel for dropping annexation.
“There were some people who were very much caught off guard by this,” said Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, who headed the White House Middle East team. “He saw what we were doing. We confided in him, and he would give us constructive feedback.”
The Palestinians saw those deals as a catastrophic betrayal, but Mr. Mladenov argued that normalization would prove beneficial for them, too.
“OK, now it’s very emotional, the Palestinians are super angry,” he 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?”
“You now have a treaty,” he added. “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.”
Mr. Mladenov was no fan of the Trump peace plan. But he said that the changes underway were creating exciting possibilities for his successor as U.N. envoy, the Norwegian diplomat Tor Wennesland.
“It’s a different world,” Mr. Mladenov said. “And you know, for all its faults, it might actually be a better one.”