If they can, there is still a chance – despite the Israeli electorate's strong shift to the right – that former Sen. George Mitchell can succeed in his presidentially mandated bid to make peace between Palestinians and Israelis. But if this intra-Palestinian reconciliation bid fails, the hopes for peace would be pummeled, and the Middle East might well see new violence, even more extensive and destabilizing than the recent Gaza war.
That's reason enough for Mr. Mitchell, the special envoy to the Middle East, to give the intra-Palestinian reconciliation his tacit blessing. (And there are some indications he is doing just that.)
Talks between the two Palestinian parties have already started, mediated by Egypt. Egypt is also mediating indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel over agreements to strengthen the Jan. 18 Gaza cease-fire and to exchange abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (held since June 2006) for hundreds of Palestinian detainees.
Israel's exploitation of this Palestinian rift is taking a tragic human toll on the 1.5 million people who live in Gaza. Israel won't let in crucial construction materials and other aid unless officials from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA), rather than Hamas, accept the freight. (Collective punishment of this sort is illegal under international humanitarian law, but few governments have confronted Israel on that yet.)
The dispute between Fatah and Hamas is thorny and multilayered. They have disagreed over the best way to realize Palestinian national goals, and even over what those goals should be.
Fatah wants a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Hamas seeks the end of Israel as a Jewish state altogether. Fatah's leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has argued strongly for a two-state outcome and for negotiations with Israel as the only way to win it. He has often openly criticized Hamas's use of violence.
Hamas's leaders argue that Abbas's negotiations have gotten him nowhere, and that meanwhile Israeli settlements in the West Bank – illegal under international law – have expanded. Hamas has sharply criticized Fatah for mistreating Hamas activists living in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. And Fatah criticizes Hamas for doing the same to its supporters in Gaza. Fatah accuses Hamas of being a tool of Iran, and Hamas accuses Fatah of being a tool of the United States. The recriminations seem endless.
But the relationship between the two has not always been like this – and there are several signs that Egypt's current mediation effort might succeed.
At meetings in Cairo in mid-February, high-level delegations from both groups agreed to end the media war between them and to study plans to form a national unity government, hold new parliamentary and presidential elections, and rebuild Palestinian security forces.
At this point, each of these two big Palestinian movements needs the other. Hamas needs to renew ties with Fatah if the people in its home-base in Gaza are to get what they need. But Fatah also needs Hamas, to try to regain the political capital and popularity it lost because of the outspoken way Mr. Abbas criticized Hamas during the recent war.
If the Hamas-Israel prisoner exchange works out, one of those released would probably be Marwan Barghouthi, an influential "next generation" Fatah leader who strongly supports reconciling with Hamas – and who is a lot more popular than Abbas. His release could add a constructive new dynamic to Palestinian politics.
What kind of peace policy might a national unity government pursue? Some indications came during a reconciliation attempt in February 2007. Then, Hamas agreed that Abbas's team could do the negotiations with Israel but it stipulated that any final peace agreement should be submitted to a nationwide referendum; and it agreed, crucially, to abide by the results of that poll. Hamas leaders have recently reaffirmed that position.
From a peacemakers' viewpoint it would be preferable to win more active Hamas support for the negotiations – and through skillful diplomacy like the approach he used with recalcitrant parties in Northern Ireland, Senator Mitchell might yet secure that. But at least, under Hamas's existing formula, the peace talks with Israel could proceed.
That 2007 reconciliation attempt, however, was undermined by Washington, so as the Palestinians try once again to reconcile, eyes are on Washington. Where Bush pulled it apart, will Obama give the unity push a tacit go-ahead?
Most people I've talked to recently in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, hope strongly that he does. This region suffered badly, they say, from Bush administration efforts to foster division and distrust inside Arab societies. Now, they conclude, both the region as a whole – and especially the people of Gaza – need a policy from Washington that's far-sighted, smart, and inclusive.
• Helena Cobban is a former Monitor correspondent. Her latest book is "Re-engage! America and the World after Bush."