Fatah, Hamas
Hamas' deputy leader, Moussa Abu Marzouk, and Fatah representative Azzam Al-Ahmad in Cairo on April27, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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After an almost four-year split between Fatah and Hamas, the leaders of the two rival organizations, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshal, signed an accord in Cairo on Wednesday.

The signing has no immediate significance on the ground. Rather, representatives of the two organizations are now expected to begin protracted negotiations on how to implement the agreement’s clauses: establishing a national unity government composed of technocrats and headed by an independent figure, plus elections for the presidency, parliament, and the PLO’s Palestinian National Council within a year.

Yesterday’s signing was delayed by, among other things, a sharp disagreement that broke out over Meshal’s desire to give a speech to those present. Abbas objected, and after an hour and a half, Meshal agreed to give a shorter speech than Abbas. Nonetheless, Meshal is the one who supplied the event’s main headline, by offering more moderate stances than his organization’s traditional positions.

According to Meshal, Hamas is interested in “closing ranks in order to create one entity, one organization and one decision, in order to realize the shared national aim of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza − without one settler and without giving up even one piece of land or the right of return.” He called for forging a unified strategy that would force Israel to withdraw from Palestinian land.

Meshal has said in the past that Hamas would agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, but he has not previously called it a “shared national aim.” He also said Hamas is willing to pay any price for reconciliation with Fatah, and that its only battle is with Israel. And though he noted that many years have passed since negotiations with Israel began, he said that Hamas is prepared to give them another chance.

Abbas, for his part, attacked Israel for its decision to delay fund transfers to the PA. In his speech, he focused on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying Netanyahu must choose between peace and the settlements.

Netanyahu stuck to his line of seeing only black. During a visit to London yesterday, he said that “What happened today in Cairo is a tremendous blow to peace and grants a great victory for terrorism. Three days ago, terrorism was dealt a resounding defeat with the elimination of Osama bin Laden. Today in Cairo, it had a victory.”

Abbas, he added, is embracing Hamas, “the same Hamas that condemned the operation against bin Laden.”

But Netanyahu’s energetic condemnation, the third one this week, seemed like an overreaction. If the head of Hamas’ government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, wants to shackle himself and his new partner, Abbas, with embarrassing praise for bin Laden, why does Israel have to say anything more? After all, Haniyeh has already done the public relations work for Netanyahu.

While the two Palestinian leaders in Cairo quarreled about the list of speakers and the seating at the ceremony ‏(Meshal ultimately sat in the first row in the audience and Abbas on the stage in the Egyptian intelligence service’s conference hall‏), hundreds of Palestinians celebrated the accord in Ramallah and Gaza. Yet the disputes over minor details of the official event testify to the depth of the hostility and the size of the gap between the sides, a result of the large amount of violence both organizations have used against each other, especially Hamas toward Fatah.

After the ceremony, Abbas met with Meshal in an attempt to reduce their differences, and next week, he will meet with senior Hamas officials again. But even on the very first issue − the identity of the unity government’s prime minister − no solution acceptable to both sides is in the offing. Hamas wants a resident of Gaza to head the government of technocrats, while Abbas apparently wants current Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to stay in office. Abbas’ problem is not only that Hamas is opposed to Fayyad, but that senior members of Fatah would also like to get rid of a prime minister who is not a member of their movement.

It is also not yet clear whether the unity government, if finally established, will adopt the Quartet’s demands that it recognize Israel and honor the agreements already signed with it.

The U.S. Congress is now formulating a resolution that would make all foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority dependent on the new government’s recognition of Israel.