Hamas and Fatah overcome key roadblock to reconciliation

Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Meshal agreed in Qatar today that Mr. Abbas would lead an interim powersharing government. 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (l.) and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal talk before a signing ceremony for an agreement in Doha on Monday. The leaders of rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas signed a deal in Qatar on Monday to form a unity government of independent technocrats for the West Bank and Gaza, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The two feuding Palestinian factions took an important step toward reconciliation today, agreeing that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would lead an interim powersharing government with Hamas.

The unity accord, signed in Qatar by Mr. Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Meshal, follows five years of divided rule between Abbas’ secular Fatah party and the Islamist militant movement Hamas.

Reconciliation would give Palestinians a stronger hand in their push for an independent state. But Israel and the US have said they will not negotiate with Hamas, which they have designated as a terrorist group, further dimming the prospects for resumed peace talks.

Analysts say the compromise reflects rising insecurity among both parties, with Hamas pushed out of its longtime base in Syria amid turmoil there and Fatah frustrated with frozen US-sponsored peace talks with Israel.

"The situation for [Fatah and Hamas] is becoming uncertain on the outside, and moving toward instability," says Mohammed Dajani, a political science professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. "Better to use a window of opportunity to narrow the gaps and move toward domestic stability."

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A blow for Israeli-Palestinian peace?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to condemn the agreement, reiterating an argument from last year that reconciliation with Hamas and peace talks with Israel are mutually exclusive because the Islamic militants refused to foreswear violence, recognize peace accords, and Israel.

"If [Abbas] will implement what was signed in Doha, [Qatar,] he will be choosing to abandon the path of peace and join with Hamas," Mr. Netanyahu said.

Following a round of peace talks in Jordan last month, the PA accused Israel of not submitting a substantive plan and said it wouldn't return to talks until Israel is willing to discuss specifics. Few expect active US mediation because of the 2012 presidential election campaign.

Issues remaining to be resolved

Palestinians on both sides of the Hamas-Fatah divide are overwhelmingly in favor of reconciliation because they blame the rift for delaying statehood. That said, there is still considerable skepticism about implementation because many in Hamas and Fatah want to hold on to power in their respective fiefdoms and oppose the sort of sacrifices necessary for reconciliation.

Among a handful of unresolved disputes, Hamas and Fatah need to reach an agreement on how to merge two separate government bureaucracies – especially their parallel security forces.

They also need to agree on the ministers in the powersharing government. And as a confidence-building measure the sides are expected to release detainees considered political prisoners. Elections are scheduled for May, but preparations have been lagging and it's widely assumed they will be pushed back. 

"I don’t think we're going for a full reconciliation," says Nashat Aqtash, a professor of communications at Bir Zeit University. "This is more of a management of the separation."

Fayyad's future role unclear

It is unclear whether PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad will continue to work as a minister in the government. 

A former IMF official seen abroad as strict on corruption, Mr. Fayyad secured hefty international aid for the beleaguered Palestinians but also faced criticism from Hamas and others who saw him as a lackey of the West. After Hamas vigorously rejected him last year as a potential head of the new unity government, he said he would step down to make way for unity.

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