It appears that the pressure on the Palestinians to enter into direct talks with Israel has increased. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons.
In itself, of course, there is nothing wrong with direct negotiations. Indeed, a peaceful solution can only be accomplished after some form of direct negotiation. But the context is absolutely key.
It has often been said that negotiations are not conducted between friends; why, after all, the need for negotiations. But for negotiations to stand any chance of success they do, at least, have to be conducted in good faith.
And therein lies the rub.
There is absolutely no indication that the current Israeli government is prepared to negotiate in good faith. While Israel instituted a highly partial and temporary settlement construction freeze in part of the occupied territories, this was not a good faith gesture, rather it came about as a result of strong US pressure, indeed pressure that Israel largely successfully resisted, since the pressure was meant to enact a complete settlement construction freeze in all occupied territory.
The importance of a full and comprehensive settlement construction freeze cannot be underestimated.
The prime reason why the Oslo process failed, and failed so miserably, was that the world, the region and the Palestinians all believed Israeli explanations that settlements could be dealt with more easily once an agreement had been reached.
But allowed to fester, the number of settlers in occupied territory doubled, while settlements sprang up everywhere. Rather then becoming an easier problem to deal with, the continued spread of settlements has almost rendered agreement impossible.
The Oslo process ended in violence that almost killed off any hopes of a negotiated peace. Any new process that is not set up, as much as possible, to ensure a positive outcome, could kill off chances of a negotiated two-state solution for a generation.
This will leave a political vacuum that will only be filled by greater and greater extremism and danger, not just for Palestinians and Israelis, but for every country in the region.
It is therefore of paramount importance that before anyone blithely recommends direct negotiations, all parties insist that enough ground-work has been accomplished to ensure that such negotiations take place in a conducive atmosphere.
That means that Israel’s huge advantage in terms of the balance of power be outweighed by a clear counterbalance from unbiased mediators. The best indication of such mediation is that Israel be curtailed from using its superior force to change facts on the ground.
The most obvious example is ending the spread of settlements or indeed their consolidation. But it is not the only example. House demolitions, arbitrary arrests, deportations, settler violence and the revocation of Palestinian residency rights in? Jerusalem must all end to obtain a conducive atmosphere for negotiations.
Then, and only then, should direct talks be considered.