It would be difficult to determine with accuracy whether Israelis or Palestinians were more astonished last week by reports that the leaders of Fatah and Hamas, fierce rivals for political leadership of the Palestinian people, seemed to have agreed to talks aimed at ending the division between the two groups. The reason for surprise is the same for both Israelis and Palestinians. Fatah and Hamas have decidedly different political philosophies, and any reconciliation has seemed extremely unlikely.
Indeed, leaders of the parties have had little public communication since 2006. That's when Hamas, the most violent of the two parties, won parliamentary elections and then, in 2007, forcefully evicted Fatah from Gaza. Since then, the two sides have pursued distinctively different policies toward Israel.
Fatah, under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, has been more conciliatory, agreeing in principle to discussions about peace with Israel and Palestinian statehood. Hamas rejects such talks and continues to call for the destruction of the Jewish state. The difference of opinion has created strong divisions among Palestinians. It also has shaped global diplomatic policy toward Palestinians.
Fatah has won support from the United States and other nations, prompting millions of dollars of assistance each year. Hamas' intransigence has made it a pariah. Many nations now consider the group a terrorist organization.
The possible meeting between Fatah and Hamas leaders puts Israel in a strange position. No one is quite sure what prompted the sudden talk of unity, though recent demonstrations in both the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza called for reconciliation. Whatever the reason, Israeli leaders probably would like to negotiate with a united Palestinian political leadership. Problem is, no one knows what sort of leadership might emerge from talks between Abbas and Ismail Haniya, head of Hamas, about a new government.
If Fatah prevailed, Palestinian moderates would have the upper hand. If Hamas' philosophy carried the day, Israel would face a far more militant foe. For the moment, though, the more important questions is whether or not the unification talks will take place. Palestinians have traveled this road before, but attempts to form a unity government failed. Israel, and the world, must wait to see if this time will be different and if chances for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians improve as a result.