In spite of the failure of US-led international efforts to secure the necessary conditions for a successful renewed peace process, pressure is increasing on the Palestinian side to accept going to negotiations anyway. This is in spite of continued Israeli settlement expansion and without any Israeli commitment to specific terms of reference such as previously signed agreements, the 2003 Quartet roadmap or relevant UN Security Council resolutions.
This pressure raises an important question for both politicians and analysts. Is it wise to resume negotiations even without ensuring that the necessary ingredients for success are present? Or is it better to continue efforts to ensure that any renewed negotiations would have at least a minimal chance of success?
Some argue that delaying the resumption of negotiations would only contribute to the trends of radicalization on both sides and give space for the creation of negative facts on the ground, more settlements, more settler-only roads and more military checkpoints. Resuming negotiations now, this school of thought holds, is the best chance of creating a positive atmosphere to neutralize all these negative developments.
Others argue that previous experience has shown that resuming negotiations without the necessary preparation and a minimum chance of success will not only be a waste of time, but will further enhance the positions of the radical elements on both sides against negotiations in general and encourage them to pursue alternatives to a peaceful negotiating process.
This was most obvious on the Palestinian side during the last round of negotiations, the Annapolis process, when the failure of one-and-a-half years of negotiations to a large degree weakened the public position of the leadership involved in the talks and bolstered the argument of Hamas and others, which were able, yet again, to say "we told you so".
But second, and more important, the negotiating process never neutralized the much more damaging developments on the ground, where Israeli settlement building does more than any argumentation by any party to undermine prospects for peace and the credibility of negotiations.
A renewal of negotiations under similar circumstances now will only give the international community the false impression that progress is being made and that the parties now need to be left on their own to negotiate with no external interference. This, of course, simply provides Israel cover to make its vastly greater power felt by pushing ahead and further changing the reality on the ground, whether with settlements or in other ways.
That’s why there has to be a new and different approach to international mediation led by the United States. And this should include pursuing a political agenda that concentrates on the fundamental aspects of the conflict rather than practical and minor details.
Since there is international consensus that the peace process is about creating two states, and since the international community does not recognize the Israeli occupation of the territories, including East Jerusalem, that are supposed to make up the Palestinian state, then a more promising approach is clearly not hard to shape.
First, negotiations should be about the realization of the two-state concept and particularly the establishment of a Palestinian state. As long as Israel is engaging in activities on the ground that undermine this aim, it should have to do so in the face of a clear international vision vis-a-vis the future of Palestinian-Israeli relations.
Second, the international community needs to continue giving the necessary support for Palestinian efforts to build institutions of state to ensure that Palestinians can live in dignity and ultimately prepare for statehood.
If the international community continues to allow itself to be taken in by the Israeli tactic of engaging on small, practical, non-political issues, however, it will only provide Israel with the space it needs to maintain and consolidate its expansionist settlement project while bolstering Hamas and others who oppose a negotiated peace process. This way we will continue to see greater radicalization alongside a concomitant reduction in opportunities to secure the kind of negotiations that have any chance of success.
In all, it is preferable that we continue to work on preparing the ground for successful negotiations, including increasing efforts to secure a complete settlement freeze in addition to setting agreed terms of reference, than to resume talks for the sake of having a process.