Readers of this blog know that I don’t much like religious fundamentalism in any form—Christian, Jewish or Muslim—and that includes both the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, both of which are reactionary organizations. But the recent accord between Fatah and Hamas, which has been long in the making, is a good and important development in the Middle East. It’s only a start, and the accord could fall apart, but it makes the Palestinian side stronger, in the face of Israel’s near-total refusal to negotiate in good faith about the division of Palestine and Jerusalem.

In its editorial today, the New York Times (A Fatah-Hamas Deal”) expresses skepticism about the Fatah-Hamas accord, but in the end the Times opposes a cut-off of US aid to the Palestinian Authority. (Many hawks, including pro-Israel members of Congress, are calling for an end to that aid.) And the Times usefully calls on President Obama to respond to the accord by announcing his own plan for peace: “It is time for Mr. Obama, alone or with the quartet, to put a map and deal on the table. If Bin Laden’s death has given the president capital to spend, all the better. The Israelis and Palestinians are not going to break the stalemate on their own. And more drift will only lead to more desperation and more extremism.” They’re right, and according to some reports Obama was preparing to do exactly that but postponed it when the attack on Osama bin Laden overwhelmed the agenda.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Mustafa Barghouti—who leads the Independent Palestinian Initiative and who took part in the Cairo talks—says that several factors led to the agreement: that the Palestinian people were tired of divisiveness, that Israel’s instransignecne created pressre on the Palestinian leaders to end their differences, and that the Arab revolts in the region—including the change in Egypt, which brokered the accord—created the right political context. He says:

“There are several factors. One major factor in my opinion is the degree to which Palestinians on all sides have grown frustrated by internal division—and this was in part an impact of the Arab revolutions in Palestine. There was the beginning of demonstrations in late January and the beginning of February demanding the end of division, and people were wise and mature enough to realize that what we need is not a third division against both but rather pressure to end existing division. This public pressure was extremely important. Fatah and Hamas realized that they both stood to lose popular support.

“A second factor is the failure of the peace process and notably Israel’s stubbornness. It became clear to [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas that nothing could be advanced with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. Therefore the only way to change the situation is to empower ourselves—the Palestinians—by changing the factors. Abbas did everything he could to try to convince Netanyahu to proceed with a meaningful peace process; it eventually became clear that Israel had no interest in real progress. In addition, Israel used internal Palestinian division as an excuse for lack of movement, claiming that there is no Palestinian leader that can represent all Palestinians.

“A third factor was definitely the changes in the region. I think that Egypt’s position became more positive, more proactive. First they encouraged us to agree internally, and through our own internal Palestinian mediation efforts, we made much progress. The Egyptians were then able to re-enter the fray and it took only three or four hours in one meeting between Fatah and Hamas to close a deal. The Egyptians became less susceptible to external pressure that was against unity and they showed a great amount of resilience and determination—a reflection of the change in Egyptian policy in general.”

Barghouti adds that Israel will do everything it can to unravel the accord, primarily by putting pressure on the United States to scuttle it. Soon, Prime Minister Netanyahu arrives in the United States for a sit-down with President Obama, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee will convene its annual meeting. It would be a good thing were Obama to outline his terms for peace before Netanyahu arrives. Everyone knows what they are: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with minor, agreed-upon adjustments of the border, the division of Jerusalem, US guarantees for Israel’s security, a negotiated deal over the Palestinians’ right to return to their homes in what is now Israel. Obama should put it out there, and force Netanyahu to respond.

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