While most American eyes today will be on President Obama's anticipated speech on withdrawal from Iraq (about which I'm more optimistic today than I was yesterday, but a bit less than on Wednesday!), the most important news out of the Middle East today may be the announcement in Cairo that Fatah and Hamas have agreed in principle on the formation of a national unity government by the end of March. That should give Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell much to talk about during the secretary's upcoming visit.
Joint Hamas-Fatah press conference in Cairo (source: al-Sharq al-Awsat)
Such a Palestinian national unity government could offer a viable Palestinian negotiating partner, a way to channel reconstruction aid into Gaza, an end to the endlessly destructive Fatah-Hamas conflict, and even an indirect way for Hamas to honor the Quartet's conditions. The Palestinian reconciliation enjoys the seemingly enthusiastic backing across those old Arab divides -- Syria and Egypt, the Saudis and Qatar.
The details of the proposed "National Accordance" government [al-tawafuq al-watani] remain vague, and everyone expects hard bargaining to come. The proposed reconciliation is to include rebuilding the PLO, holding new Parliamentary and Presidential elections, and reconstructing the Palestinian security forces. They also agreed yesterday to put an end to hostile media campaigns and to work towards reconciliation. But the hard choices seem to have been largely deferred to committees, and there are wide gaps in the expectations of the two sides and a lot of mutual resentment and mistrust. But the Arab governments seem keen on reaching agreement before the Doha Arab Summit scheduled for the end of March.
Everyone recognizes that the Cairo agreement is a beginning rather than an end to the political struggles over intra-Palestinian relations -- but it's important to even seen a beginning after many long months of division and conflict. And the challenges to any kind of peace deal with Israel remain overwhelming, even if the Palestinian reconciliation is achieved. But it would be a dramatic and important positive development nonetheless, draining the intra-Palestinian political poison and focusing on moving ahead. I hope that the Obama administration gets behind the moves towards an "accordance government" rather than reverting to the old Bush policies of trying to isolate Hamas. I think it will.
In fact, I'd go further. I think that this dramatic shift in Arab politics from confrontation to reconciliation directly reflects Arab evaluations of the new administration, and the messages they've been receiving from George Mitchell. And that's all to the good. The Arab regional trend towards reconciliation and the abandonment of the "moderate/rejection" discourse is a concrete manifestation of their readiness for "real change" -- which could have positive effects on a whole range of inter-connected regional issues including Iraq and Iran. Welcoming signals from the U.S. now could go a long way towards making this happen, and could make the Doha summit very interesting indeed.