Reconciling Hamas and Fatah

GAZA/JERUSALEM – As representatives of Hamas and Fatah meet for the fourth round of national unity talks in Cairo, not only Palestinians but also Americans and Europeans will be watching closely. The top-level talks, hosted by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, will be crucial to ending nearly two years of bloody confrontation between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Fatah-ruled West Bank, governed by Western-backed Mahmoud Abbas. Given previous failures, this round of talks might prove to be the final chance to re-establish Palestinian unity.

The continuing internal schism between the more moderate and secular Fatah and the Islamist Hamas has not only left the Palestinian leadership in disarray, but has also made meaningful peace negotiations with Israel next to impossible. Moreover, continued internal disunity continues to thwart reconstruction efforts in Gaza, which are urgently needed in the aftermath of Israel’s military offensive earlier this year. Thus, the outcome of the negotiations in Cairo will have repercussions for Palestinians and Israelis – and, indeed, for anyone with a stake in the Middle East peace process.

In previous rounds, the different factions agreed in principle on forming a united government for the West Bank and Gaza, and on holding legislative and presidential elections in the Palestinian Territories by January 2010. But Fatah and Hamas still differ fundamentally on how to form a government tasked to prepare elections.

Discussions also center on the control of the security services – a field in which neither Fatah nor Hamas have much room to maneuver. Moreover, disagreement prevails on the type of electoral system to be used.