There is something preposterous in the question that seems to characterise the current stage of the peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: To talk or not to talk directly. The final settlement of conflicts necessarily requires intense and sustained negotiations between the parties to the conflict. And this intensity and sustainability are evidently lacking in the so-called proximity talks in which the parties relay messages to each other through a third party. In fact the proximity talks are not talks at all since the parties never talk to each other; correspondence would be a better description of the process.
It can be a time-consuming process with no guarantee of substantive achievements as the many years of proximity talks between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have shown.
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it is not clear what the proximity correspondence is designed to achieve other than create the unsubstantiated impression that the peace process is movingthe question of in which direction may be irrelevant as long as it is moving.
However one looks at it the proximity correspondence is an admission that the parties are not yet ready for serious negotiations. Remarkably, it is the Palestinians who are once more portrayed as not yet ready for serious negotiations. All the attention is focused on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been subjected to increasing pressure as the Arab League recently voted to support direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.
The Obama administration threatened that there would be "consequences" for failing to seize the opportunity and that such consequences reportedly included the threat to downgrade relations with the Palestinian National Authority and even the threat to isolate Abbas himself.
Mahmoud Abbas has stated that he was ready for direct negotiations with the Israelis provided his demands are met. These demands include a prior agreement by the Israelis that the negotiations would lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with the 1967 borders. The Palestinian demands also include an Israeli halt to all colony construction activities.
The first demand is already part of the international consensus on the basis of which an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will be founded. This consensus is made up of various relevant UN resolutions and the roadmap the peace process endorsed by the Quartet (US, Russia, EU, and UN) and reflecting the general formula land for peace — leading to a two-state solution. The final borders will necessarily have to be negotiated as one of the core issues and are expected to accommodate some minor modifications to allow for the possible integration of some large Israeli colonies built on Palestinian land, into Israel, in return for integrating land in Israel into the new Palestinian state. There were broad agreements on these issues at previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and to demand prior agreement now as a condition for direct talks is an expression of weakness and inadequacy. The second condition Abbas wants to see fulfilled before he would agree to direct talks is a complete halt to all Israeli colony construction in the Occupied Territories. This demand has already been the subject of overt American pressure on Israel from the very beginning of the Obama administration's involvement in the peace process with mixed results.
Now that the administration is thinking about the mid-term elections and facing tough challenges from Republicans accusing it of being hard on Israel, it has softened its stand, modified its approach and publicly praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It has also brought pressure to bear on Abbas, warning him that failure to seize the opportunity and agree to direct talks would have serious consequences.
In view of all of this, for Abbas to insist on the satisfaction of his demands before agreeing to direct talks would be evidence of absence of strategic thinking and proof of isolation. It would also give comfort to Netanyahu, who will continue to present himself as the man ready for immediate direct talks while recommencing colony construction with a vengeance.
To be fair, Abbas' hesitation and apparent indecisiveness are informed by legitimate concerns: the possible failure of direct negotiations would have profoundly negative consequences for the Palestinian cause and would most likely end his political career. Only iron-clad guarantees from Obama can help stave off that disastrous scenario. But such guarantees would not be forthcoming as long as Abbas refuses to play by the American script.
Second, the risk of failure of direct talks is magnified by the known deceptive and unreliable political character of the opponent Abbas has to face: Netanyahu. Profound doubts about the latter's commitment to peace have received yet another validation: Israeli Television's Channel 10 recently broadcast an astonishing video filmed in 2001 in which Netanyahu tells West Bank's Jewish colonisers about the need to strike the Palestinians so hard they would feel the pain; he takes pride in destroying the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords: "I actually stopped the Oslo Accords," he says. Netanyahu also boasts that he can easily manipulate American public opinion, and affirms his negotiating strategy is to give little in order to keep much.
Legitimate as they may be, Abbas' concerns should not obstruct his view: He should focus on the Palestinian cause and its legitimacy and the worldwide support it enjoys — which should give him strategic leverage in direct negotiations — and not on tactical demands with no leverage outside the negotiation process and with diminishing ability to influence it with every passing day.
Adel Safty is distinguished professor adjunct at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His new book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky.