Analysis: The Start of a New Relationship

The gathering of the Palestinian factions and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority in Cairo ended two days earlier than expected, not in a crisis, but in an agreement that was well-known in advance for the most part.

It was preceded by detailed preparations by Egypt. Cairo and Syria - whose representative, Walid al-Mualem, was in attendance - offered the groups a single choice: a cease-fire, irrespective of its title. It could be a hudna or a tahdiya, but it had to hold until the completion of Israel's disengagement plan.

The terms demanded of Israel, particularly by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were known: an Israeli commitment not to target Palestinians, an end to the razing of homes, and a release of prisoners. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was given Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's commitment on these, and Egypt was allowed to lead the process to fruition.

Syria, for its part, is permitting the Palestinian groups to hold their meetings in Cairo for a year and a half now. When Mubarak visited his Syrian counterpart in Damascus, he was offered further assistance: Syrian auspices to the conference and a Syrian directive to the factions to reach an agreement.

From the point of view of the Palestinian opposition groups, the deal in Cairo may serve to alleviate - at least until the disengagement - pressure to evict them from Damascus. Some of the Hamas leadership expects to move from Damascus to the Gaza Strip after the Israeli withdrawal.

The more important aspect of the agreements reached Thursday lie in the new relationship between the PA and the Palestinian opposition groups, including their participation in the local elections, scheduled for May, and those for the Legislative Assembly, set for July, as well as their political cooperation in the future.

This is a significant change in the attitude of Hamas, which refused in 1996 to participate in the elections that it regarded as the result of the Oslo process.

It is also a withdrawal from terms initially posed by the group, when they asked for a 40 percent quota of parliamentarians, before the elections were held.

But the continuation of the hudna is not merely a tactical ploy to bring calm to the area, but a return for the commitment of Mahmoud Abbas to carry out structural reforms in the Palestinian leadership.